Noonan spurns Greek protests at 'cheese' jibe

Michael Lavery

FINANCE Minister Michael Noonan has defended his "cheese" comments about Greece -- despite being rapped over the knuckles by a former Greek prime minister.

Mr Noonan has refused to back down on jibes about Greece only being good for feta cheese -- saying he was trying to reassure the Irish markets.

His comments came as the Government was accused of sending out mixed messages to voters about the possibility of a second bailout.

With 10 days until the referendum, both sides are focusing on what happens if Ireland doesn't re-enter the lending markets by 2013.

Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore has insisted the country "is on target" to exit the bailout programme -- but Europe Minister Lucinda Creighton said we should be planning for "the eventuality that we may not be able to". But the debate took a different twist yesterday when former Greek prime minister George Papandreou went on Irish radio to condemn Mr Noonan.

Greeks are enraged at Mr Noonan's comments last week when he said that the country was very far from Ireland and had few economic links with us.

"If you go into the shops here, apart from feta cheese, how many Greek items do you put into your basket?" he asked.

Mr Noonan's comments, at Bloomberg's Ireland's Economic Summit, were branded as "flippant" and "simplistic" by Mr Papandreou.

Mr Papandreou, speaking on RTE's This Week yesterday, said such comments undermined European solidarity.

Such stereotypes being uttered would do little to resolve Europe's difficulties, he said.

Mr Noonan told he same programme that he was trying to prevent the financial crisis from affecting Ireland by pointing out to international investors that Ireland did not have much trade or banking business with Greece.

"I answered it honestly because there aren't strong economic connections with Greece," Mr Noonan said.

He admitted, however, that a Greek exit from the euro would have an impact on the bond yields charged to Ireland and all other eurozone countries.