A CAT, they say, has nine lives and so has Fine Gael’s 73-year-old Finance Minister, Michael Noonan, whose agility in surviving things that would have been severe enough to flatten most politicos has defined his remarkable career in government.
Having nine lives is a fertile base for political experimentation – a course of action that Noonan never shunned even if, on occasions, it meant squirming in troublesome situations from which extrication was difficult.
Even more intriguing is the fact that his extraordinary skills in political survival have been closely linked to Indakinny’s political career, in spite of bitterly clashing with Kenny in a leadership challenge in 2001. From that bruising experience Noonan learned a valuable lesson that he put into practice over the following 16 years: there was nothing wrong playing the role of Kenny’s confidant, advisor, hatchet-man and ideological lapdog.
Joined at the hip like Siamese twins, where Kenny went Noonan was sure to follow, if for no other reason than because of the fact that should Kenny lose leadership of Fine Gael, Noonan’s career would go flushing down the Swanee.
Hence last month’s frantic series of private meetings with seditious wannabe ‘leaders’ who were salivating at the prospect of ousting Kenny. Involving subversives such as Coveney, Varadkar, Harris, Frances Fitzgerald, Bruton, including (for all we know) Old Uncle Tom Cobbley, the unrestrained keenness to boot out poor Enda was intense.
Noonan, however, estimated to a tee the level of support the dissidents could muster before urging them not to seek a no-confidence motion in Kenny lest it impact on the Taoiseach’s Shamrock visit to Donald Trump. And what a sigh of relief he must have breathed on seeing an invigorated Taoiseach return from toadying in the White House.
The message went out loud and clear: the Taoiseach’s imminent demise was greatly exaggerated and there would be no resignation.
It was not the first time he brought Ireland ‘back from the brink,’ as Labour’s Brendan Howlin cringingly said of him in the wake of the catastrophic scandal at Anglo Irish Bank when, as Finance Minister, Noonan conveyed an impression of sublime confidence in the possibility that things could only get better – and this was at a time the country was at the mercy of economic forces outside its control. For panache, it took the biscuit.
In recent days he’s again taken centre stage, thanks to a Dáil public accounts committee’s 85-page report into the NAMA sale of its Northern Ireland portfolio, (worth €1.6bn).
According to the Irish Examiner which, to its credit, has been making all the running in this particular controversy, the report entirely vindicates the Comptroller & Auditor General’s insistence that the ‘flawed’ Nama arrangement led to the State losing an incredible €220m in the deal. The report also said that it was ‘not appropriate’ for Mr Noonan, Department of Finance officials and Nama to meet with senior Cerberus representatives in the days before the sale, as it ‘gave the perception that Cerberus was benefiting from special treatment.’
The Dail’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) endorsed the Comptroller & Auditor General’s report, saying it was ‘evidence-based, balanced and reasonable.’ De Paper added that ‘the findings were certain to place pressure on the Government to set up a state inquiry into the controversy, following hot on the heels of the damaging Maurice McCabe scandal.’
Needless to say, the criticism ran like water down a duck’s back despite the stinging comment from the ex-old lady of Academy Street that Noonan ‘erred significantly in his judgement in an affair which cost the taxpayer a huge sum of money.’
Interestingly, Noonan is of the opinion that an inquiry into his actions is not needed at all and, in this, he has the backing of the party which unsuccessfully sought to have references to him pulled from the report. Indeed it’s rather heart-warming to see fellow Blueshirt chums such as Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe and Education guru Richard Bruton backing him to the hilt for the ‘fantastic job’ he was doing as “an anchor of this Government”.
It’s not that Noonan is any stranger to inquiries. He is also a major player in the Commission of Inquiry into the Siteserv sale by the IBRC (because of the litigious money-bag geezers involved, it is an exceptionally gory tale that is best left to raconteurs like Kitty the Hare to tell around the fire on a winter’s night. Not yours truly).
Oh, and he’s involved in the Commission of Investigation into the ‘Grace’ sex abuse scandal. The terms of reference of that inquiry include allegations that the foster home lobbied Noonan with the argument that it did not want the child removed. For unknown reasons, someone then made a decision to reverse the move to take the child away from the home.
The Minister’s position in regards to the proposed ‘Grace’ inquiry is as follows: he did not interfere in the process. He had absolutely nothing to do with any controversial decision. It was a coincidence that the reconsideration of where the child should live took place while he was health minister.
Nevertheless, although he had no direct involvement whatsoever in the Grace case, of course, he was aware of the details, and the matter was passed to his junior minister at the time, Austin Currie.
But perhaps the most controversial scandal in which he was involved was the Hepatitis C Tribunal of Inquiry, which reported into contaminated blood products and the negligence of the Blood Transfusion Board. Sadly, Noonan did not distinguish himself when Bridget McCole, a mother of 12, sought justice against a State that poisoned and eventually killed her.
The State, as represented by Noonan, fought her all the way to her grave. Later, he apologised several times but the damage to his reputation was done.
Prior to that was the investigation into the 1985 Spike Island prison riot which happened when Noonan was then Minister for Justice. An Oireachtas Committee on Crime, Lawlessness and Vandalism published a report castigating him for creating the conditions that led to the total destruction of the prison when the inmates seized control. The Committee asked for a private meeting with Noonan but he turned down the request.
Footnote in history?
In summary, Noonan likes to play the tough, old-style politico who fights on his terms. But in respect of the political legacy that he’ll leave after him, well, It’s dreadful – a hapless Minister for Justice, a heartless Health Minister and the most controversial (some might say useless) Minister for Finance ever. Some curriculum vitae!
And yet, his loyalty to Kenny is commendable. He is a dutiful servant and the perfect Fine Gael loyalist. In other words for a politico who served time in both government and opposition over three decades, he deserves a footnote in history. At least!