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Right back on the money

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PROFILE MICHAEL NOONAN: MICHAEL NOONAN’S instincts and bearing remain that of the English teacher he once was. You have to go back almost 30 years to when he last stood in front of a blackboard. But, without asking anybody, you just know he was the kind of teacher who could command rapt attention, the kind that some kid who made something of himself in the literary world would describe as a forming influence.

When he first became a TD, in the early 1980s, his broad, flat Limerick accent (he was later brilliantly parodied by Scrap Saturday as the Limerick DJ Mornin’ Noonan, Night) was distinctive. But so was the fact that he was a Shakespearean authority. His speeches over the years have been full of literary allusions – he once chose a word coined by Brendan Behan, “capernosity”, to mock Charlie Haughey – memorable turns of phrase, homespun yarns and humorous send-ups.

A few weeks ago Noonan was chatting with Niall Collins, the Fianna Fáil deputy from Limerick West. He told Collins a career in politics was like doing a marathon where you hit that psychological wall but somehow muddle through to the end. Noonan has hit that wall head-on more than once in a varied career. In condensed form his political life reads something like this: Early promotion to senior ministry (1980s). Thwarted leadership ambition (early 1990s). Senior ministry blighted by handling of court case (mid-1990s). Endless internal feuds (late 1990s). Party leader (2001). Electoral meltdown (2002). Siberia (2002 to early 2010). A triumphant return of Take That proportions (late 2010).

For sure, Noonan is back and with a flourish. Not as leader but holding the plum finance-spokesperson position at a time of enormous economic crisis for the country. His colleagues talk of him being revived, of a massive new jolt of energy. Akin to the Lazarus men of David Cameron’s government, Kenneth Clarke and William Hague, Noonan has experience, nous and maturity that are immediately evident.

His finest moment this year was when he cut through all the Fianna Fáil bluster and opacity and denials about IMF intervention and told Taoiseach Brian Cowen he needed to stop talking in riddles and speak plain language. It was a fateful moment in the Coalition’s ongoing demise.

Noonan has been more political in his approach than his predecessor Richard Bruton – he’s not shy about going for the jugular – but has also presented a very responsible face, agreeing with the Government when it has been appropriate strategically.

The Limerick East deputy entered the Dáil in 1981 as one of a huge new intake when Garret FitzGerald – always a mentor to him – was leader. From the beginning “he was utterly professional and methodicial,” recalls a former colleague. “As a new deputy he sat in the chamber for hours so he could master procedure. He was in there for the long haul.”

Noonan, like Alan Dukes, got early preferment and became minister for justice within a year, and it was he who disclosed his predecessor, Sean Doherty of Fianna Fáil, had authorised wiretaps of journalists’ phones.

Though Noonan was not seen as a potential leader then, his strengths were evident. “He is a teacher. He is not pedantic but has a clear sense of expositon of any argument. He also has a great turn of phrase that can make it clear to ordinary people,” says the former colleague.

A typical contribution during his decade as Fine Gael finance spokesman was his response to the 1991 budget when taoiseach Charles Haughey was under internal pressure from Albert Reynolds: “I always think the present government . . . are like a group of cartoon figures trying to start an old banger of a car which is up on blocks, backfiring, belching smoke. The minister for finance is under the bonnet fine-tuning it with a hammer, the taoiseach is in the driving seat revving away, shouting instructions in all directions, doors and windows tightly shut because he is not that interested in where the car is going any more – his one interest is in ensuring that nobody else climbs into the driving seat.”

His abilities were tempered by tragic flaws. An anonymous Fianna Fáil opponent noted in 1993: “His whole ambition is to lead Fine Gael. He would be regarded as a man of more than average ruthlessness. When it comes to Machiavelli, Noonan could write a similar type of book.”

His former colleague also said: “He has a huge cuteness that is more Kerry than Limerick. It can lead him to read things in behaviour and see enemies where there are none.”

Noonan was of the social democrat-Garret FitzGerald strand of Fine Gael. His relationship with then-leader John Bruton grew increasingly fractious and Noonan was involved in several plots.

In the Rainbow coalition from 1994, he became minister for health. While he came up with some strong policy initiatives, his stint is remembered chiefly for his poor handling of the hepatitis-C situation, particularly the case of Brigid McCole, a Donegal woman who died in 1997. Noonan was hamstrung by legal advice from then-attorney general Dermot Gleeson and government, and his approach was an unbending legalistic one. He was hugely damaged when the family disclosed the State threatened McCole not to pursue the case in a letter as she lay dying. The scandal continued to dog Noonan, even after he became leader, when RTÉ controversially screened a dramatic reconstruction that cast him in a bad light.

Nonetheless, he became leader in 2001 on the back of claims that John Bruton had failed to revive the party. Its 1997 haul of seats (54) was marginally smaller than when Bruton had taken over. In a straight contest Noonan easily defeated Enda Kenny, a Bruton supporter.

But Noonan’s leadership style was markedly different from Bruton’s. The former colleague sums up the period: “He was not a particularly magnanimous leader. Loyalty became huge. There was not a good atmosphere.”

Another senior Fine Gaeler says: “He did not know what to do with the job after he got it. Enda Kenny on the other hand knew that what was required was a huge amount of energy, organisational graft and the will to pull the party together. Michael would not have the energy or determination to see it through.”

The 2002 campaign was a disaster. Bertie Ahern zipped around the country while Noonan’s “Baldy Bus” travelled as sedately as a canal barge. The only memorable moment was when a custard pie was thrown in his face in Roscommon. “It was a campaign with no energy. Michael was flat. He almost sucked the energy out of it,” says the colleague. Fine Gael lost 23 seats, returning only 31 deputies. Noonan resigned that night. “After the election he was very much a broken man. He retreated into himself,” the colleague remembers.

Unknown beyond his closest circle, his wife, Florence (Flor), only in her early 50s, was going through the first stages of early-onset Alzheimer’s at that time. Earlier this year Noonan – always regarded as a hard and somewhat obdurate public figure – spoke movingly in a documentary about the impact of this progressive and corrosive disease on his wife and family.

For over a year he eschewed the national stage. Gradually, he became more involved. He was a highly effective chairman of the Dáil’s Public Accounts Committee and became a kind of spiritual leader for a clique of mildly disaffected Fine Gael deputies. However, he studiously distanced himself from intrigue, and his public profile remained that of a subdued elder statesman. He took an interest in banking and made thoughtful contributions to Dáil debates.

His difficult relationship with Kenny remained. Kenny was willing to bury the hatchet, but Noonan seemed reluctant. As it was, Noonan’s decision – was it calculation and cuteness? – to stay aloof from the recent leadership battle ensured his rehabilitation, and he moved back centre stage in its aftermath.

Phil Hogan of Fine Gael is in no doubt Noonan has been a boon. “His calm attitude has shone through in the face of the most serious crisis. He has positioned Fine Gael in an important political space by showing responsibility and demonstrating credible alternative policies.”

Across the floor, Niall Collins of Fianna Fáil says: “He’s a very serious politician. You can really see it in the last number of weeks, his ability to see the bigger picture. In opposition he has demonstrated a responsibility. He refused to take the comfortable populist option. I admire him for that.”

Curriculum vitae

Who is he?Fine Gael’s finance spokesman and former leader.

Why is he in the news?He has made a Lazarus-like return to prominence and put in some outstanding performances.

Most appealing characteristicsWit, shrewdness, laser-like precision when attacking.

Least appealing characteristicsToo suspicious, a bit Machiavellian.

Most likely to say“Fianna Fáil should put the Galway tent back up in front of Government Buildings and the Greens should be employed as doormen.”

Least likely to say“I actually voted against Enda in the leadership battle.”

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