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Noonan, the colossus that bestrides the nation? Er… not exactly. March 21, 2013

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.

doctor five referenced the myth of Michael Noonan earlier in the week, and it’s quite some myth. The media are very keen to promote our finance minister. And the reasons for this are obvious. He’s strongly associated with the orthodoxy. Hence the ‘safe pair of hands’, ‘unlikely to rock the boat’ line that is now so popular. And so pervasive is this that now the Backroom column in the SBP is getting in on the act.

The anonymous writer notes:

On a weekend where finance minister Michael Noonan has been left in charge of the shop, it is worth reflecting that he may well be in the process of providing a rare exception to Powell’s maxim [“All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.” – surely the most over quoted line in politics – wbs].
This is a relatively unpopular government right now. It is headed by a Taoiseach who has always been more loved by the media than by the people, few of whom perceive him as being a genuine leader with a plan.

That’s an interesting line, and it does make one wonder as to the provenance of Backroom this week. Could s/he be dissident/oppositional Fine Gael? Could be!

It’s not that one would make a strenuous case that Kenny is a great leader – even putting aside the ideological gulf between most of us and him, but in some respects he’s been as good/bad as might be expected. He’s certainly less hapless than his immediate predecessor. And that’s no small achievement. As to being ‘loved by the people’. So what? Now, all that said with FG ratings going south at a rapid rate of knots his leadership might indeed be open to question, indeed this very column by Backroom could be part and parcel of that process. For it is always telling to see one cabinet member bigged up at the expense of a Taoiseach – and while, again, we’re not quite in the heady days of 2009/11 in respect of Cowen sufficient of this stuff and we very well might be.

Anyhow, the stuff about Kenny written by Backroom is merely a means of ensuring that Noonan’s star shines brighter by contrast. For example:

Noonan is different. With the economy – the only issue which anyone cares about – he is the only member of government who is generally respected and viewed as having a clear sense of what he’s at. Nothing in his career would have predicted this.
He has been around for a very, very long time. While Kenny is the longest-serving TD, Noonan is the longest-serving senior politician by some distance. This year he will reach his 70th birthday. He was first appointed to cabinet 31 years ago.
Before his appointment as Minister for Finance two years ago, he had held four departments: Justice; Industry and Commerce; Energy; and Health. He developed a reputation more as a political bruiser than a minister focused on policy.


In Health, he had a disastrous time, permanently marked by the appalling legal treatment of women infected by hepatitis C.
In 2001 he led a coup against John Bruton and took over the leadership of Fine Gael. His short time in the post was error-strewn and ultimately catastrophic for his party. Stupid populist promises and a negative approach led Fine Gael to a near-meltdown. Noonan immediately resigned, and it looked as if his career was over.

Mind you, no fool he. He kept his powder dry subsequently and right up to and including the risible coup against Kenny some years back ensuring that it was he and not the cleverest boy in the class Richard Bruton who took over Finance.

But in truth it’s hard to take all Backroom’s contentions as to Noonan’s time there entirely seriously.

For example Backroom argues that Noonan’s first year was shaky but that recently:

He then took a different approach. He dropped the hyper-political approach of others, and has sought to be a quiet, reasonable voice. In the Dáil he engages less in party politics than any of his colleagues – and gets a lot of respect back from his opponents.

But another way of looking at it is that he has a very very low public profile, that he is absent from the picture as much as he is in it and that if there is any great tactical triumph here it is one of avoidance rather than engagement. That’s all very well as far as it goes, but it doesn’t necessarily go very far at all. And while it allows Backroom to make a case, well, it’s a case for what exactly?

Backroom concludes that:

Noonan clearly knows the details when he talks on a topic. He doesn’t go on about how hard his job is, or what a great job he’s done. He just gets on with it. He’s become the best-rated minister because he hasn’t sent out legions of advisers to promote his every word and action. Quiet competence, not loud politics – maybe that’s a lesson for the others?
Certainly, it is at the core of Noonan’s reversal of the normal political gravity, which sees careers start on a high and end in indifference or indignity.

That’s it? That’s the great achievement? Far be it for this site to boost Enda Kenny, but he hardly pales in comparison. And there’s an obvious issue here, for it is far far too centred on personality – or as in the case of Noonan (and arguably Kenny) the absence of it.

It’s not that personality doesn’t matter at all, but it matters so much less than some commentators might think. And this is where the current positioning around Noonan is so deceptive. Put any other member of Cabinet into that position and she or he would offer essentially the same prescription just as this government is offering essentially the same prescription as its predecessor. It cannot be any other way because they are all agreed on the fundamentals and the approaches that are being imposed on the state and on citizens.

Yes, it is interesting in a way to view the inner workings of FG as they tip ever closer to the political edge – what for example would a sub-20 per cent poll rating trigger in that party should it occur? But the reality is that Fine Gael is an instrument, with remarkably little volition of its own.

It’s capital. Always has been, and in this state for the foreseeable future always will be.


1. eamonncork - March 21, 2013

To be brutal about it, the only difference between the old Noonan and the new Noonan is that the latter’s wife died while he was in office which means journalists are less inclined to lay into him. A similar dynamic was at work when Brian Lenihan was being lauded as the one effective member of the previous government when in fact his decisions caused more damage than anyone else’s. But Lenihan was dying of cancer so it didn’t seem appropriate to criticise him either. Whether you want to call it sentimentality or common decency by journalists is up to you. But it’s those exterior factors which led to the kid gloves treatment by the media. Pretending, as the SBP does, that there’s some substantial change in Noonan as a politician is childish stuff.


maddurdu - March 22, 2013

I doubt it’s just because of their personal lives that the press have been a soft touch/lionised the last two financial ministers.

I always presumed it was part of the same well of ‘positive thinking’ that causes from which the endless stream of nonsense green shoots articles spring forth.


CMK - March 22, 2013

Speaking of nonsense green shoots articles springing forth, today’s GDP growth figures are been spun furiously and mendaciously.

RTE for instance:

UNITE’s Croke Park Blog for another perspective, much closer to the truth:

From the CSO figures themselves it’s clear the economy has been in recession since the end of June last year but today’s reports focus on ‘GDP grew .9% in 2012!’


maddurdu - March 22, 2013

Comrades! Tractor production in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic is up 25%.


CMK - March 22, 2013



eamonncork - March 22, 2013

Maybe it’s not the sole reason but if it’s simply positive thinking you’d have to explain why a lot of the same media outlets had no compunction about sticking the boot into Cowen and Kenny. Everyting gets reported as a kind of soap opera these days and the illness of Lenihan and the death of Noonan’s wife fed into that. Witness the amount of tributes to the apparently unique integrity of Shane McEntee once he was dead.


2. itsapoliticalworld - March 21, 2013

Some Colossus. Noonan’s best chance of a place in history is as the Chairman of Ecofin when it took the decision (at his favoured hour of 3.30 in the morning) to destroy the Eurozone by shafting the Cypriot depositors


CL - March 21, 2013

Noonan has to be held responsible for his part in this most stupid decision jeopardising the confidence of ordinary people in the eurozone banking system.


3. sammymcnally - March 21, 2013

The key phrase is ‘Quiet competence’ – a scarce commodity in Irish poltics – perhaps the antidote to cutehoorism – maybe we have had enough of that? No probably not yet.

As Ireland is in an economic crisis it is also reasonable for the Plain People of Ireland to look towards the personal characteristics of those attempting to lead them to recovery – but only if they are competent.

Noonan is helped by there being no credible political party calling for the only real alternative to his policies i.e. default?


doctorfive - March 21, 2013

Quiet competence indeed. You can almost see similar ground being laid for Michael McGrath. Safe pair of hands in waiting. Conversely if want the true story of Noonan, check the Dáil record for a wealth of under-reported questions from Pearse Doherty.


Like his predecessor, it’s very difficult to see how there hasn’t been, on some level, a concerted hands off policy. God knows both Ministers made enough effort to shield certain interests.


eamonncork - March 21, 2013

By the way there’s nothing more condescending than using the phrase Plain People of Ireland. I hope you were joking.


sammymcnally - March 21, 2013


Can you just confirm if SF / Pearce is in favour of defaulting on bank debt?


re. “By the way there’s nothing more condescending than using the phrase Plain People of Ireland.”

I can’t agree with your statement above

…but I can see how you might think that (now that is an example of me being condescending).


eamonncork - March 21, 2013

It doesn’t quite work as repartee though does it? But I think you’re very brave to have made the effort.


4. Jonathan - March 21, 2013

“Certainly, it is at the core of Noonan’s reversal of the normal political gravity, which sees careers start on a high and end in indifference or indignity.” This is, of course, assuming that nothing catastrophic occurs between now and whenever he leaves office. It is fascinating the way that the MSM seems to be convinced that the worst is over and Ireland Inc (to reluctantly use that odious phrase) is now definitely back on track to recovery. As Cyprus has shown, the dynamic can change very, very quickly (and part of the reason that Noonan may be keeping his mouth shut too is to avoid saying stupid things about feta cheese…)


CMK - March 21, 2013

If the Cypriot depositer idea blows up, a not unlikely possibility, the EU elite are going to need a patsy. Since Noonan chaired the meeting where the decision was made, he fits the bill perfectly. Future European historians may end up writing ‘the EU crisis was under control, but the decision of Irish Finance Minister Micheal Noonan to tax Cypriot bank depositors was, in retrospect, the catalyst to all that followed…..’


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