SLIDESHOW: After 11 general elections, Michael Noonan bows out of long political race

Perservance through turbulent political time helped bring country back from brink

Anne Sheridan

Reporter:

Anne Sheridan

THERE have been few truly memorable greats in Limerick political life.

There was Donogh O'Malley, Jim Kemmy and Des O’Malley, and for a raft of successive general elections in recent decades, there has been a political merry-go-round between Michael Noonan and Willie O’Dea, vying in turns to top the poll.

Both have achieved near-Lazarus like returns, following their respective and high-profile falls from grace.

Mr Noonan said his role in finance over the past seven years has been "the best job I ever had", but he said he is now looking forward to becoming a "contrary backbencher", while he remains a deputy under the Government reshuffle and will not be seeking re-election to the next Dail.

Reflecting on his intense schedule as Minister for Finance during a career which has spanned more than three decades, he will have “plenty of time to be giving speeches” next week, but admitted he doesn’t know how he is going to fill his time.

“I’ve already told my friends I’m going to be a contrary backbencher and indulge in all the mischief I can. I’ll be trying to invent parliamentary questions which they can’t answer.

"Charlie McCreevy used to be a great friend of mine when we sat on the back benches when both of us were out of favour with our respective leaders. We used to say if you can’t rule the country, you have an obligation to entertain the people. I’m back at that phase of my career again.

“​The backbenches are more relaxed than being in Government. There’s a greater bonhomie and more craic, to be quite candid about it. I won’t be unknown on the backbenches. I spent many of my wilderness years on the backbenches, scheming and making up methodologies for passing the day pleasantly.”

He recalled a friend out in county Limerick, who rang him one afternoon, and relayed how he was trying to pass the time.

“The children were reared and were all gone. The wife was out working. All the cattle were gone off the land and he was sitting in the kitchen, looking out the window. He said ‘Jesus, Michael Noonan, there’s rain coming down from the Galtees, and if I even saw an oul fox crossing the field it would be a cause of excitement’. So, I hope I don’t end up like that.”

On his last official day of public engagements in Limerick, he was presented with a first edition copy of Early Irish Laws and Institutions by Eoin MacNeill, the first Minister for Finance in the State in 1919, by Northern Trust, following the announcement of another 400 jobs at the company.

“​If there’s any saucy bits in it, I’ll run it by Senator [Michael] McDowell and ask him to explain when I meet him in the Dail bar, if they let me in.”

After receiving praise from the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mary Mitchell O’Connor about his role in rescuing the Irish economy, he said: “I didn't blush once. I know Mary is a big admirer of mine...I’ll have to have a word with Leo [Varadkar] about you Mary.”

Returning to his home constituency of Limerick city, where he topped the poll in 2011, receiving a quota and a half with 13,291 first preference votes, he said: "Change is the greatest dynamic. The people who are not prepared to change, they don’t do very well. Cities and regions that are not prepared to change as the times change, they don’t do very well either.

"Sometimes the intangible is more important than the tangible. We’re proud people again. That sense of ‘We’ve all been ruined’ – that’s gone now. There’s a buzz out of the place – the buzz of confidence, the buzz of morale, and the buzz of ‘We can do it.’ That’s a great position to be in. The city has a huge future."

Noonan’s career was also resurrected from the ashes, when he was forced to resign in 2002, after just 18 months as Fine Gael leader, following the party’s disastrous general election result.

He had survived the fall-out from the Hepatitis C, blood contamination crisis in the 90s, and more recently has come under fire for the ‘Grace’ case, which occurred during his health ministry, and as Finance Minister, the Project Eagle affair.

But he returned again and again, ebullient as ever, putting down 12-hour working days, and went having inherited a state on the brink of financial collapse and leaving it as the fastest-growing economy in Europe.

“It’s like the Kerry team, you know – if you go on long enough there are several comebacks. I had a comeback in the Nineties as well,” said Noonan in 2011.

It’s a typical Noonan turn of phrase, one which has been beloved of mimics over the years, particularly Dermot Morgan in Scrap Saturday, which the Minister himself has been a fan of.

His creative way with words also forced him to defend his “feta cheese” remark about trade with Greece in 2012, which was described by former Greek prime minister George Papandreou as “simplistic” and “flippant”. Noonan said the simple analogy was illustrative of a much wider point.

“If you go into the shops here when you’re doing your weekly shopping, apart from feta cheese, how many Greek items do you put in your basket?”

He garnered a raft of laughs in the Dail in one very memorable put-down in 2014, when he lampooned Sinn Fein’s economics policies and haranguing over red line issues.

“So [Sinn Fein] putting down a red line issue is like the auld fella walking up and down the boundaries of the Ballroom of Romance, saying he won't dance with any of those women over there - nobody wants to dance with you.”

First elected to the Dáil in February 1981, the teacher from Loughill was re-elected at each of the ten subsequent general elections.

He started out in local politics as a member of Limerick County council, where he served from 1974 to 1982 and again from 1991 to 1994.

At a mayoral reception in his honour in City Hall just before Christmas last, he said: “I loved my time in the council moreso than I ever enjoyed my time in the Dail.”

Limerick has been and continues to ride the crest of wave, having had him in charge of the nation’s purse strings. There have been a plethora of jobs announcements for Limerick and the Mid-West, and he expressed confidence recently that the creation of another 1,000 jobs in his constituency is entirely possible this year.

But he never sought to take personal credit for the litany of multinationals pitching their tents in his own backyard.

“It’s obvious as Minister that you can get people to visit the city, but at the end of the day then the city has to sell itself,” he told the Leader. “It’s a combined effort between the local authorities, the IDA, the business community, and so on.”

In the last election, he took one of the two last seats, alongside Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan, after receiving 9,311 votes, seeing his first preference vote drop from 13,291 in 2011 – 30% of the vote – to 7,294 in February 2016.

The swings and roundabouts of political life saw O’Dea’s massive vote decimated in 2011, while nearly 3,000 votes from Noonan’s surplus – after achieving a quota and a half - helped Kieran O’Donnell into the second seat.

“This is my fourteenth time being re-elected at counts in Limerick,” said Noonan when he last “togged out”.

“Eleven general elections and three local council elections. Sometimes I got very big votes and other times I didn’t. This was a day when I got within 40 votes of the quota with over 9,000 votes,” he said at the time.

Over his 30-year long political career, he has served as Minister for Justice, Minister for Industry and Commerce, Minister for Health. Minister for Finance and has been leader of the Fine Gael .

In the course of time, when history judges him, he will perhaps be most remembered for his term as Minister for Finance for the past six years.

But he will also be remembered for, on occasion, showing a much more human side.

During an interview with Pat Kenny on RTE's 'Frontline' in May 2010, he wept as he described his wife Florence’s battle with Alzheimer’s.

At that stage, Florence, from Castlemaine in Co Kerry, was in full-time care and recognised her husband only occasionally.

“Maybe once a month she'd smile at you,” he said. “Whether she's happy or not, it's hard to say. You'd say, 'Would you like a cup of tea?' You'd go out into the kitchen and you'd come back in with the cup of tea and she'd be gone.

She began to suffer from seizures.

“The first morning I was showering her...she fell and I couldn't catch her and she was lying on the floor.”

It happened on several occasions. “We just couldn't carry on."

She passed away in February 2012, aged 68. Both teachers, they married in 1969 and had five children.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny described Mr Noonan’s contribution to the restoration of the Irish economy as “extraordinary”.

But its perhaps the enduring support from his grassroots champions which might matter most to him. Local party stalwart Timmy O’Connor said: “The country is lucky it had someone of the calibre of Michael Noonan in government.”

Speaking in Limerick this Monday, at his last official engagement as Minister for Finance, he said he did not have any particular advice to offer the next Taoiseach, as he bid his goodbyes to the press.

"It’s a long time since I was leader, and Leo has been a very good Minister, and I think he’ll be very successful as Taoiseach. Thanks again. Thanks for everything.”