The Leader Interview..with Michael Noonan

FOUR months after undergoing major heart surgery, former Fine Gael leader Michael Noonan is back in Leinster House.

The only trouble is that the political class is so consumed by the travails of the Taoiseach that not enough work is being done for the TD's liking.

"If it wasn't for the Bertie Show at the tribunal, this would be a very dull Dil. This Bertie business is dominating every week now. It's all 'when is the Taoiseach resigning?' and the latest revelations."

According to the Loughill native, there are now two schools of thought on Bertiegate. "There's the people who don't believe he's telling the truth and want him to resign and the second category – which is mostly Fianna Fail people – who don't believe he's telling the truth and want him to stay. But it's very hard to find anybody who believes him any more."

Asked about the IR30,000 loan given to Celia Larkin, Deputy Noonan says that's a matter for Judge Mahon to decide, joking: "I'm not into discussing what Alex Ferguson would call the WAGs. Wives and girlfriends are off limits."

The trademark wisecrack is an indication that Limerick's most senior TD is back on form after his health setback last year. "I'm feeling fine. I had a triple bypass but I didn't have a heart attack, contrary to what some of the newspapers said. After getting a medical check-up, we fixed a date three weeks out and I went in by appointment."

The bad news didn't come as a surprise, he explains. "It's in my mother's family and it's something I had been watching for a while. I was feeling very breathless in September and went in for my usual check-up and that was it."

The former health minister says he still expects to enjoy the odd steak "but I know what I should be doing so I didn't get any lecture (from the doctors]". It was also from his mother's side of the family, the Sheehys from Granagh, that a young Michael Noonan inherited a taste for politics.

Going to school, he was aware of his uncles going to Fine Gael branch meetings, though he didn't join the party until after he finished college. He had studied at St Pat's in Drumcondra and took English and economics at UCD.

Fine Gael's Dublin central branch back in the 1960s was "for people who had no fixed abode, flat-dwellers and so on". But it was after he moved back to Limerick that he became involved in his first campaign, the 1968 by-election that followed the death of Donogh O'Malley.

Jim O'Higgins, whose father was the medical officer in St Joseph's, was the Fine Gael candidate narrowly beaten into third place by Mick Lipper in a campaign that saw Des O'Malley win handsomely.

Within six years,Michael Noonan himself had been elected to Limerick County Council and in 1981 he took the Limerick East Dil seat he has held since. Noonan's talents were spotted by Garrett Fitzgerald, who appointed him Minister for Justice at the end of 1982.

Within weeks, the young minister was embroiled in one of Ireland's most dramatic political scandals, confirming that the previous Fianna Fil government had tapped the The Leader Interview Michael Noonan phones of journalists Geraldine Kennedy and Bruce Arnold.

"George Colley was being tapped as well," Deputy Noonan recalls, "that was clear from the conversation with the journalist. I mean when a phone is tapped, two people are tapped – the person who makes the call and the person who receives it.

George Colley, Lord have mercy on him, was ringing Geraldine Kennedy or she was ringing him." Des O'Malley has stated his belief that Fianna Fil's 'Big Brother' was watching, or at least listening into, him as well but Deputy Noonan never found the evidence to support this. While Sean Doherty was scapegoated, Charlie Haughey was never fingered for any involvement in the black ops.

But Michael Noonan never believed Haughey knew nothing about it. Just as today he believes there are serious credibility problems regarding Haughey's political amaneunsis – Bertie Ahern – when it comes to the tribunal.

"I always believed that Haughey knew but I had no evidence.When I was asked the question I would say I had no evidence that he knew. Some people took that to mean I was exonerating Haughey at the time. I had to be very careful to say only what could be backed up. Of course, there would have been no evidence because the information went to Mr Doherty and if he denied it, that was the end of the chain of evidence. But if he passed on the stuff to Haughey, that was it. It's sad to think they're all dead and gone now. Mr Haughey is dead and Mr Doherty is dead."

Another figure who has since passed on who Deputy Noonan was asked to reflect on this week was Dermot Morgan. The comedian's Scrap Saturday caricature of the Limerickman was arguably as well-known as the politician himself.

But he looks back on Morgan with much greater affection than Haughey and the pair became good friends. This arose from a set-up on the Late Late Show, on which Morgan was appearing, when the TD rang in. "He didn't expect this. It was kind of funny because people listening didn't know which one of us was talking as the voices were so similar. I was slagging him and he was doing the Michael Noonan voice slagging me back.

So I invited him down to Thomond Park. I told him we'd collapse a scrum on him." Two weeks later, Fr Ted was in the area, having done a show at the late Tony Ryan's house in the Silvermines. He called Noonan and the two arranged to watch the Ireland-France rugby match at Bobby Byrne's.

"I arrived in and everybody was looking up at the screen. Then Morgan walks in and nobody was watching the door at all. Then at half time, it was 'Look at those two boys and they after slagging each other the other night'. That's how it started. I met him before shows a couple of times. He would get very intense and stressed out before shows, but you could understand that. Afterward, he would have this huge relief and would be daft as a brush, very exuberant. He was great craic."

After handling the Justice portfolio, Noonan would go on to serve as Minister for Industry and Commerce under Garrett Fitzgerald and, eight years later, as Minister for Health under John Bruton.

Commentators point to his time in health, in particular the contaminated blood products scandal, as Noonan's political lowpoint. But in Limerick his period as minister is remembered as a golden age for the investment in and diversification of local health services. So what does Michael Noonan make of the plan to develop a co-located private hospital next to the Regional Hospital?

"I don't think the plan is quite to have a private hospital on the grounds of the Regional Hospital. I can't see where they'd fit it and I think they have that earmarked for the transfer of the maternity from the Ennis Road. I think where they're talking about is behind the co-op at Kilroy's garage. The HSE have land there and that's where they're talking about."

But he notes that developer Shay Sweeney already has "the foundations poured" and a manager appointed for his private hospital on the Dock Road and Tom Kane has permission to go ahead with a similar plan at Adare Manor. "I don't think the region could sustain three private residential hospitals. I don't know what way the shakeout will come. It was always a plan that the Regional would have private facilities but the Government didn't advance it in time. So it's getting stuck with competition now.

But the last time I looked at the figures, per head of population, there were more VHI subscribers in Limerick than anywhere else and we do need private residential hospital places in Limerick, like they have in the other big cities such as Dublin, Cork and Galway. They're paying their private insurance and they're going out of town.

When I got the triple by-pass, I went to the Blackrock Clinic, there was no place closer I could go."

No doubt while he was recovering from his operation, Deputy Noonan had time to indulge in one of his favourite pastimes – a good book. The most difficult question for him to answer in the Leader questionnaire was to name his top read.

"I read a lot so it's very hard to pick a favourite book. What I'm reading at the moment is Trevor Brennan's book, it's great craic. It's the best rugby book I've read. Something I read recently was All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy, I think it's his third book back. No Country For Old Men is a very good book as well but it's very violent."

"You know one of those books where when you get to the end you have to ask what actually happened and you have to go back. It's very enigmatic at the end. I haven't seen the film yet. He has one out now, The Road, so I'd be interested in reading that as well. I could always give you the standard Fine Gael answer – 'Tim Pat Coogan's Michael Collins is my favourite book'," he laughs.

The Limerick East TD might have more time to catch up on his reading if he chose to bow out of politics. He qualifies for a bus pass later this year and friends and rivals alike feel this could be his last Dil term. The constituency is to lose a seat next time out and five into four won't go.

Apart from his own health, those who know Michael Noonan say he also spends a lot of time helping his wife Florence cope with illness. But for now at least, he will brook no talk of retirement. "I'll put it to you this way: it's my plan at the moment (to contest the next election], but who is to say four years on. I'm a sitting TD, I'm an active TD and I'm working for the constituency and hope to continue as such.

"I'm actually thinking of taking the summer off and doing a bit of canvassing for John McCain," he declares, before it sinks in that this is another joke. "But If McCain can do it at 72, I fancy I have a great chance of doing it too."


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