History man Michael Noonan is ready for his last stand

Alan English, editor


Alan English, editor

Finance minister Michael Noonan and below, with his fellow economic management council members in 2011
Leader editor Alan English talks in depth to Minister for Finance Michael Noonan about the upcoming general election, his place in the history books – and why he has no time for another big Limerick hitter.

Leader editor Alan English talks in depth to Minister for Finance Michael Noonan about the upcoming general election, his place in the history books – and why he has no time for another big Limerick hitter.

It’s four and a half years since I sat down with Michael Noonan for a full-length interview at the city’s Strand Hotel. Since then, a lot of water has flown under Sarsfield Bridge, just outside the hotel. Some things haven’t changed – as I arrive he’s sitting at the same table, at the quiet end of the bar – but in many respects the landscape is very much different.

He was forthright then about the challenge ahead and how he was taking it on (“If you’re simply doing a whinge on behalf of Ireland, you’re not even listened to”); now, there is an air of quiet satisfaction about what has been achieved. Things, he reckons, are “more or less sorted”.

Back in July 2011, five months into his term as Minister for Finance, he was in the midst of the biggest economic crisis the country has known, constantly on the move, sitting through endless meetings in Brussels that started at 3pm and went on until midnight, without a break (“They put a plate of salad in front of you and you work through.”)

He’s still doing 12-hour days, but he can see the finish line up ahead – the day when “we’ll be running the country on what we collect in taxes”. In the summer of 2011, he had referred to this scenario as “line ball”, and said: “As soon as we can reach line ball and pay our own way, there’s no action that can be imposed on us from the outside. As soon as you equalise the balance sheet, our sovereignty is back.”

It’s clear that he wants to be there for that moment, but Fine Gael have an election to fight first. At the doorsteps, the party will lean heavily on the track record of its septuagenarian finance minister, aka the Comeback Kid, with the promise of more of the same. Six years after being in political wilderness, he will enter Election 2016 widely perceived as Fine Gael’s biggest asset.

Part 1. The election: ‘We are working on the assumption it’ll be Labour again’

Alan English: You’re 72 years old, it’s 41 years since you first became a politician and it’ll soon be 35 years since you were first elected as a TD. Did you give any serious consideration to not running this time?

Michael Noonan: Not this time, no. I did in the past. But once the crisis hit and I was finance spokesman in 2010 I felt I had an obligation to make a contribution. I’m after five budgets now and it’s for the public to judge, but from my perspective the country is more or less sorted out again now. The job now is to keep the recovery going – so I would like to spend another couple of years to make sure the recovery continues to go forward.

AE: You’ve already said you want to stay on as finance minister for the first half of the next administration, if Fine Gael are returned. You want to finish off the job?

MN: Yeah, I mean it’s a matter for the Taoiseach, first of all. And then it will be a matter of where the chips fall and which groups are in coalition. But we are working on the assumption that it will be Labour again and that it will be a Fine Gael/Labour government. In that circumstance, obviously they will have a say as well on who is appointed where. But I am running with the intention of being reappointed.

AE: Have you been given any commitment?

MN: No, not like that. But I’ve been given the key economic role in the campaign.

AE: Labour are still very much electorally challenged. There has to be a very significant possibility that if you do get back, you may have a different coalition partner.

MN: I’m not sure about that. I don’t agree with it. Labour always get more seats than the numbers would seem to suggest. The exception for Fine Gael and Labour was 2011 – we both overachieved and we’re not going to do that again. But in 2007 Labour got 10.4% and 20 seats. They’re not far off 10.4 now.

AE: Let’s say the numbers don’t stack up. Where do you stand on a Fine Gael and Fianna Fail coalition?

MN: I don’t think it’s a good idea.

AE: Why not?

MN: Because I think it would probably give good government for the first three or four years, but there would be no centre party in the opposition. You’d be handing the country over to a Sinn Fein-led government, second time out. You’re teeing up a different model to what we’ve had since 1922.

I won’t be around for that one, obviously. But you’re teeing up a left-right model and I think Sinn Fein don’t pass the economic literacy test. Their experience in Northern Ireland is helping to run a public service and social welfare economy. I don’t think they have any idea how to run a private sector economy.

In terms of having a view of the country going forward, I would like a country where the alternative to Fine Gael-led governments are Fianna Fail-led governments. And they need to be in opposition, to build themselves.

AE: You’re talking about two centrist parties with very few ideological differences between them – just different personalities and largely the same economic beliefs. You don’t believe the country should be given a choice between centrist politics and a different approach?

MN: It’s always up to the electorate at the end of the day. But if you’re looking at the stability of the country, I think you could go down the road that Greece went down – if you change the model.

AE: But the people put the Greek government into power.

MN: Oh sure I know. I’m not objecting to that at all.

AE: But what are you objecting to?

MN: I’m saying that I wouldn’t like an extreme, left-wing government in Ireland. And since the State was founded, even though Fianna Fail have been in government for most of the time, the choice for the Irish people [has been] a Fine Gael-led government or a Fianna Fail-led government. And the day Fianna Fail and Fine Gael come together, it’s very hard to reposition that choice in the future.

AE: Some people in Fianna Fail think it would be a death knell for the party if they were to be a junior partner in a coalition.

MN: I think they fall into three groups and they’re on the record. You have people who say, ‘Well, we should consider being junior to Fine Gael’, you’ve people saying, ‘No, we don’t have an ideological problem with Fine Gael but we won’t go in with them’ and you’ve about a third of the party who want to have discussions with Sinn Fein. I don’t have to name names, they’re all on the record.

AE: Let’s turn to the local side of it. You’ve already said that you expect Willie [O’Dea] to top the poll. You don’t expect people to believe that?

MN: Well it’s just mathematically. He is running on his own. I’m running with Kieran. So the Fine Gael pool of votes will be divided among two TDs. And the Fianna Fail pool will be around one person.

AE: Yes but …

MN: And that seems to me to give Willie the mathematical advantage.

AE: But with all due respect to Peter Power [O’Dea’s former FF running mate] his personal vote was always low. It could be argued that Willie was running on his own, in a way.

MN: He was topping the poll as well though.

AE: But you topped the poll by a considerable margin last time.

MN: Yes, but that was Fianna Fail at their nadir. Look, I don’t know. It’s up to the public.

AE: You’d be hoping to increase your vote?

MN: I hope I would yeah.

AE: You got by far the biggest vote of your career last time.

MN: Yeah, I got the biggest vote in the country last time, in terms of quotas. I got 1.5. Nobody else got a quota and a half. But it doesn’t bother me. My priority is to get two Fine Gael seats and I’d like Jan [O’Sullivan] to be re-elected as well for Labour. And if I can contribute to that, that’s the government back in office. That would be my priority. Like it’s grand to head the poll, but having done it once … You don’t have to do it every year. You’ve to be more strategic.

AE: There was banter the last time about you not crossing the Groody in your canvassing. Will that be the case this time? Are you going to cede Monaleen and Castletroy to Kieran O’Donnell?

MN: Well there’s a big stretch of territory that has come in from the county, since the last election. All that area from Murroe out to Cappamore, back to the golf club [in Castletroy]. We represented it all our lives, but at the last election it was in the county constituency. So that’s …

AE: Good territory for Kieran?

MN: That was his County Council area. I think Kieran will do fine.

AE: Given Sinn Fein’s relative strength in opinion polls, there has to be an outstanding chance that Maurice Quinlivan will win a seat. In which case, either Kieran or Jan will lose out.

MN: I don’t want to predict, because I have no basis for prediction. But it looks on the face of it that there are five, maybe six, strong runners for four seats. I think it will come down to preferences [transfers] so we’ll see how that shakes out.

AE: You’re not prepared to speculate any more?

MN: I’m not. It would be unfair to running mates and all I’d be doing is having a guess. I don’t have solid data to support my opinion.

Part 2: Local issues & Vincent Browne: ‘I just don’t like the fella’

AE: It’s 20 years to the week since you announced a huge investment for the Regional hospital. Before this political comeback, that would have been regarded as your biggest success. Locally anyway. And yet since I became editor of the Limerick Leader that has been the biggest and longest-running story – people’s unhappiness with the hospital.

MN: Yeah I’d be concerned about the hospital. It’s a very good hospital and I suppose it’s nearly a cliché now to say that once you get in the door [to a ward] the service is great, but the pressure points are around A&E. But what I’ve been able to do over the last five years is to ensure the hospital gets a fair share of the capital budget for health. All that area out the front is being fitted out at the moment. And the fact that it’s tied in with the university’s medical school is driving up standards. Obviously more investment is needed – it’s the same everywhere else.

AE: But things are particularly bad here.

MN: The reconfiguration of the group of hospitals in the region was conducted very badly. Ennis and Nenagh, effectively a lot of their workload was thrown in on top of Limerick, without Limerick being given the extra resources to cope with it. The staff at all levels are struggling to cope with that since.

AE: What would a re-elected Fine Gael-led administration do to alleviate that?

MN: Well all I can talk about is the general plan. Our central electoral proposition is ‘re-elect us and we’ll keep the recovery going’. We’ll create a lot of additional jobs, we’ll ensure they are well paid jobs, and we’ll also have some resources for frontline services. That’s what the canvasser will be saying on the doorstep, on the minute that the door is open. We’d be very conscious that if you don’t have the engine of a growing economy, promises about improving services become redundant very quickly. Of course they need extra resources in the acute hospitals. And the shoe is pinching pretty hard in Limerick. So I would hope I’ll have an influence over that.

AE: Vincent Browne had 400 people here last week for The People’s Debate on TV3. Health services dominated the discussion to a big extent. You were criticised for not being present. I know you were in Europe on the date in question but Vincent said he gave you several date options. Was that something you were never going to turn up to?

MN: Vincent criticised me, but Vincent knew I wouldn’t go on his programme. I don’t like Vincent Browne and I don’t go on his programmes and I won’t go on his programmes.

AE: Right. Why don’t you like him?

MN: I think he’s a charlatan.

AE: Explain.

MN: I don’t want to explain. I just don’t like the fella.

AE: What has he done to upset you?

MN: I’m not going to get into that in any way whatsoever. But I mean, he comes up here, into Limerick, and he launches an attack on me for no good reason. Vincent would have known four years ago that I wouldn’t appear on his programme.

AE: So you think he was making a play out of it [declining to take part in the debate], knowing that it was never a possibility?

MN: I’m not too sure what he was doing, but the position is that Vincent Browne could be running a programme all night from the Statue of Liberty and Michael Noonan will not go on.

AE: Full point, period?

MN: Yeah. Don’t like the fella.

AE: OK, well that’s pretty clear. Did you see the RTE Investigates programme on the local councillors?

MN: I didn’t.

AE: You heard about it?

MN: I heard it was an insight into the disgraceful activities of some councillors. But I think everyone would acknowledge it was a small minority. We don’t need people like that in public life any more. I know a lot of councillors and they are decent hardworking people.

AE: Just on the local perspective, we’ve had some good job announcements in your term. It’s something you have alerted people to – you’ve taken ads in the Limerick Leader. You obviously feel things are going in the right direction? And what’s your opinion of the success, or otherwise, of the two authorities merging?

I think it was the right thing to do. There were functions that weren’t being carried out very well because there was an overlap. So the merger was good and I think the new mandate to the IDA in the region was very good as well. A lot of the new job announcements are IDA [backed].

AE: For the city centre, the Uber announcement has obviously been very welcome – 400 people working in the centre. But we need a lot more of that.

MN: Well if it can be replicated at the Hanging Gardens [Henry Street site]. I understand they are fairly close to going to tender on that. And the IDA tell me they wouldn’t have a difficulty in filling it, once it is developed. There are a number of things in the pipeline. Three or four hundred jobs agreed for Plassey again – I think the announcement will be January or February, but we can’t say what company it is yet.

AE: Three or four hundred jobs? In a technological company?

MN: Yeah, Plassey. Somewhere near the university was how it was described to me.

AE: A multinational?

MN: I don’t want to get into it. Companies are very wary about market sensitive information.

AE: Of course.

MN: They’ll announce in due course.

AE: You famously took a mis-step here in this hotel a few years ago ...

MN: Mmm.

AE: When you prematurely announced 400 jobs.

MN: That’s right.

AE: You must have regretted making that comment [Note: The Leader later revealed he was referring to a new call centre for Irish Water, based at the former Dell manufacturing plant, but those jobs ended up going to Cork instead. The biopharmaceutical giant Regeneron later took over the building in Raheen, where it currently has 300 employees].

MN: I did yeah. But when I made the announcement I was certain they were coming. But they didn’t come.

AE: And does that not go back to the struggle between Michael Noonan the statesman and Michael Noonan the politician?

MN: I don’t think I was ever in that position.

AE: How do you mean?

MN: You’d never see me running around making announcements that don’t stand up. That’s the only example. And I mean I had it on very good authority. I was told it was announceable.

AE: On the plus side, what did go into that space turned out to be a better employer than the one that was earmarked.

MN: Yes.

Part 3: The Irish economy: ‘In two years we’ll have reached safe haven’

AE: What are the inherent risks in an economy that’s recovering?

MN: The principal risks are external. The migration crisis in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The aggression in Mr Putin’s Russia.

Within Ireland, it’s the size of the debt - both personal debt and national debt. Now we are getting it down very rapidly and we will continue to do that, but I can see where tis going to be in two years’ time and we’ll have reached safe haven by then. And I can’t foresee anything that’s going to throw us off course in the next two years, but at the same time if you were nominating a risk, you’d have to say the size of the debt.

If interest rates were to go back up, with that size of debt, the country would come under pressure and individuals would come under pressure.

AE: OK – and as finance minister you don’t have the ability to control interest rates so what can you do to avert that scenario?

MN: Keep plugging away at the debt, keep bringing it down, keeping talking to the NTMA and getting them to refinance at lower interest rates. When we sell parts of the banks, to use it [the proceeds] to reduce the debt. When we have an economy growing at 7%, use a lot of the growth not for spending but for taking down debt. There are three or four defined economically acceptable ways of doing it and we’re well on the way. The debt peaked at 120% of GDP, it’s going to be below 100% in the next couple of weeks. It’ll be around 97%. At the end of next year we’ll be around 92%. Now that’s gross debt – the NTMA have a lot of assets as well. If you net it out, we’re probably coming back down below 80%. So we’re getting into a safe space.

AE: You sound very confident. A few minutes ago you said the economy is nearly sorted. Is that not being over-optimistic?

MN: No – I think the fundamentals are sorted. We’ll have a deficit below 2% at the end of this year. It will be below 1% next year. By 2018 we’ll be running the country on what we collect in taxes. And that was the first job. And when we get the debt down as well … I’m not saying it in any kind of an arrogant way now at all, I’m just giving a kind of statistical background to the economy. I mean the real objective is to put the recovery inside the door of every family in the country. And we have quite a distance to go on that.

AE: As we are coming into election mode now, some of the commentators have said that we can expect all parties to lose the run of themselves. They include your former colleague Ivan Yates, who said a couple of weeks ago – and I quote: “Nothing stands between politicians and their goal of securing power. Not one leader has shown the vision to override their political DNA and resist buying votes.”

MN: I think that’s an absolute and total fallacy. It’s a misunderstanding by somebody who doesn’t know the new fiscal rules and didn’t bother to study them. We’re into a situation now, we had a referendum – so it’s not a matter of rules being imposed from Europe, the fiscal rules are a matter of Irish constitutional law and we have to stay within expenditure ceilings. So even if we had money, we can’t spend it.

This year, we are taking in about €3bn more than we had planned in taxes, principally through corporation tax. We’ve spent about half of it in repairing the health services. The rest of it is going to reduce the debt. And what we have in our budget for next year – the figures are fixed. We can’t spend any more now in the run-in to the election, other than what provision is made for. And as it goes out [in time], it’s the same thing.

AE: But that won’t be the case for the full duration of second term?

MN: When we balance the budget, in 2018, after that – extra resources that come in, we can use for investment. It loosens a little bit again, if there’s a five-year government – in the last three years there’s an opportunity. But there’s a need for spending, because an awful lot of the services need extra spending. I think everybody would recognise that if we could afford it, we’d need extra teachers, extra nurses, doctors, extra guards – more frontline people to deliver services.

More than that, the country has been starved of investment – both social and economic investment – and while we have doing quite a lot now in investment in schools, we need a big expansion in health centres, we need to reactivate the roads programme and finish it. For example, the road from Limerick to Cork. If we didn’t have the recession, we’d be driving that on. And then there’s the new agenda – green energy and climate change. So there’s a real need for investment.

But the Yates thing – that’s just a cynical comment by somebody who didn’t actually check the facts. I’ve spent time in government with him.

AE: And?

MN: I’m saying he’s absolutely wrong there.

AE: He made the point about USC – that it’s a stretch to say we can afford to abolish it completely.

MN: USC was brought in as an emergency tax to deal with a crisis. When you tell your public that something is an emergency, there’s an expectation it’s not permanent. It will cost about €4bn to abolish it. Our commitment is to abolish it over the next five years in government. And if you go back to what I said, this year alone we collected an extra €3bn in tax. So on a reasonable run, the resources are there [to abolish it].

Part 4: Comeback and legacy: ‘I’d be more into history than gossip’

AE: I noticed recently you said you were hoping that Deirdre, your daughter in Dublin, might take the hint and give you volume two in the authorised Margaret Thatcher biography [by Charles Moore] as your Christmas present.

MN: She mightn’t have the Christmas paper on it yet but I think it’s purchased. From that period in my life, I’d know the personalities [involved in the Northern Ireland talks], on both the Irish and British sides.

AE: What’s your view on Thatcher as a politician?

MN: I thought she was very good. She was also very divisive. I mean from a domestic point of view, if one was English, you might have a more caustic view, but as someone looking in from the outside, as an international politician she was a very high-powered woman of the 20th century.

AE: She, of course, wrote her own memoirs. Have you given thought to taking up the pen and writing your own story?

MN: I’ve given thought all right but it takes time. I do about 12 hours a day, you know? But I would have a fairly big archive of documents. I’d be more into history than gossip. So what I leave behind will be the documentary trail of the five years of the recovery – rather than personal opinion.

AE: So you’d be looking at doing a book on the recovery rather than the full breadth of your political career?

MN: Well I’m not sure whether I will even do a book on the recovery – but I’d hope to have a significant number of papers which will allow historians to write what they want to write about the period.

AE: And how would you put those into the public domain?

MN: I might give ’em to one of the universities.

AE: The Michael Noonan Papers?

MN: That kind of stuff. It would be a pity not to, because it has been a very interesting time, over the last five years.

AE: Absolutely. What kind of things might we learn in those papers?

MN: It’s not so much what you’d learn, but there’s a lot of gossip written. There’s a lot of ‘he said/she said’ stories. And I think you need the rigour of the written document to support the historic analysis – and that hasn’t been done yet.

I would be able to take copies of all the memoranda I took to government, for example. I’d be able to take out copies of all the meetings of the Troika, over three years. I’d have copies of records of meetings in Brussels where I was going every month for five years. So there is quite a rich [archive] and as the minister I’m entitled to take them with me. Or take copies with me. But I have no particular plan to write a book.

AE: Why not?

MN: Time, at the minute.

AE: You’ve had an incredibly busy last five years, but in retirement surely you’ll need to fill your time.

MN: Yeah I will. I mean I wouldn’t rule it out. But my priority is preserving the record – and then let someone else write it. There will be all kinds of constraints over Government documents – the Official Secrets Act and all that kind of stuff. But if historians get access, they can tell the story.

AE: Have you any historian in mind?

MN: No, no. There are a lot of good people around, people writing history, at both Trinity and UCD. Limerick University has a strong economics department, but it doesn’t have a strong history department. But I haven’t made up my mind yet. I’m only giving you a notion of what my plan is.

AE: If I was writing your book, I wouldn’t be as conscious of documentation, or of writing a dry history. Not that I’m being in any way dismissive of that, but I would feel compelled to centre it on the comeback. That, to me, is the most interesting aspect of your political career. And I think a lot of people would agree with that.

MN: 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.

AE: Ah but, come on – this was THE big comeback.

MN: Well I mean I was in exterior darkness in the early Nineties [laughs] and John Bruton brought me back into his government. So I see my life not as success, failure and comeback. My life is like the chart at the bottom of the bed in hospital.

AE: The one that keeps going up and down?

MN: We happen to be on a rising curve at the moment and it has lasted for five years [laughs harder].

AE: You’re not anticipating it going the other way?

MN: No thank God.

AE: I love a bit of banter as much as the next man but there is a human story behind that comeback. I’ve reminded you before about when you were in the company of Enda Kenny and Kieran O’Donnell at the Limerick Leader office back in early 2010, when the Taoiseach was paying a courtesy visit to the paper.

I remember you were sitting alongside him, just listening to him talk away, and the impression I got that day was ‘This is a man who is absolutely in the political wilderness.’ I wouldn’t say I felt sorry for you, exactly, but I thought ‘Christ, here’s a man who has scaled the heights and he’s nowhere now in Irish politics. To what extent did you feel you were finished.

MN: I never felt I was finished because I always enjoyed the constituency side of politics. When I had less to do in Dublin, I did more in Limerick. And then I had to give an awful lot of attention to my personal life for a period.

AE: Of course.

MN: When you have problems in your family, it concentrates the mind and you don’t worry that much about your career. So there was a lot of elements to it. I don’t think I have thought enough about it to give you an overview that would stand up to scrutiny. But I never felt discarded or abandoned. Even when I was out after being leader, I did a reasonably good job as chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, for four or five years.


MN: So it was kind of, Limerick and a role as a parliamentarian, rather than a role as a minister or a front bencher. I kept busy.

AE: But when you were brought back, in such a prominent role a year before an election, did you feel a sense of … I won’t use a word as strong as ‘vindication’ or anything like that, but there must have been a certain satisfaction for you.

MN: It was great to get an opportunity again, but it wasn’t vindication – it was challenge. I mean the country was going down the tubes. I had a lot of experience in opposition dealing with finance and a lot of experience in the PAC in dealing with the detail of public expenditure. So I was bringing a certain amount of expertise to the table, but I knew that the party would depend a lot on me. And I knew that if we got into government and I was finance minister, it was going to be fairly rough. It was more the sense of the challenge – and making sure I was ready for it. Putting the pieces in place to have the proper policy response.

We obviously made mistakes – who doesn’t? But if you take an overview of five budgets, it was a pretty good period, I think, in Irish fiscal policy.

AE: Was there a day when you thought about the scale of that challenge and you had an awareness of what was potentially going to be involved, a day when you thought ‘I am now signing up for something that could dominate my life’?

MN: I knew I was signing up for three or four years and I knew it was going to be all-consuming.

At that stage I wasn’t doing anything else. Circumstances had changed at home – I was no longer a carer, my wife [Florence, who died in February 2012] was in a nursing home. But for the last five years I have done very little other than work. Most days I do 10 hours, a lot of the midweek days I do 12 hours. You have to be on top of it, you have to read what’s going on. You have to read the international stuff and keep abreast.

AE: How much would you say you have enjoyed it?

MN: There’s a great sense of satisfaction. I mean, twasn’t enjoyment like throwing caps in the air, like a great victory after a match. It’s not that kind of thing. But there is the job satisfaction of planning things, executing them and they landing properly. It’s that.

AE: Most politicians are mindful – even if they don’t care to admit it – of their legacy. I can recall being at the Limerick Chamber dinner quite recently when you received a standing ovation from obviously a very pro-business audience, very appreciative of the work you have done in those five years. Are you conscious of playing your part in Irish political history over the last few years?

MN: I think this government will be seen as a very significant government. Within the government then, the first cut of it will be Kenny and [Eamon] Gilmore, as Taoiseach and Tanaiste. And then it will be [Brendan] Howlin and myself, as the two finance ministers.

AE: You think history will be kindest to the first cut?

MN: I think history will be kind to what became the Economic Management Council.

AE: Right – the four [Kenny, Gilmore, Noonan and Howlin].

MN: Gilmore went then and Joan [Burton] came in. She’s doing fine. But the crisis was over by the time she took over [as Labour Party leader].

AE: They’re generous words for Eamon Gilmore.

MN: I like Gilmore. He was good to work with. He didn’t wander blindly into unpopularity. He knew that the measures he was taking in the interests of the country were going to lead in that direction.

AE: Yourself and Howlin have had – from the remove I’m standing at – a positive relationship.

MN: We’ve had an excellent working relationship – and in more recent times that has developed into a strong personal relationship.

AE: There must have been plenty of occasions where the respective positions of your parties meant that you had challenges to overcome and disagreements.

MN: There was a time when we ran a workshop.

AE: You ran a workshop?

MN: Things were gone wrong and we had to fix it. We did a lot of stuff together.

AE: Did you ever fall out?

MN: Fall out would be too strong. We never had an irretrievable breakdown.

AE: But you had some breakdowns?

MN: Yeah we had disagreements. We still do.

AE: Just returning to the personal aspect – most people would say these have been the most successful years of your political career, do you ever reflect that Florence would love to have seen your career blossom, having been your biggest supporter?

MN: I’d have the regrets that she’s not with me, personal regrets.

AE: Have you changed any way as a person after this comeback period?

MN: I wouldn’t be conscious of it, but I suppose everyone changes as times goes by. I’m probably more reflective – I suppose reflective and analytical. I don’t rush at things.

AE: Whereas you used to before?

MN: Well I didn’t rush at things before either, but my method of problem-solving now is to find out the details of the problem. I’m far better at doing things. I never let things sit on the desk. If it needs to be done, I’ll do it.

AE: OK finally, what are your plans for Christmas?

MN: Go out to West Limerick, my old family home out there. The family will come at various stages between Christmas and the new year.

AE: Who’ll be there for Christmas day?

MN: My daughter and her husband, her four children, my brother and my sister and my son John.

AE: And will you play any active role in the preparations?

MN: Ah – consultant, you know? [Laughs].

AE: Alright, that’ll do it. Thank you.

MN: Thanks very much.