When Enda Kenny steps down from his position as Taoiseach in the coming weeks, it comes as little surprise that finance minister, Michael Noonan, another great survivor of Irish politics, will depart with him, or not long after.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is believed to be critical of a decision Noonan made not to intervene in the sale of Project Eagle, in April 2014, even though he had been made aware of a £15m fixer fee arrangement connected to the sale of NAMA’s Northern Ireland property portfolio. This has done a lot of damage to his reputation.
That he met with the winning bidder, Cerberus, along with department officials, on the day before the tender was awarded to the US fund, is expected to raise further questions that can only be properly dealt with by a Commission of Investigation.
It is understood that Noonan has objected to what he believes is an adverse finding against him in the PAC report, but the majority of committee members are of the view that it merely states the obvious which is that the perception of a meeting between the finance minister responsible for overseeing NAMA and the executives of the company on the day before it won the lucrative tender raises uncomfortable questions.
The PAC is also expected to support the thrust of the report by the Comptroller and Auditor General who concluded that the amount paid by Cerberus was over €220m less than could have been obtained, and that NAMA failed to deal with apparent conflicts of interest involving Frank Cushnahan, a member of its Northern Ireland Advisory Committee (NIAC), when they first emerged in 2012.
In March 2014, the favoured bidder, PIMCO, informed NAMA executives about fee arrangements involving payments to solicitors Brown Rudnick, Belfast solicitors Tughans and Cushnahan, and its decision to withdraw its tender on the advice of its legal advisors. Noonan then had a chance to call a halt to the sale. He failed to do so.
Indeed he met with executives from Cerberus, on the day before it secured the portfolio of properties across the North and in the UK for £1.24bn, far less than its original value of in excess of £4.6bn.
Noonan can be expected to defend his approach, on the grounds that he did not discuss any commercially sensitive issues with the Cerberus team, and while there are no publicly available minutes of the meeting it beggars belief that the biggest single sale of Irish public assets did not come up during the conversation.
Noonan has weathered many political storms before, and only last year managed to escape any serious fallout when he was caught out by Sinn Féin finance spokesman, Pearse Doherty, during the general election campaign, massaging the budget figures.
He has also managed to give the impression of gravitas and, as a master of the jaundiced soundbite, displays an apparent sagacity and knowledge of economic and financial affairs while rarely saying anything of consequence.
It was his mantra about keeping the recovery going, adopted by Fine Gael disastrously as its main election slogan which contributed to its loss of a bucket full of seats in the February 2016 election and which has left his party at the mercy of Fianna Fáil in the current shambolic ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement.
He spends much of his time rubbing shoulders with the architects of an EU austerity programme which threatens to bring down the Euro and the entire post war European project as millions of working people flock to the embrace of right wing xenophobic nationalist movements across the continent.
In 2012 he was accused of ignorance when he commented that: “Apart from holidaying on its islands, I think most Irish people don’t have a lot of connections with Greece. If you go into the shops here, apart from feta cheese, how many Greek items do you put in your basket?”. This may have gone down well with Wolfgang Schauble and his mates in Berlin, Brussels and Frankfurt but it did little to show any empathy with an entire people being subjected to a viciously enforced austerity programme.
His recent speech to the Irish Taxation Institute confirms his position as an old-style financial conservative pursuing a tax-cutting agenda while public services in health, education, transport and housing are in dire need of investment and state support.
Approaching 74, and a TD since he entered the Dáil for Limerick East in 1981, after a BA in Economics and English in UCD and a few years teaching English, Economics, and Geography in the Crescent Secondary School in Limerick (where his son John now works). Noonan is a political survivor who has tasted victory and defeat in their many guises over the past 35 years in politics.
Following a general election in 1982, after which Garret FitzGerald was forced out of office, Noonan found himself on the Fine Gael front bench as a spokesperson for education, presumably due to his teaching experience.
After the second general election in 1982, and just eighteen months as a TD, the Limerick man was appointed to a senior cabinet position as Minister for Justice at a time of intense political turmoil and upheaval and just a year after the republican hunger strikes which had undermined the preceding Haughey administration.
He was only a few weeks in office when he disclosed the sensational details of how the previous FF government had tapped the telephones of journalists including Bruce Arnold, Geraldine Kennedy and, later it transpired, Vincent Browne. He was the minister who introduced the wording for the 1983 referendum on abortion which ever since has forced tens of thousands of women to leave the country to secure a termination of their pregnancy.
In 1986, he was made Minister for Industry and Commerce and the following year Minster for Energy after the Labour Party left the then coalition government and before an election that saw Charles Haughey return as Taoiseach. Around this time he came to national attention on ‘Scrap Saturday’ as a no-nonsense Limerick bruiser who pronounced only one ‘I’ in ‘million’.
His term as health minister in the 1994 Rainbow coalition government was marked by the Hepatitis C scandal when it emerged that the Blood Transfusion Service Board (BTSB) had given contaminated blood to thousands of women and brought Noonan into direct conflict with Bridget McCole one of those affected.
His decision to fight her claim for compensation arising from the State’s role in causing her fatal illness resulted in severe and long-lasting criticism for Noonan who emerged from the debacle as a heartless creature immune to the suffering of a dying mother of 12 children.
Under his watch, the State opposed Mrs McCole’s claims for damages in the High Court contrary to the advice of the Attorney General who informed the government in 1995 that the BTSB was liable. Just two weeks before she died, the BTSB admitted liability and negligence and apologised for infecting her but threatened that if she was to proceed with a claim against them and not succeed it would pursue her for costs. He admitted that at the time he listened to legal advice which said the Government should let the BTSB pursue the case.
He has admitted: “In retrospect I should have interfered and taken a political decision to get involved”.
His involvement in another scandal during his term in health in the mid 1990s is about to become the subject of another major inquiry following the release of two reports into the treatment of a vulnerable and severely disabled young woman named Grace who was abused by her foster father in a home in the south-east while under the care of the health service.
A decision to remove her from the home in 1996 was overturned after Noonan received communications from the foster father, and she remained there until 2009. According to department sources, representations were made to Noonan and his minister of state, Austin Currie, but these were passed on to the South-Eastern Health Board, the organisation with statutory responsibility at that time.
It was revealed in consultant Conal Devine’s thorough report (suppressed by the State since 2012) that a local school principal also wrote to Noonan in August 1996 asking that Grace be allowed to remain in the foster home. This letter was passed by the Department of Health to the health board. The following month, the Health Board told the principal that the request would be taken into account. Devine discovered that Grace never attended the school in question, or any other school for that matter.
Noonan went on to become party leader in February 2001 after John Bruton resigned. He vainly tried to introduce quality of life issues into the 2002 election campaign with the slogan ‘Vision With Purpose’. He had also promised a huge tax giveaway, worth €2bn. However, the biggest campaign event was when he was struck in the face with a custard pie in Boyle, Co. Roscommon.
He was unceremoniously replaced by Enda Kenny after a disastrous general election performance by Fine Gael in June 2002. Kenny left him off his front bench.
His come-back followed his clever decision to back Kenny in the failed leadership coup by Richard Bruton in 2010, and he remained on the opposition front bench until his return to cabinet as finance minister after the 2011 implosion of FF in the wake of the economic and financial collapse and the arrival in town of the EU/ECB/IMF with their bailout programme. The ultimate safe pair of hands, Noonan had served as a minister in every Fine Gael-led government since 1982 but had never achieved his ambition to lead a government. Now he was the second most powerful force in a Cabinet dominated by the powerful Cabinet economic sub-committee, the Economic Management Council (EMC) comprising Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Joan Burton, Brendan Howlin and Noonan.
Plagued by a series of illnesses and the drawn-out death of his wife Florence in 2012, Noonan doggedly pursued the role of restoring the public finances along with public expenditure and reform minister, Brendan Howlin, in the ‘national government’ formed with Labour in March 2011.
Although ostensibly a partnership government, Labour obtained only one third of cabinet positions, including those most associated with austerity measures, and Noonan’s centre-right economic views influenced the shape of the budgets as the government successfully sought to get out from under the yoke of the Troika.
In this regard, Noonan claimed credit for his success in ensuring that Ireland would not be forced into a second bailout and a reduction of the interest rates payable on its huge debt mountain. He oversaw two budgets which embraced the introduction of property tax and water charges but managed to escape much of the public anger which was directed primarily at his Labour colleagues in cabinet.
Meanwhile, any talk of burning bondholders, unsecured or otherwise, was dropped by Noonan who continued to spend much of his time at European finance meetings in negotiations with the ECB over debt relief.
As Ireland’s unemployment rate began to fall and growth figures improved and after he secured a deal on the Anglo-Irish Bank promissory note in early 2013, Noonan basked in the glory of achieving an exit from the bailout programme and a return to the bond markets, leading to him being named as the best Finance Minister in Europe by the Financial Times-owned Banker magazine for 2013.
This, however, did not butter many parsnips at home as the FG-led government hit several hurdles, not least in the water charges controversy and the intensifying housing and health-service crises.
Then came the Project Eagle scandal and the extent Noonan’s role in failing to stop the process when it emerged that it was seriously compromised by alleged financial backhanders to some of those involved.
Indeed, Noonan and the Secretary General of the Department of Finance, John Moran, a fellow Limerick man he appointed in 2012, aggressively pushed NAMA to offload assets at the fastest pace possible, adding to the potential loss to the public purse as property prices improved.
He only introduced measures to force the vulture funds who were swooping on Irish property assets to pay some tax on their exorbitant profits after it emerged that they were using loopholes such as Section 110 of the finance act to avoid their revenue obligations.
His arrogant and televised description of vultures as a necessary function of the eco system may have impressed the board rooms of Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street and global funds but will surely come back to haunt him when the full extent of his culpability in the Project Eagle debacle comes into view. His decision to retire along with Kenny is opportune to say the least.
In a telling interview with the Limerick Leader before the 2016 election, Noonan revealed that if Fine Gael could not form a government he would have preferred to see a Fianna Fáil-led government than any other combination of parties.
“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 Fáil-led governments”, he said.
As he heads into the winter of his political career, Noonan has probably ensured that the centre-right will hold power for the foreseeable future, no matter what the cost in human misery.
By Frank Connolly
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