High Noonan: excellent performances as Fine Gael finance spokesman

AFTER a fortnight when most of the country has been buried in snow, the sound of the vuvuzela at last summer's World Cup seems like light years ago. One of the comedic highlights of the tournament was the RTÉ Après Match team's sketches of TV3's Tonight with Vincent Browne.

One memorable sketch was of Browne and his two guests, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan and Labour party finance spokesperson Joan Burton on 15 June.

The sketch opened with Browne asking Lenihan why Ireland had failed to qualify for the World Cup. Lenihan responded with a lengthy answer, pointing out that other countries such as Iceland, Indonesia and Iraq had also failed to qualify.

With that, a member of the Après Match team playing Burton barked: "At ground level, on the ground, at grassroots level, on the ground what people are clearly saying is they are frustrated on the ground and they are angry, on the ground, and they want an alternative to this failed government, who have failed the people, on the ground."

The sketch ended with Lenihan revealing that he had been "talking to the fellas in the European Central Bank" and "we are hoping that the man who lent us the money will forget".

Six months on, any future Après Match sketch will surely have a new character. Enter Michael Noonan.

Appointed on 1 July, two weeks after the World Cup sketch, Noonan has become the 'Comeback Kid' of Irish politics. His political career lay in ruins after he nearly led Fine Gael to near-extinction with a disastrous general election campaign in 2002.

Over the past five-and-a-half months, Noonan has enjoyed a political resurrection that culminated in a superb budget-day performance last Tuesday. The 67-year-old has emerged from the Fine Gael backbenches to become one of the most respected economic brains on the political scene.

"It's the economy, stupid" became a mantra in US politics during Bill Clinton's successful presidential campaign in 1992, and that same mantra is certain to dominate the Irish general election in the spring.

While Fine Gael and Labour are expected to make up the next government, there is much speculation over who will fill Lenihan's shoes.

Fine Gael will likely end up with more seats than Labour so it is expected to hold the finance portfolio. But there is a view that it would be a pragmatic move to offer the position to Labour to cement "political stability within the coalition".

While one Fine Gael TD has claimed that Michael Noonan is certain to be the party's choice as the new minister for finance, another senior Fine Gael TD told the Sunday Tribune: "I think we should offer it to Labour as it will make the coalition more stable. Although, Liam Cosgrave offered it to Labour's Brendan Corish in 1973 and the Labour leader did not take him up on the offer, so that could happen again."

Richie Ryan famously became minister for finance in that 1973 coalition and he was lampooned as 'Richie Ruin' in RTÉ's satirical Hall's Pictorial Weekly.

There is now a fresh reality that the finance ministry is going to be a very different role for the life of the next government, given that the EU and IMF will be watching over every move the minister makes. And the risk of whoever gets the job being lampooned by Après Match and other comedy programmes is very real.

That is one reason some Labour insiders privately believe they should offer Fine Gael the poisoned chalice.

It appears the election will be a two- horse race between Fine Gael and Labour to see who will become the lead party in government. A senior Fine Gael TD said: "At the end of the day the numbers will dictate who gets the Finance portfolio. It is only after the election that the personalities will be looked at."

As speculation mounts over the contenders for the Finance portfolio, the Sunday Tribune assesses their 'credits' and 'debits'.

Michael Noonan
(Boylesports' odds on becoming next finance minister: 7/4)

Credits: The star performer of last week, Noonan's response to Lenihan's budget speech helped to cement his 'Comeback Kid' status. As Green Party TD Paul Gogarty heckled him during his speech, TDs around the chamber erupted in laughter when Noonan wryly replied: "Is this a hit-me-now-with-the- child-in-my-arms intervention?"

There was an equally raucous reception for his jibe at Lenihan over cutting child benefit payments to the third child. Noonan said: "Did some third child beat up the minister coming home from school when he was a young fellow? What is the conspiracy against third children?"

More importantly than his ability to make quips, Noonan clearly understands economics. His experience has stood to him and he has been much more aggressive in his attacks on Leni­han than his predecessor Richard Bru­ton. He has also been more measured in his criticism of Lenihan than Labour's Joan Burton, probably because of his experiences in cabinet in the 1980s.

Debits: The electorate clearly did not warm to him when he was Fine Gael leader and there is obviously a danger that could happen again if he is in the spotlight as minister for finance. While he has clearly mellowed, his pugnacious style may be less acceptable to Labour than somebody like Richard Bruton. Noonan is superb on the attack. Only Pat Rabbitte comes close to him in that regard on the opposition benches. But the question is whether he would perform as well on the back foot, where he would regularly find himself as finance minister?

Joan Burton
(Boylesports' odds: 9/4)

Credits: Her background as an accountant and third-level accountancy lecturer has stood her in good stead as she has a wide knowledge of the minutiae of her portfolio. She has an unquestionable work ethic, seems to have the confidence of the public and she has been to the fore in setting the agenda in the Dáil during economic debates over the past two years. Few could argue with the way Burton has been a consistent advocate of measures such as a wholesale clear-out of the boards of Irish banks since 2008.

Debits: "Joan is certain to get a senior economic portfolio, possibly as the minister for enterprise. I don't think she will get Finance as she is better at the narrative of the crisis than the prescription on how to get out of it," remarked one Fine Gael TD.

As justice spokesman between 1995 and 1997, John O'Donoghue had a sustained period of strong attacks on justice minister Nora Owen. It was argued that by being so aggressive in opposition O'Donoghue had created a lot of hostages to fortune. A similar argument can now be made about Burton. In her favour, O'Donoghue did get the nod for the justice portfolio in the end. Burton can also be a polarising figure and in a coalition government at a time of national crisis, this may work against her. Noonan outshone her last week in the opposition responses to the budget.

Richard Bruton
(Boylesports' odds: 2/1)

Credits: An Oxford postgraduate degree in economics makes Bruton a great candidate for the Finance gig. He has an excellent grasp of the portfolio and there is a school of thought that if Kenny offered Bruton the role, it would be a great way of making peace with him and the other dissidents in Fine Gael.

There is also a view within the Labour Party that if they do not get the Finance portfolio, Bruton would be more acceptable to Labour than Noonan.

Debits: There are three reasons why Bruton will not be the next minister for finance. They are: the heave, the heave and the heave. It is hard to imagine Kenny offering Bruton the plum role. The other question surround­ing his suitability is whether he is politically hardnosed enough to fulfill such a hugely unpopular role?

Pat Rabbitte
(Boylesports' odds: 6/1)

Credits: Along with Noonan, Rabbitte has shown himself to be one of the opposition TDs with a competent grasp of the financial crisis. He is hugely bright and extremely comfortable with the media.

His attack on Pat Carey on Prime Time demonstrated his ability to tap into the public mood. Crucially, he has the political toughness to do what has to be done in the demanding role.

Rabbitte may be seen as more measured than Joan Burton and more acceptable to Fine Gael if Labour get the Finance portfolio. Some observers believe his increased number of media appearances in recent weeks suggest he is in line for the Finance job.

Debits: He can be prickly when he is under pressure. And he is seen by some critics as overly dogmatic. That could go against him in a time of crisis when the financial situation is so fluid and evolving by the day.

RuairÍ Quinn
(Boylesports' odds: 9/2)

Credits: Quinn has been there and done that. The former minister for finance has a wealth of experience and unquestionable ability. His appointment would certainly reassure the financial markets. It is a compliment to him that his name is connected with every plum political position that is mooted in Irish politics, whether it is Dublin mayor, ceann comhairle or European commissioner.

Debits: Quinn has been there and done that. Does he really want to return to Merrion Street? There may be some resistance among the younger contenders in Labour if Quinn is given the position, having already served in cabinet in the 1980s and 1990s.

Eamon Gilmore
(Boylesports' odds: 12/1)

Credits: Gilmore is a great communicator and he is about to bring the Labour Party to unprecedented heights. If the 'Gilmore Gale' is strong enough and he returns enough Labour TDs, he may have the first call on the Finance job as leader.

Debits: Like Dick Spring, Gilmore is a seriously good political strategist but he would not be particularly comfortable in the Finance role as he is not an economics heavyweight. As Labour leader, overseeing a parliamentary party with a majority of first-time TDs, Gilmore could do without the 24-7 distraction of being finance minister. Also, is he more Bertie than Bertie himself? Does he just tell people what they want to hear? If that is the case, then the Finance portfolio is not for him during this crisis.