Terry Prone on the Limerick Legend Michael Noonan

So many people have suddenly decided that the most exciting member of Enda Kenny’s team is Limerick’s Michael Noonan.

Virtually every day since the budget has provided him with a starring opportunity and he’s made the most of every single one of those opportunities, starting with the reaction speech delivered moments after Minister Lenihan sat down, having given the nation a haircut with a Blade #1.

Because Michael Noonan long ago established something like ownership over the Budget Day reaction speech, it’s no surprise when, on that day, he delivers equal parts condemnation and wit.

What took people by surprise was what happened during the ensuing days, when Noonan seemed to set out to prove the old saw that there’s more than one way to skin a cat, the cat in this instance being Brian Lenihan. Noonan skinned his cat forensically.

He skinned his cat contemptuously. He skinned his cat furiously. And, on each cat-skinning occasion, he then came out to meet the waiting cameras and banked microphones carrying a sample strip of skin about which he just happened to have a deadly soundbite.

It was a tour de force.

Because Noonan has been on the backbenches for almost a decade, his complex competence seemed new and worthy of Rudolph-style celebration. It isn’t.

Key to that competence is his capacity, not just to absorb facts but to see the implications of those facts. As Minister for Justice, before the years of the Celtic Tiger and the outbreak of Tribunals of Enquiry, he saw the implications of actions taken by his predecessor in the office, and responded speedily and with some courage.

He has always been able to seamlessly move from cute country hoor to rhetorical magnificence, and from effortless expository prose to soundbite with equal ease.

He is well-read, diligent and — rumour hath it — riotously good company over a couple of pints. He is intensely social, despite a personal reserve that leads to half a heartbeat’s hesitation when introduced to new people.

The key point about Michael Noonan’s muttered one-liners is that he is more than witty.

He’s spontaneously funny. Not many politicians are, at the moment, partly because of the times we live in and partly due to the all-pervasive caution afflicting politicians (and given the self-inflicted suffering of Michael Noonan based on two sentences uttered a decade ago, they may be right).

Now and again, a Willie O’Dea will say something witty, but when he does, it evokes acknowledgement, rather than guffaw. Noonan, on the other hand, does more than play with words to down an opponent.

He plays with words, paradoxes, similes and inflections, not just to down an opponent but to create purgative laughter while he’s at it. His rif about how the Government has set out to disadvantage the third child in any family made everybody laugh while hammering home a point they might otherwise have missed.

In the process, he has repositioned his party leader as a lucky general, which, given their shared history, would not have seemed a likely outcome of their historically poor relationship.

Noonan, as party leader, lost no time in putting Kenny on the back benches. Kenny, as leader, returned the favour. In obscurity, the Limerick man did his public representative job while coping with personal health setbacks and his wife’s worsening Alzheimer’s.

Earlier this year, he made an unexpected appearance on Pat Kenny’s The Frontline to talk about the latter. It was shockingly sad.

Here was a public — yet oddly private — man seeking to reveal a family misery while striving not to be self-serving, ambushed by his grief, resigned to his own tears: this is what happens when you talk about how the lovely, talented, sunny woman you married has been irrevocably changed by a disease now affecting almost every family in the country.

It revealed not only a gentleness and vulnerability he has spent his life concealing, but a willingness to admit to mistakes and failures.

It was magnificent television, not least because Noonan was not appearing as a politician, but just as a husband and as a father.

Then came the summer upheavals in Fine Gael.

When re-jigging his front bench, Enda Kenny took a multiple risk when he asked Noonan to serve.

Noonan could have refused and made his refusal public knowledge. Had he accepted, the chemistry between the two men might not have worked. Younger potential spokespeople could have resented the choice. None of these happened.

Pragmatism met pragmatism, Noonan joined a matchless economic team and, no longer desiderative of leadership, performed from the outset with clear-headed professionalism.

What’s important is that his success be registered as part of a continuum, rather than as circumstantial serendipity. A man should be defined, not by an exceptional error within his career, but by the totality of what he has been and can be.

This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Monday, December 13, 2010

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