herald

Monday 23 October 2017

IMF debt deal can secure Noonan's place in history

Michael Noonan is a bit of a cynic.

According to Pat Leahy's The Price of Power, back in 2010 he privately declared that the Fine Gael leadership battle between Enda Kenny and Richard Bruton was impossible to call.

When asked why, the Limerick man replied, "Because politicians are f***ing liars."

How ironic, then, that Noonan has developed into one of the most trusted members of Leinster House. As Minister for Finance, he gives the Fine Gael-Labour coalition an image of calm and stability that it has often desperately needed.

Now he has a chance to really secure his place in the history books - by negotiating a deal on Ireland's IMF loans that could end up saving us billions.

This week Noonan (left) is touring Europe, seeking support from his fellow EU finance ministers for a radical new plan.

Essentially, he wants to use borrowed money to pay down IMF debts that charge much higher rates of interest.

Under the terms of Ireland's bailout programme, this can only be done if we repay some EU debt at the same time - so Noonan needs his colleagues' agreement to put them on the long finger instead.

psychological

The deal is actually much less complicated than it sounds. It would be the equivalent of a family restructuring the mortgage so that their monthly bills are dramatically reduced.

It would also be a huge psychological step, moving from the humiliating rescue package that we had to accept when our economy went bust to something more like normality.

Can Noonan pull it off? Right now, the mood music sounds good. Best of all, there is every chance that a decision will be made before the budget on October 14.

Noonan is a tough nut but even he must sometimes feel emotional about the stunning turnaround in his political fortunes.

Just over a decade ago, he was the loser who had led Fine Gael to its worst ever general election defeat. The defining image of that contest was him getting a custard pie shoved in his face.

Noonan then more or less disappeared for a few years, partly because he had an awkward relationship with his successor Enda Kenny.

He only re-emerged after Richard Bruton's botched leadership heave, when Enda urgently needed a new finance spokesman.

Since then he has developed into the ultimate safe pair of hands - cool, steady and always ready to disarm opponents with a folksy quip.

wily

At the age of 71, Noonan could be forgiven for deciding to quit while he is still ahead.

Instead, he unveiled ambitious plans last week for a series of budgets that will replace Ireland's 'boom and bust' economy with something closer to the Nordic model.

Their success depends, of course, on Fine Gael winning the 2016 election. If they do, nobody will deserve more credit than their wily old fox in the Department of Finance.

The Tory MP Enoch Powell famously claimed that all political careers end in failure.

If Michael Noonan brings home the bacon from Europe, he will stand a great chance of becoming the Irish exception to that rule.

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