On February 20th 2020, on the occasion of the first sitting of the 33rd Dáil in Leinster House, Michael Noonan was not in attendance. As a consequence of his retirement from politics the previous month, this was the first time in 40 years that the Fine Gael politician was not part of the cohort of newly elected TDs at Dáil Éireann. We gather here today to honour Michael Noonan and to celebrate his many achievements, at international, national and local level, over the course of his outstanding political journey.
Michael James Noonan was born in Loughill, County Limerick in 1943. After training as a primary school teacher, he completed a Bachelor of Arts and Higher Diploma in English and Economics at University College Dublin. He taught in Dublin before returning to Limerick in the late 1960s to take up a teaching post at Crescent College.
Having a keen interest in politics and a strong allegiance to Fine Gael from his mother’s side of the family, it is no surprise that Michael Noonan joined the Dublin branch of the party after leaving college. He continued to be involved in politics when he returned to Limerick and was elected to Limerick County Council in 1974. Following his election to Dáil Éireann in 1981, he resigned from both his teaching post and the County Council and became a full-time politician.
As a member of every Fine Gael cabinet since 1982, Michael Noonan served under taoisigh Garret FitzGerald, John Bruton and Enda Kenny. During these terms of office, he held the positions of Minister for Justice, Minister for Industry and Commerce, Minister for Energy, Minister for Health and Minister for Finance. As well as leading the party in 2001/2002, he fulfilled the role of spokesperson for Finance under two different taoisigh when Fine Gael was in opposition.
It is arguably for his performance as Minister for Finance from 2011 to 2017 that Michael Noonan will best be remembered. When he took over the crucial portfolio following the worst financial crisis in the history of the State, unemployment was close to 14 per cent, the banking sector was devastated and, most significantly from his perspective, the economy was on life support administered by a troika of externally appointed financial overseers. Having established his credentials in finance during his two periods as opposition finance spokesperson, Michael Noonan took on his biggest challenge to date. His negotiation with the European Central Bank on the promissory note for Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide resulted in a new arrangement for the repayment of the interest and allowed the economy to begin to recover. By any objective standard, this is seen by many commentators as one of the greatest achievements of his political career.
Perhaps one of Michael Noonan’s greatest achievements in terms of social reform was the passing of the divorce referendum in 1995 during his tenure as Minister for Health. As well as being the figurehead of the Yes campaign on behalf of the Fine Gael-led coalition government, Michael astutely directed the debate, and many commentators have given him credit for the passing of the referendum.
The sacrifice made by family members of high-profile politicians can easily be overlooked by the public. Michael Noonan’s time in the highly sensitive position of Minister for Justice in the eighties came right in the middle of the troubles in Northern Ireland. Requiring round-the-clock Garda protection, the role brought with it a significant intrusion into his private and family life. Huge credit is due to Michael’s late wife, Florence, and his five children for supporting him through those challenging times.
Michael Noonan was a major advocate and enabler of progress for Limerick city and county. His biggest contribution by far to the region was in relation to the expansion of the Regional Hospital, now University Hospital Limerick. He had a huge impact on the development of various departments and facilities, including, in particular, the purpose-built Children’s Ark Paediatric Unit. In terms of the city centre, he was the driving force behind investment in projects such as King John’s Castle, Nicholas Street and King’s Island. Fittingly, the merger of Limerick city and county councils into one entity in June 2014 perfectly reflects the support given by Michael to the city and county throughout his political career, both as a local and national politician.
The University of Limerick is keenly aware of the multifaceted benefits that accrued from Michael Noonan’s advocacy of education. During his tenure as Minister for Health in the mid-nineties, UL was beginning to work closely with the Mid-Western Health Board (now the HSE) and the Department of Health on the design and delivery of programmes in medical education, specifically in the area of health education. Minister Noonan’s support for this work led to the development of the Master/Graduate Diploma in Integrative Psychotherapy and the involvement of community agencies such as the Paul Partnership, MABS and the Garda Síochána in the delivery of the programme. Much later on, when the notion of delivering nurse education in a university setting was first mooted, UL’s good relationship with the Department of Health ensured that the university was well placed to meet the challenge. In fact, the model of nurse education in general nursing, psychiatry and midwifery in operation throughout Ireland to this day was developed at UL, thanks in no small measure to the good working relationship built up between UL, the Department of Health and the Health Board on Michael Noonan’s watch. When he was Minister for Finance, UL backed his commitment to introducing fiscal incentives in support of research and innovation as key elements of his ministry’s policy. In the context of UL’s growing profile in research, the university regularly cites the specific provisions introduced by him to support research. UL was quick to recognise and appreciate that having a Minister for Finance whose background was in education made for a great champion of learning.
Today let us also remember one other person, who sadly cannot be with us to celebrate this joyous occasion. For the duration of their 43-year marriage, Michael’s beloved late wife Florence stood by his side through thick and thin. Her premature passing from Alzheimer’s disease in 2012 left Michael, his children and grandchildren heartbroken. Florence’s enduring influence on Michael can be seen in the compassion, warmth and empathy he unfailingly shows to those who suffer from dementia-related illness.
Michael, when you stated in May 2017 that you would not be seeking re-election to Dáil Éireann at the next general election, you said that it had been a privilege for you to represent the people of Limerick since 1981. Today, the privilege is ours, and it is with the greatest respect and gratitude that we welcome you and your family to the University of Limerick to acknowledge your remarkable and enduring political career.
Chancellor, I present to you Michael Noonan and ask that you confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters.