Noonan, Michael Joseph (1935–2013), politician, was born on 4 August 1935 in Crean, Bruff, Co. Limerick, the son of John Noonan, a farmer, and Hanorah Noonan (née Slattery) from a farming family. He was educated at the Salesian College in Pallaskenry, Co. Limerick, before studying for a diploma in rural science at UCC.
Noonan married Helen Sheahan in November 1961, and the couple had six children (four daughters and two sons). Prior to commencing his political career, he worked as a farmer and was involved in the GAA, Muintir na Tíre and Macra na Feirme, becoming president of the latter (1963–5). He joined Fianna Fáil in 1965, though he decided to run for his first county council post in 1967 as an independent, rejoining the party after he was elected.
In 1969 he was selected as one of two Fianna Fáil candidates for Limerick West. The constituency came to be considered one of the country's most predictable, returning Noonan and his Fianna Fáil running mate, Gerry Collins, in every election from 1969 to 1992. Each election Collins topped the polls with a large first preference vote, with Noonan securing his place with the aid of Collins's transfers. Despite longstanding tensions between Collins, a dynamic young politician who held many cabinet positions throughout his career, and the older Noonan, a traditional conservative, the two were seen as delivering well together on the urban (Collins) and rural (Noonan) needs of their constituents.
Noonan continued at the county council, and was re-elected on behalf of Fianna Fáil three times, in 1974, 1979 and 1985, serving until 1987. He also owned a 100-acre dairy farm in Crean, where Taoiseach Charles Haughey (qv) formally opened an extension to the milking parlour in 1980. (The quaintness of this occasion delighted political commentators, who used it to caricature Noonan for years to come.)
He was among the backbenchers whose support was vital to Haughey defeating his rival George Colley (qv) by a narrow margin in the 1979 leadership race. Noonan remained a supporter during Haughey's scandal-fraught years as Fianna Fáil leader, and this loyalty was ultimately rewarded with front bench positions in opposition and in power. The party was ousted in 1981 by Garret FitzGerald's (qv) Fine Gael–Labour coalition, which held for just under a year, before Fianna Fáil briefly reclaimed power from March to December 1982. FitzGerald then formed another Fine Gael–Labour government which stayed in place from late 1982 until early 1987. During that time, Noonan joined Haughey's opposition front bench as spokesperson on agriculture. When Fianna Fáil regained control of the dáil in the election of 1987, Haughey appointed him minister for defence, a position he held for two years until the dáil was dissolved in July 1989.
Noonan took the helm at defence at a particularly challenging time. Army morale was low owing to pay and overtime conditions, as well as limited promotion opportunities. Much-publicised comparisons between the Irish Defence Forces, their British counterparts, the Gardaí and civil service workers highlighted the poor wages and employment terms for average Irish soldiers. Reports abounded of families of Defence Force personnel living close to poverty and requiring supplementary social welfare assistance, with some going to money lenders in desperation. Resignations and voluntary retirements at officer level were at an all-time high too. In early 1988, for example, twelve pilot officers applied for permission to retire from the Air Corps, representing twenty per cent of all active personnel at that rank.
Though Noonan's tactic was to deny the existence of these morale problems, he did set up an inter-departmental committee to look into army pay, as well as partially lifting an embargo on promotions. The Department of Finance, helmed by Albert Reynolds (qv), rejected his committee's initial suggestion in early December 1988 of a fourteen to eighteen per cent pay increase (army representatives were asking for twenty per cent). This rejection cast serious and damaging doubt on Noonan's abilities and influence as a minister.
Then, just prior to Christmas, on 22 December 1988, the office of the taoiseach put out a surprise press release stating a twelve per cent pay rise would be granted. The manner of this announcement caused deep resentment in the Defence Forces who were given no chance to negotiate or discuss it. It was also felt that the press release was misleading in terms of how and when the proposed increases would be administered, whether they included monies already due under the public service pay agreement, and also that it overstated the benefit of the increase to soldiers.
An episode of RTÉ's Today tonight programme in April 1989 looked at the issue of soldiers' morale following the December pay award announcement and found that it was still very low. The programme also featured a claim that the Department of Defence had approached Aer Lingus and Ryanair requesting they not offer jobs to Air Corps pilots, a claim vehemently denied by the department.
In June 1989 Noonan was greeted by a 100-strong group of women demonstrators from the National Army Spouses Association when visiting the Curragh camp to officiate at a commissioning ceremony. Arriving by helicopter and exiting by a back door, Noonan avoided the worst of the heckling, which included chants of 'chicken' and placards bearing messages such as 'Enjoy today – this could be your last few days'.
Within just a few short weeks, that placard proved prophetic. At the end of June 1989, following a general election, Fianna Fáil formed a new government with the Progressive Democrats, and Noonan was given the lesser role of minister of state for the Department of the Marine, while Tánaiste Brian Lenihan (qv) took over at Defence. When Haughey was finally ousted from the party leadership, and Reynolds took over in 1992, Noonan was removed from this position and returned to the dáil's backbenches.
An unapologetic nationalist, Noonan attacked Reynolds in March 1993 stating he was unfit to lead Fianna Fáil because of his supposed willingness to change, or even drop, Articles Two and Three of the constitution (claiming jurisdiction over the entire island of Ireland). The whip was subsequently removed from him at a parliamentary party meeting, and restored only when Bertie Ahern took over as party leader in 1994.
In October 1995 Noonan defied the party whip again and abstained from a vote on the divorce referendum (which he had also previously refused to campaign in favour of), leading to his expulsion from the parliamentary party.
In a statement released after his expulsion he attacked Bertie Ahern, accusing him of 'destroying' Fianna Fáil and described his leadership as a 'dictatorship'. He rejected the view that he himself was a 'fundamentalist' and warned: 'If we continue on this road, after the next election all our members elected will fit into a mini-bus. Bertie, I am disappointed in you' (Ir. Times, 5 October 1995).
Later that month, he accused Taoiseach John Bruton of 'trying to silence the view of the majority church in this state' (Ir. Times, 31 October 1995). He then turned his attention to President Mary Robinson, who he criticised for commenting on divorce and thus overstepping the bounds of her office.
In 1996 Noonan announced his intention to retire from politics, vacating his seat at the June 1997 election. Within a week, Gerry Collins announced that he would not run again either, thus ending their nearly thirty-year dominance of the Limerick West constituency. The younger Collins, however, continued his political career as an MEP until 2004.
In his retirement speech Noonan made no mention of Jack Lynch (qv), Albert Reynolds or Bertie Ahern. Instead he paid tribute to 'the steadfast spirit of de Valera, the vision of Lemass and the dynamism of Haughey' (Ir. Times, 23 August 1996).
After his retirement Noonan continued to be involved in a number of organisations in Limerick in a voluntary capacity. He was active in the Seán Wall (qv) restoration committee and the voluntary housing association in Bruff. He also served on the board of Ballyhoura Development.
After a long illness Michael J. Noonan died on 17 September 2013 at the Milford Care Centre, Castletroy, Limerick. He is buried in Saint Mary's Cemetery, Meanus, Co. Limerick.