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Noonan takes FG helm; party moving to left

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — Limerick veteran Michael Noonan has taken over the leadership of Fine Gael after winning a 44-28 vote of his parliamentary colleagues against Mayo’s Enda Kenny. He immediately moved to stamp his authority on the party in a series of broad policy statements that moved the party left of center.

The first announcement of the 57-year-old former teacher was the appointment of Dubliner Jim Mitchell, 54, as his deputy.

The two men had put forward the no-confidence motion that ousted former leader John Bruton in a 39-33 vote and had promised a "dream team" leadership no matter which of them won.

Originally, four candidates had thrown their hats in the ring. Corkman Bernard Allen pulled out when he couldn’t muster sufficient votes to make a credible challenge. Mitchell delayed his withdrawal for a dramatic last-minute announcement just before the parliamentary party meeting.

Noonan staked out a moral high ground position on the sleaze factor. He said there was a "cancer" in politics, a need to restore trust and to cut the financing link with big business.

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The party would immediately stop taking corporate donations, limit personal donations to a maximum of £1,000 and oppose Fianna Fail proposals to increase the limits on expenditure in elections.

He promised populist priorities in the areas of health, education and a major program of public housing.

Noonan outlined his preference for the European model of social justice.

"All modern democracies now have free-market economies," he said. "The choice posed between Boston and Berlin is not a choice of economic models. The difference is in the social model."

He said he would rather be old in European countries where there is also a social contract with the state providing good basic services and pensions.

He claimed it doesn’t exist in Ireland at present. Instead, there is inequality in health, education and services for the elderly, he said.

The huge opposition front bench will be slimmed down and more detailed policy proposals will be outlined when they are appointed and consulted.

He also made a pitch for the women’s vote, promising high-quality affordable child-care and supporting their right to choose whether they will work inside or outside the home. "We will not support policies which seek to conscript women into the labor force," he said.

Efforts will be made to heal the wounds in the party after the Bruton ousting.

"People become united when they work together and I am going to work the party very hard together," he said.

Noonan said there would be a more nationalist emphasis on Northern Ireland and said Bruton’s policies had been misunderstood. Sinn Fein, he said, are ruled out of any coalition while it still has a military wing and there will be no link-up with Fianna Fail either, as he wanted to give people a choice.

Mitchell emphasized the need for a just society and said they would be a "left-of-center leadership" that would be a contrast with the present government that had "gone to the right."

He said the divisions in society were greater now than when Fine Gael issued the just society policy almost 40 years ago.

Before Noonan’s election, Fine Gael suffered a blow with an announcement from Wexford front bench TD Ivan Yates that he will not be standing in the next general election.

Yates cited personal reasons as the main factor in his decision and said he had been considering the move for some time. He has a chain of betting shops.

"I have been trying to juggle my political commitments, my family and my business interests and it became absolutely clear to me in the last 18 months that it was impossible," he said.

Yates, who was first elected when he was 21, had been regarded as future leadership material.

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