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Ireland's comeback king takes over as finmin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Michael Noonan's appointment as Ireland's finance minister on Wednesday, nine years after he presided over the ruling Fine Gael party's worst poll defeat, caps a remarkable comeback for the 67-year-old former teacher.
Nine months ago he was just another backbencher, occasionally piping up with one of his trademark quips in parliamentary debates but ultimately having little to look forward to other than retirement.
But when new Prime Minister Enda Kenny's leadership of the party was challenged in opposition by his then finance spokesman over the summer, Noonan shrewdly kept his council, refusing to publicly back either man.
After the majority of Kenny's frontbench did the opposite and unsuccessfully tried to unseat their leader, Noonan was left to enjoy the spoils, plucked from the wilderness to take over as finance spokesman, a position he held during the late 1990s.
While it may not have been by design, the premier's decision to offer a second chance to Noonan, who thwarted Kenny's first tilt at the party leadership ten years previously, proved decisive in his bid to lead the country.
Noonan immediately set about taking the government to task, more often than not getting the better of then finance minister Brian Lenihan -- himself a robust parliamentary performer -- and Fine Gael's support grew as a result.
It culminated last month in a stunning election victory for the party which made it the biggest in the nation for the first time and gave it the upper hand in coalition talks with the Labour Party that wrapped up on Sunday.
But those negotiations will be child's play compared to what lies ahead for Noonan in his first few weeks on the job.
After promising voters they would cut the cost of an EU/IMF rescue package, both governing parties are under pressure to secure an easing of the terms of the country's bailout at a March 24-25 EU summit in the face of opposition from euro zone heavyweight Germany.
Dublin will publish the results of fresh stress tests on its majority state-owned banks less than a week later, when Noonan will have to fulfil a delayed condition of the EU/IMF deal by injecting up to 10 billion euros into the banks.
Depending on the results of the stress tests, more capital may be required.
An IMF team will then arrive within days for its first meeting with the new government.
Noonan may well be better prepared for the task than any of his 14 new cabinet colleagues, having held four ministries and served in two governments during a 30-year political career dominated by the Fianna Fail party, the giant laid low by the financial crisis and last month's election.
Born in the gritty south-west city of Limerick, he swapped a career teaching English for parliament in 1981 and was appointed justice minister within 18 months, later going on to oversee the industry, energy and health portfolios.
Through it all he has retained his love for Shakespeare and frequently uses literary allusions in his speeches. His ability to cut opponents down to size has had political commentators arguing about their favourite Noonan quip.
He wasn't always so popular though.
His stint as minister for health in the late 1990s was overshadowed by a tough stance on compensation for people infected with hepatitis C through blood transfusions.
His tough line, on the back of in-house legal advice, overshadowed his leadership of Fine Gael and created an image of a cold, uncaring policymaker.
Voters' opinion of Noonan softened considerably, however, when he spoke publicly and touchingly for the first time last year about his wife's battle with Alzheimer's and the loneliness of coping with the disease.
His wife is now cared for in a nursing home and Noonan has said politics has become his life.
(Editing by Carmel Crimmins)
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