CURRENTLY feted as a modern day Countess Markievicz for her performance chairing the Oireachtas Committee on the eighth amendment, Senator Catherine Noone has come a long way since the days when she was a social butterfly on the fringes of Fine Gael. She is also one of those FG women, like Regina Doherty, who has ‘travelled a journey’ from pro-life to pro-choice. Did Catherine give much theological and ideological thought to the burning question of abortion? Or did she land on her feet with a short cut on that journey that ended with her being a useful tool for Leo Varadkar in his efforts to deal with this most difficult issue?
A recent Sunday Independent comment on Noone’s performance as chair of the Oireachtas committee told how she took on this “terrible task… but did an outstanding job and a more prominent political career might follow”. The article described how she was “scrupulously fair”, despite men who followed her into the toilet to complain about not being fairly treated. This was just one of many plaudits recently showered on Noone who combined a soft pro-choice position with a studied neutrality with one of her critics, Mattie McGrath, making her look like Joan of Arc with his crass remark, ‘the fat lady sings’. What all of this comment ignores is that, despite Noone’s stewardship of the committee’s radical pro-choice proposals, she was a disciple of former minister Lucinda Creighton and publicly reflected Lucinda’s strongly pro-life position not so long ago.
Time was when Noone, now 40, was a convivial adornment at Blueshirt social gatherings in Dublin South-East – now Dublin Bay South (DBS) – and wider Dublin party circles, providing Catherine with membership of the most elite social club in Ireland.
Noone’s background is that of the premier family in Claremorris, where Mam has been a long-serving psychiatrist and Dad is a now-retired vet, with the family housed in a Georgian period mansion, Brooke House, just outside the town. Both parents are art collectors and Catherine’s sister, Rosemarie, runs the successful Claremorris Gallery in the town.
Catherine herself has at least three properties of her own – two in Dublin and one in Salthill, Galway – including her own, mandatory D4 residence in Eglington Court, Donnybrook. Complementing Catherine’s social profile was her fashion boutique business, Candystripe, set up with Rosemarie in Dublin and Mayo in 2007 but which ceased trading five years later. The accounts for April 2012 showed accumulated losses of €160,000 with creditors owed €230,000. Latest accounts to April 2016 showed losses at €198,000, with creditors still owed €201,000. In fact, it is Rosemarie that has been Lucinda Creighton’s close friend down the years, not Catherine as is often reported.
Initially, Catherine’s main activity as a party member in Dublin in the noughties was as a rather passive voting supporter for Creighton at conventions and so on, something that brought the two closer together.
Being a loyal member of Creighton’s local machine, Catherine received Lucinda’s backing for her bid for a nomination against stiff opposition when she went to convention for the party’s South East Inner City nomination for the 2009 local elections. As a result, Noone became the candidate and then a councillor when she came third on the first count with Creighton’s partner, the then senator Paul Bradford, masterminding the campaign. Even better, she became a senator two years later when running on the Industrial and Commercial panel, again assisted by Creighton and Bradford. Catherine’s local election campaign was marked by a laissez-faire, almost cavalier performance by Noone, with Bradford and Creighton’s team doing most of the heavy lifting. However, her Senate campaign saw Noone traverse the state like a political force of nature as she charmed practically every FG councillor in existence at the time.
HARD TO RESIST
This reflects Noone’s real political strength – a pleasing and charming personality that most party members find hard to resist. At the same time, Catherine also delivered obligatory accounts of how she had suffered from sexism in politics and even as a practicing solicitor. Why, she had been accused of “flirting my way into certain things” and she also told a receptive Irish Times how an eminent senior counsel had taken her left hand and inquired, “Can you tell me how some man hasn’t put a ring on that finger?” Catherine conceded that, despite her apparently confident personality, she was “just another girl who wants somebody to love me”.
Noone was ecstatic at joining the Senate but it was around this time that she began to have ‘notions’, as jealous and less resourced but perhaps more well-informed political rivals argue.
At this point Catherine’s political philosophy could be summarised by a couple of Sunday Independent soundbytes and would essentially have been culled from speeches and positions taken up by Creighton. And when she was a senator, Noone’s then secretary and now TD Noel Rock provided the intellectual and political material for her speeches. Deeply ironic then and something that helps to explain Noone’s new status is the manner in which Catherine unhitched herself from Lucinda and did a somersault on the abortion issue – the political booster that has shot her into such prominence.
Creighton moved into open conflict with Enda Kenny and the party leadership in the period running up to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill, 2013, allowing terminations for women facing a threat to their life. Noone was reported in various media during this period as being opposed to the abortion bill because of the inclusion of suicide ideation – the main reason also cited by Creighton. However, shortly after Lucinda did her number over the abortion bill and voted herself out of her job as European minister, Noone was well on the way to Damascus as she told the Seanad she would be voting “with her conscience” in favour of the legislation. Noone said she found the activities of some pro-life people “disturbing” and that their actions undermined their campaign.
Lucinda’s departure from various positions (her ministerial job and the parliamentary party) was accompanied by her expulsion from the FG national executive. Four ambitious Blueshirts, including Catherine, rushed to contest the vacancy. Ironically, it was a member of the so-called five-a-side club, Seán Conlon, who won out. The backbench club was headed by Creighton’s arch rival in Dublin South-East, Eoghan Murphy TD, against whom Lucinda, with Catherine’s support, had been competing for ascendancy at that time.
Catherine failed to get the executive slot, but she had better luck when the Kenny purge continued on Oireachtas committees. Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames, who had also been removed from the FG parliamentary party because of her vote against the abortion legislation, was also removed from the Oireachtas European Affairs Committee. Her place on the committee – where Lucinda had made a name for herself in the last Dáil before becoming European minister – was taken by Catherine.
It was at this point that Catherine perhaps lost the run of herself and, imagining that she could replicate the career path of mentor Lucinda, she let it be known she was willing to accept a Dáil nomination for FG in their joint constituency. This would have entailed her taking out Creighton in a most unsisterly move, but a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do in politics.
However, Murphy was aghast at the notion of the unschooled Noone accompanying him on the general election ticket and so, too, were most local members as well as party HQ. They decided to hunt for a woman of more substance and aggression, with Kate O’Connell quickly adopted as Creighton’s replacement and nemesis as FG ploughed massive resources into her successful campaign to oust the ex-minster from the Dáil.
Meanwhile, Noone, who may not possess all of Lucinda’s talents but more than matches her former colleague’s ambition, had earlier let it be known she was also interested in running for Europe at the 2014 European election for Dublin – another pitch that fell on deaf ears. But Noone’s role as mid-wife to the abortion dilemma was at hand as Leo Varadkar later pulled a constituency stroke that placed her at his right-hand side.
Varadkar had resisted the claims of the impressive Cllr Kieran Dennison to run in the 2011 Dublin West by-election, perceiving him as a slight threat to his overwhelming ascendancy in the constituency organisation. Varadkar ensured that the no-hope candidacy of blue-rinse FG matron Eithne Loftus prevailed over Dennison’s claims. The party’s vote plunged from the general election tally of 27% to 14.7%, helping to revive Fianna Fáil in the constituency in the process. A repeat of the Loftus proposal for the second slot on the 2016 general election ticket would have caused uproar among local members, so Varadkar plucked Noone from Donnybrook and into Mulhuddart and ensured her role as his running mate.
This suited Noone who, despite a capacity for delusional ambition, knew that her hopeless but party patriotic campaign as Varadkar’s running mate in Dublin West would greatly enhance her bid to become a second-time senator. This stratagem worked for both candidates, with Leo topping the poll and Noone strolling back into the Senate, but Catherine saw this as just a stepping stone to much bigger things.
One reason the Oireachtas committee produced such dramatically liberal proposals on abortion is that few TDs and senators wanted the politically dangerous image of either ‘baby killers’ or, alternatively, backwoodsmen, thus alienating one side or another in this fractious divide. Fine Gael in particular found it difficult to source willing personnel and so most committee members were volunteers who either had a strong liberal support base (such as Kate O’Connell) as well as Peter Fitzpatrick, whose Louth support mirrors his own strong opposition to the right to choose.
Senator Jerry Buttimer wanted and expected the job of chairing the committee, but Noone pitched for it and, having openly supported Varadkar in the party leadership contest (unlike Buttimer) and having also done the business in Dublin West, she was duly rewarded. Noone has since been credited with guiding the committee through its interminable debates and some blazing rows through the months of deliberations. The reality is that Noonan did not guide but was, rather, guided through this minefield by a strong secretariat headed by committee secretary Ted McEnery.
Varadkar tic-tacked with Noone throughout, but the committee took on a dynamic of its own and was heavily influenced by the Citizen Assembly’s strong pro-choice conclusions. FG’s Fitzpatrick aligned himself with McGrath and Mullen, with O’Connell – who is very close to health minister Simon Harris – veering towards the opposite extreme, while TD Hildegarde Naughton was utterly paradoxical in debate and voting decisions. Varadkar brought the committee members to an evening session last November where he appealed for moderation in style and debate, if not in political choice, in an attempt to stop the FG group imploding.
In the event, FF’s Billy Kelleher moved the motion that will become the focal point of the Oireachtas debate and any referendum, and which effectively proposes abortion on demand for up to 12 weeks of gestation. Harris, the minister responsible for any referendum, is fully behind this measure but Varadkar, who as a doctor and social liberal probably holds the same view, is torn politically as he is unsure about whether his party and the voters feel the same way.
Regardless, Catherine has consequently become a political media darling like her former colleague Lucinda, albeit without the same political substance. Even her friends privately confide that Noone’s ambition is a million miles away from political reality and, indeed, her unsatisfied demand to become leader of the Senate (instead of Buttimer) in 2016 indicates a very high sense of self worth. Even more ridiculous was her belief that, having taken a Senate seat and done her duty in Dublin West in 2016, she was destined for ministerial office. This from the woman whose most memorable contribution to public debate hitherto had been demands to ban frappucinos as well as a possible Conor McGregor world title fight and to regulate the chimes on ice cream vans.
Noone’s political advancement will require a more modest and sober agenda, with a Dáil seat as a minimum requirement, and perhaps some political tutorials from such as Rock and other colleagues. There is no prospect of a second FG seat in Dublin West and Catherine can hardly hope to replace O’Connell in DBS. Her home base of Mayo might offer an opportunity if Michael Ring and the party decide that FG’s political void in east Mayo would provide her with a strong platform.
But one way or another, Catherine would be well advised not to allow transient media acclaim heighten her already unbalanced sense of herself.