It has been a whirlwind half a year for Malcolm Noonan and his family, with the Kilkenny man’s election to the Dáil for the first time in February, followed by his appointment last week as Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform in the Department of Housing.
While there are many considerations factored in to such appointments, you could not deny that Malcolm Noonan is a good fit for the brief. Both heritage and electoral reform are topics on which he has expounded at length in the council chamber during his time as a councillor, as well as in his personal life. He chaired the Kilkenny Heritage Forum for many years and was a member of it before ever he was an elected representative.
“I had a huge interest in it not just from a policy side, but practical hands-on work around building conservation, managing invasive species, bat surveys. I really had a huge interest both in built, cultural and the natural side of it. So I was just thrilled when Eamon offered it to me, absolutely delighted,” he says.
Last weekend was spent getting up to speed with the new brief, reading through documents, with a huge amount to get through.
“I have had a really good meeting with Darragh O'Brien who is the senior minister in the Department of Housing,” says the Green Party TD. “We had a really constructive meeting and there is very much a partnership approach to all the work we are going to do. There are two junior ministers in there.”
The other facet, electoral reform, will likely see a reasonable amount of crossover there with the Local Government portfolio, in directly-elected mayors (the vote is coming up for Limerick in 2022), and other larger cities. Reducing the voting age for local elections and looking at some electoral boundaries may also arise.
“There is a certain amount of crossover there from John Paul [Phelan]’s work that he had been doing,” he says.
“By all accounts, he had done some really good work in that regard.”
I ask him if there is any particular goal to realise within his ministerial office.
“I suppose from the natural heritage side of it, we have a commitment in the programme for government around a review of the National Parks and Wildlife Service,” he says.
“That’s going to be a big piece of work. There is a big, serious resourcing issue there. Certainly not enough park rangers, there is a lot of cases against Ireland over the Special Areas of Conservation. We really need to significantly improve the support for the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
“All of that will be connected in with the other work that, through other portfolios under the Green Party remit, in both Pippa Hackett in biodiversity and Eamon Ryan’s portfolio with Environment. We are conscious that there is a biodiversity crisis and that can only be addressed by rigorous policy and ensuring that we have better supports for the services.
“In the built heritage, I’ve included a very big piece of work around town centres, around urban regeneration. A lot of that was informed by Scottish policy.”
There is a commitment in the programme for government on this issue.
“I really want to advance a very big piece of work to support smaller town centres to try and regenerate after what was already a crisis pre-Covid, but now is a deep, deep challenge for our town centres,” he says.
The Heritage Council has publicly welcomed the appointment of the new minister of state with a responsibility for heritage. Of course, the Green Party TD is very familiar with the Heritage Council, based here in the former bishop’s palace. He met its CEO Virginia Teehan on Monday.
Political pundits and politicians made much of the geographical spread of ministers. While there is no senior minister located in the South-east, Minister of State Noonan is joined by Waterford’s Mary Butler of Fianna Fail as junior ministers in the region.
After his meeting with Ms Teehan on Monday, he met with Chief Executive of Kilkenny County Council Colette Byrne to get an update on local issues.
“There are projects, heritage-related projects that are on hold or could be jeopardised because of funding,” he said.
“I think we are looking particularly at shovel-ready projects that could be moved forward under the July stimulus package.
Added to that, I think it’s important that the Technological University for the South-east is advanced. All of the Oireachtas members in the South-east region have met on a number of occasions now, and met with both the presidents of Carlow IT and WIT to try and move that along. It has been on a backburner for too long.”
Deputy Noonan also has a longstanding ambition around incentivising the development of traditional building skills. His goal is for it to be a national initiative but he spots potential to advance it in Kilkenny.
“All of that is around job activation as well,” he says.
“There is high youth unemployment in particular. Again, looking back to the programme for government, there is a strong commitment around apprenticeships, and not just for traditional building skills, but also deep retrofit as well .”
Finally, have the Green Party’s internal disputes been somewhat put to bed for the moment, with the resounding endorsement of going into government? A leadership contest will take place in the coming months.
“I certainly think Eamon and Catherine’s working relationship has been extremely good,” says Minister of State Noonan.
“Regardless of the outcome, I will work with whoever party leader is after that election. I committed my support to Eamon because of the track record he has and what he has done in bringing the party back — I know it wasn’t just him, it was collective, including Catherine, but I just think he has done a huge job in taking the party back, literally off the floor to where it is now. So I would like to see that consistency continue.
“In terms of the party itself, I would say we’ve never been stronger. I would no longer consider us to be a small political party. I don’t know if there’s a ‘medium size’ political party category, but we’ve four senators, three mayors in Dublin including the Lord Mayor of Dublin City, 49 councillors, 12 TDs, two MEPs.
“I think because of that — that success — there are always going to be challenges and perhaps conflict, different opinions. It’s around trying to manage that and make sure everybody’s voice is heard in a much bigger structure.”