Cantillon: will split department survive defeat?

Question over whether the next government will seek to reintegrate the public expenditure function back into Department of Finance

Michael Noonan: he and Howlin will no longer be working in concert as Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure respectively

Michael Noonan: he and Howlin will no longer be working in concert as Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure respectively

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The election heralds uncertainty. Michael Noonan survived the storm and so too did did his close colleague Brendan Howlin, but the “Noonan-Howlin axis” did not.

A depleted Fine Gael looks as if it is on its way back to power, be it in minority control of a government or through a tricky new departure with Fianna Fáil. For a decimated Labour, however, a difficult spell in opposition now looms as the party seeks to rebuild from the embers.

All this means Noonan and Howlin will no longer be working in concert as Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure, respectively. This, in turn, raises questions over the sui generis Merrion Street structure put in place when Fine Gael and Labour aligned after their electoral triumph five years ago.

Back then, the dividing in two of the Department of Finance, leading to the creation of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, was a rather convenient way of dividing the spoils of office between the two parties.

Given Labour’s large haul of Dáil seats at the time, the structure gave the junior Coalition partner a place at the centre of fiscal policymaking. This innovation came alongside the creation of the Economic Management Council, the powerful Cabinet subcommittee which took the most sensitive decisions at the height of crisis in 2011 and 2012.

All that is now in the past, raising questions as to whether the next government will seeks to reintegrate the public expenditure function back into the Department of Finance. The Fine Gael/Labour marriage contract has been annulled by the electorate. The two departments remain under the one roof and the possibility of a minority Fine Gael administration means that the party would be running pretty much all branches of government.

What finance minister would be happy about a party Cabinet colleague looking over the shoulder in the same building? There is, of course, the option of a Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil coalition. It goes without saying that no FF figure would take to working alongside a FG finance minister.

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