Last week I visited four more constituencies in my tour of the organisation to talk – but more importantly to listen – to our members about their concerns and about the future of Fianna Fáil. Last week alone, I met with over 1,100 loyal members, committed to, and passionate about the future of their country and party. Their concerns were similar to those of the many thousands of members I’ve met at other meetings throughout the country. I never cease to be humbled and energised by their passion, honesty and commitment to the renewal of Fianna Fáil.
Proposals to radically change the way that Fianna Fáil works are being distributed to members for their input. The basic principal is that we must empower our members. Every unit of the organisation and every member has been asked to submit their views. They will then be reflected in a series of rule changes to be voted on at next year’s Árd Fheis. We’ll have a number of opportunities to discuss this before then.
Our priority at this meeting has to be to get ready for what is going to be a very significant parliamentary session. Not only is there a series of fundamental issues to be addressed, there is an absolute need for what only an active and effective Fianna Fáil can provide – a strong opposition based on realistic policies. This government can only be held to account by those who challenge them with credible alternatives.
Six Months of the Fine Gael/Labour Government
This government is still in its very early days. It has launched almost no major new policies. The budgetary, banking and public service policies it has been implementing are overwhelmingly those which its members condemned and voted against as recently as January.
- A Budget they called ‘savage’ they now say is restoring confidence in the economy.
- A bank recapitalisation plan which they called ‘Frankfurt’s Way’ and promised not to give another red cent to they now call radical.
- A civil service reform agreement they said had failed they have just started claiming is a major success.
What this reflects is the cynicism of their election platforms.
This isn’t reflected in party support because they are benefitting from the goodwill which attaches to any new government. People want their country to be successful and they want their government to be successful. They are being given a lot of space. This is natural but it will only last for so long.
What they originally called their “Jobs Budget” is a good example of the type of political manoeuvring which will wear out the public’s patience. Downgraded to the status of an ‘Initiative’, the measures announced in May were promoted as hugely important, yet they have quickly unravelled. No new airline routes have opened, VAT reductions have not been passed on to consumers and the other measures have had no significant impact on jobs. All that is left is a €1/2 billion pension levy which was implemented in spite of major warnings about its negative effects on pensioners and the wider economy. These warnings were hidden until after the levy became law. When a final analysis is done it is likely that the ‘Jobs Initiative’ will have actually cost jobs by further deflating the economy.
There’s only so much of this over-hyping and under-delivering that Fine Gael and Labour will be able to get away with. So far they are acting as if all they need to do is to recycle their election speeches and everything will be OK. It’s wearing thin and will soon start to cause them a lot of trouble.
This is also a government with a thin skin. Their answer to even the most basic questions is to go on the attack, which is already leading to them taking shortcuts in policy-making and being dismissive of the legitimate role of the Oireachtas in overseeing their work. This is why they have removed all opposition members from senior roles in committees which handle estimates and legislation; it is why they have significantly increased the use of guillotine motions and it is why they have cut the time available to question the Taoiseach.
In the next few months we are going to enter a new phase in the Dáil. The issues to be addressed couldn’t be more important and ministers will have to start actually delivering new proposals and being accountable for their own records.
Fianna Fáil’s Approach
Fianna Fáil has a clear and distinct role to play in facing this government. Sinn Fein and most elements of the Technical Group have signalled repeatedly that they are going to take the route of total opposition. They will oppose every measure which might be unpopular, pretending that we live in a world where there is an easy answer to every problem. This approach lets the government off the hook because it ignores reality and lets policies through without proper scrutiny. They may very well get short-term hits in, but in the long-term it will lead them nowhere, because they will have offered only opposition not an alternative.
If a party wants to actually have an impact it has to understand that there are limits to what can be proposed. The broad framework of what is required to turn our economy around is as clear today as it was before the election. Only by accepting this can the alternatives to government plans be pointed out and the flaws challenged.
In the months since the election we have been true to our promise to be constructive and to support government proposals when they are in line with our policies. In both the Dáil and the Seanad we have voted for various government proposals. All of our Private Members Motions have been constructive, with the majority actually winning all-party support.
This constructive approach has meant that our spokespeople have had more impact than others when they have challenged the government. Michael McGrath’s work exposed the truth behind the pensions levy – something which will become even clearer as the levy’s damage grows. Willie O’Dea’s work on Joint Labour Committees caused the government so many problems that they had to let our bill to restore worker protections pass its early stages. Dara Calleary and Thomas Byrne kept up the pressure about the disgraceful handling of the Smithwick Tribunal, and it is becoming obvious that the Government will have to introduce a resolution to restore the Tribunal’s ability to finish its work properly. There are many other issues such as Roscommon Hospital and corporation tax where our spokespeople have had a substantial impact.
In the next few months the government will have to stop talking about what it’s going to do and start actually producing the policies. We will be ready to fully engage.
The fiscal plan we published last year is still in place, with Michael Noonan saying that it is “better than on target”. Its projections protected key areas like education but showed exactly how the deficit would be cut below 3% of national income. Following the Greek interest rate deal in July there is actually now €1 billion per annum less required for interest payments than had been provided for, and less funding is also required for the banks.
What this means is that ministers have more room to protect services than was originally planned. They have choices which weren’t there before and they will be responsible for their choices.
Different aspects of the Budget will dominate much of the next three months. Unless they try some cynical move to push them out to November, next month Brendan Howlin and Michael Noonan should separately be publishing four-year plans covering spending and overall fiscal parameters. Both Fine Gael and Labour made very specific promises concerning taxes and welfare. They made them before, during and after the election but last week they started laying the groundwork to abandon them. The final detail on this will be clear in the Budget.
Given their approach to the ‘Jobs Initiative’, we will have to be ready to respond quickly and in detail.
No issue was more cynically exploited during the election than mortgage debt. In the first days of the campaign Fine Gael announced that it would cut hundreds off the monthly payments of mortgage holders who bought their property before 2008. The proposal to force state funded banks to absorb interest rate increases was particularly cynical.
Mortgage debt has continued to grow as an issue and it must be addressed. Its impact is much more than purely economic. It is having a profound social effect in communities throughout the country. Last year we implemented a range of proposals which are today helping tens of thousands of families. This is positive but it’s not enough.
First of all we need measures which give greater security to people concerning their family homes. This is why we published proposals in July, including legislation, which will be a priority for us in both the Dáil and the Seanad in the coming months.
More than this there must be some more formal and widespread debt restructuring procedure. Protections for the state in terms of future values and means testing will obviously be required, but this is an issue which is now too urgent to be delayed.
I intend that our finance team will work on this issue as a priority and prepare appropriate proposals.
The crisis in the European Union and the Eurozone continues to grow. The next few months may see even more dramatic problems emerge. What is already without doubt is that the crisis extends to the leadership of the Union and many parts of its construction.
The emerging agenda is highly restricted and represents little more than countries pushing their pre-crisis agenda.
The enormous failings of the ECB have again been exposed, with borrowers enduring wholly unnecessary interest rate rises and countries being faced with unreasonable obligations to bondholders. In spite of this a new ECB President was appointed without any discussion of the Bank’s work.
Quite the opposite to the claim of a ‘diplomatic initiative’, the Taoiseach’s approach to Europe has been to step back and in the Dáil he has refused to engage on points of substance. He has gone an unprecedented six months without having any significant bilateral discussion with a Eurozone colleague. In the coming months we will continue to push for a more open and honest debate about the future development of the Union, and especially its economic management.
As the party which brought Ireland into Europe and which has the most pro-Europe voters we have a sustained commitment to the European project. We also have a sustained commitment to reforming it when necessary. Therefore I intend that we will prepare and publish a substantial series of proposals for the future of the Union during the next six months. Our MEPs will be central to this and the party’s members will be given an opportunity to contribute.
Referendums and Reform
In the next two weeks the government will push through two referendum proposals. We agree with the core idea of being able to reduce judicial pay and increasing the investigative powers of the Oireachtas, but this doesn’t means that we will just quietly agree to whatever is proposed.
In relation to judicial pay, we want the procedure for determining the exact reductions to be independent of political control. Anyone looking at the behaviour of the Minister for Justice can see that this is essential in order to protect the separation of powers.
The Oireachtas does require extra powers to investigate matters of public concern, but equally the Oireachtas has to respect individual rights. We want clarity on this before it is put to the people.
Over recent years a tradition has developed of governments trying to build a consensus about constitutional amendments. We will be pushing for this to be respected and, if it is not, pointing out the risks which the government will be running.
Charlie MacConalogue has raised the matter of a referendum on Children’s rights on a number of occasions. Given that there is now an entire Department working on it, the postponing of the referendum until next year is surprising. We will be pushing for the proposed wording to be published quickly and a referendum held early next year.
In relation to the wider reform agenda, the government is already behind its timetable and rowing back on any proposals which would provide the substance of real reform. The Constitutional Convention has been delayed and the promised consultations have not taken place. They also appear eager to limit its work to a handful of areas. I intend that we will publish a detailed reform proposal before the Convention begins its work and to seek to widen the Convention’s terms of reference.
Health will continue to grow as an issue in the next few months. More and more commitments made to local hospitals will be broken. Both Fine Gael and Labour toured the country promising every community whatever they wanted for their hospitals. Roscommon was not a once-off and they will have to answer for their cynical electioneering.
The government is also due to publish the details of the first stage of compulsory health insurance. This will involve removing the majority of secure funding from hospitals and forcing them to compete for resources. They sold this policy during the election as the cure to all our ills – but this was nonsense then and it’s nonsense now. If they go ahead with it, and the Minister has said he will, we have to be ready to fight what would be a deeply damaging policy. Our Spokesperson on Health Billy Kelleher will play a key role in the party’s policy in this area in the years ahead.
Supporting and developing education is a core value of Fianna Fáil’s. Every significant expansion in educational participation and attainment was implemented by us – and our budget plans gave education a clear priority. We showed how we would restore public finances while protecting education.
Ruairi Quinn has made a lot of announcements about what he intends to do to reform the system, but has published almost no actual proposals. One disturbing development was his recent leaking of plans to raise class sizes, stop children going to school until they are six and end the Transition Year. This is not reform – it is a plan to slash teacher numbers and reduce education provision. There is no justification for this and we will fight it.
Every time the Minister comes up with another cut or u-turn he says it’s because “we’ve lost our credit card”. The fact is there is more money available for services today than there was when he made his election promises.
I am determined that we will offer a positive agenda on education while also strongly defending its funding. At the conference organised by Brendan Smith and Averil Power in June a lot of areas were discussed and this work will move forward.
At some point soon it is likely that the Mahon Tribunal will issue its report. It is the final major report on a series of scandals which helped to undermine public faith in politics. The events it will cover happened two decades ago but they are still important.
In March the Moriarty Report made very serious findings about the most valuable commercial licence ever awarded by the Irish state. The government’s handling of it was a textbook case of people who preach about ethics failing the challenge when it concerns them. Six members of the current cabinet were part of the government which awarded the licence yet they could not admit to a single failing when face with this report. Government contributions to the Dáil debate involved ridiculous attacks on Fianna Fáil. At the same time, this most media-accessible Government refused to allow its TDs go on any programmes to discuss the Report.
When Mahon is published it will address the behaviour of members of a number of parties. It will have wide implications. As far as Fianna Fáil is concerned, we will respond quickly and comprehensively to all matters no matter how difficult they are. We will not follow the Fine Gael and Labour precedent on trying to run away from a tribunal report.
Over the next few months the government will continue to try to use its majority to marginalise the Oireachtas. It’s up to us to make sure that they don’t succeed. We will be the only opposition party which is willing to challenge them on the basis of credible and constructive policies. We will offer significant initiatives on the most important issues facing our country. We will keep challenging the government no matter how often they try to use their numbers in the Dáil to shout down opponents.
Nearly 400,000 people gave us a mandate in February to work for them in the Oireachtas. We have a responsibility to them to use our mandates to provide a robust and credible opposition – and we are determined to meet this responsibility.