The Dáil session which starts this week will be very different from those of the last year and a half. The government still has the votes to force through anything it wants and no doubt it will keep trying to shout down its opponents, but the public has moved on. People are no longer willing to just listen to reruns of election speeches and empty claims about radical reform. Every day they can see the reality of a government which is becoming less coherent and less effective.
From the first day that this Dáil met we set out our commitment to providing mainstream, constructive opposition. We have left it to others to copy the destructive and exploitative model of opposition followed by Labour and Fine Gael in the last Dáil. We have refused to play short-term politics with the long-term future of this country.
The record shows that we have supported government proposals when we agreed with them and offered alternatives when we haven’t. Our spokespeople have produced 36 pieces of legislation so far, with a major focus being on offering solutions to the biggest problems people face today. In the referendum we took a principled stand for what we believe in.
We are going to continue this policy because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s what the vast majority of the public wants. But this will not take away from the fact that this government must be held to account for its rising tide of broken promises and bad decisions. The evidence of government policies falling apart and causing real damage was exposed by our spokespeople. They have done the work of looking beyond the press releases and examining the hard reality of what’s happening on the ground.
This week’s motion of no confidence in the Minister for Health is the only credible response to the reality of what is happening under James Reilly. Before the election he personally led a deeply cynical campaign on health. He promised that he and Fine Gael would make sure that no one lost any services and a whole new set of free services would be provided. This was bad enough, but what deserves to be condemned is what he and the government have done since the election.
Soon after the government was formed Minister Reilly announced that he was abolishing the current management structures of the health services and taking personal charge. He announced that waiting lists would come down, prescriptions would be cheaper and free-GP care for all was on the way. Eighteen months later waiting lists are up, prescriptions are just as expensive and free-GP care is nowhere to be seen.
Worse than this has been his behaviour in relation to this year’s budget. After running a briefing campaign to protect his budget he announced that he had enough money to fully deliver his service commitments.
We never believed this and have been relentless during this year in questioning him about services and budgets. He repeatedly assured us and the Dáil that everything was fine under his personal management. He repeated like a mantra that frontline services were being protected.
This was untrue and health services are now being subject to a round of mean-spirited emergency cuts which Minister Reilly was denying while already implementing them.
Before the full force of his management has had its impact, waiting lists are rising, services are being closed and there is a deep sense of despair in the sector.
There is no precedent for a situation where the Taoiseach praises a minister for being brave in reversing cuts while the Minister is still claiming that the cuts never existed.
He will no doubt turn up during the debate to announce that his failures are everyone else’s fault. His colleagues will engage in their usual game of attacking the opposition. But they’ll fool no one and the cold, hard facts of their promises set against the reality will be even clearer than before.
No matter what happens on this vote we are going to continue putting pressure on James Reilly and the rest of the government for avoidable decisions which are undermining health services.
We are also going to increase pressure for significant action to help people in deep trouble with mortgage and household debt. The legislation we’ve produced is grounded on actions which can provide immediate relief for those in trouble and a framework in which people can get through the crisis.
While the government keeps issuing statements with words of deep concern it has actually done nothing. A year and a half ago this was an issue of great urgency which was due to be addressed in tandem with the issue of bank recapitalisation. Yet nothing has actually happened.
In most areas the government’s policy has been to do as little as possible and search for things to take credit for. However, in others they began to take decisions which reveal what the rest of their term is likely to look like. Their decisions are almost uniformly regressive and place the greatest burden on those who can least afford it.
In tax, they have abandoned a progressive approach and moved to one which has seen more modest households bear the greatest load.
In education they have designed a set of cuts which place nearly all of the planned reductions on small communities, disadvantaged areas and children with special needs.
In social services they have begun targeting benefits which are vital to helping people to participate in wider society. Their leaked list of cuts to services for the elderly would undo nearly 40 years of progress. It is cruel beyond imagination to say to the elderly that their ability use public transport or watch television is now to be seen as a luxury rather than a basic social support.
This is the term when the mess that is their policy on household tax will come to a head. At every stage they have maximised the unfairness of the system and minimised essential administration. The Household Charge introduced this year is the first example in a decade of a state tax which has been resisted widely. Its introduction was both incompetent and about as anti-social as possible. Its replacement is shaping up to be just as bad.
We are ready for the debate and we will push our demand that there be no new tax unless it is fair.
In relation to the referendum to provide greater recognition of children in the constitution we remain committed to having a cross-party consensus on an issue that should be above politics. Quite frankly, the way the government is operating seems designed to maximise confusion and the chance of a damaging debate.
Eighteen months ago the Taoiseach assured me that the wording for the amendment would be finalised in consultation with the opposition and in time to allow proper preparations for a referendum. He also repeated his pre-election statement that there was no need for delay.
Today it is about eight weeks from the date they apparently intend as polling day but no preparations have begun. If they genuinely want this referendum to pass they have to stop spinning and start engaging and we need to see the wording this week so that we do not see a repeat of the Oireachtas Inquiries debacle and the public can be adequately informed.
But the spinning extends beyond the Children’s Rights Referendum when this Government is talking about constitutional reform. Citizens were promised and believed that Fine Gael and Labour took the need for political reform seriously. They believed that having come through a period of significant political crisis, that a Government with a record majority would take the opportunity to radically reform a political system that had just proved itself unfit for purpose. As the Taoiseach said “the failures of the political system were key contributors to the financial crisis”.
The Coalition started with great fanfare and a self-administered pat on the back as they announced a grand Constitutional Convention. And what were the main political reforms judged necessary to address the crisis we had just come through? Lowering the voting age and reducing the period of the President’s term. At the same time, marriage equality, described by the Tánaiste as the ‘civil rights issue of this generation’, has been kicked to touch to wait for political leadership another day.
Since the election we have been the only party in the Dáil to take the crisis enveloping the Eurozone seriously and to see its importance for Ireland. The Government has been behind events at every turn. Time and again they have refused to do anything more than wait for events to evolve so that they can claim credit for policies negotiated by others. When the Fiscal Treaty was negotiated their only request was for help in trying to avoid a referendum.
In June, they even had the brass neck to claim as a negotiating triumph a deal reached hours after the Tánaiste flew home because we weren’t looking for anything more out of the meeting.
Over the last two months the Taoiseach and Tánaiste’s policy of failing to build alliances and actively lobby has been more obvious than before and is setting back Ireland’s case for debt relief.
In the case of the Taoiseach, since the last summit concluded he has met no leader other than brief encounters at the Olympics. He has held no discussions about our bank debts and sought no allies. He claims that it’s enough to leave things to officials, but in this he appears to be alone amongst his European counterparts. Every other Prime Minister of a state receiving support or who may need support has been undertaking an intense round of face-to-face meetings with colleagues. For example, the Prime Minister of Italy has visited France, Germany and Finland amongst others.
It appears that the main effort is going into briefing Irish newspapers rather than talking directly to the people who can actually take the decision to reduce the burden of bank-related debt.
In a few weeks’ time he’s going to start the traditional tour of capitals before an EU Presidency. These meetings are never allowed to focus on the national agenda of the incoming Presidency so this will not provide the opportunity to push our interests.
In relation to tackling the Euro crisis we’re going to keep up the pressure in the Dáil and keep setting the agenda.
It’s going to be a busy term in the Dáil for us and it’s going to be an even busier few months throughout the country.
This year the Fianna Fáil organisation showed that it still has a lot of energy and determination. We held what was by far the largest, most enthusiastic and most serious Árd Fheis of any party. This is being followed-up.
The new party rules have been sent out to the membership and are gradually taking effect.
Before Christmas we will hold what will become a national policy conference which we will use to begin setting out more long-term policy priorities. This will be followed by a range of regional and local events which will involve extensive public engagement.
Fianna Fáil is not standing still, it is moving forward in the areas which matter most. We are delivering credible opposition in the Dáil, holding the government to account, reenergising our organisation and talking directly to the public.