This meeting is in some ways very different from last year’s. For a start the Parliamentary Party has doubled in size. As anyone who pays attention to the substance of what happens during parliamentary business can see, this is already having a real impact on debates, committee work and legislation.
We all are encouraged by the increased support for Fianna Fáil shown in February’s elections. The many thousands of members and supporters of our party who helped achieve this great result did it in the face of mountains of complacent commentary.
The collective wisdom was wrong about Fianna Fáil because it spent its time focused on political events and flawed polling. It ignored the substance of the views and experiences of the Irish people.
Our success in the 2016 general election did not happen because of election tactics, it happened because of the years we put into working to understand and respond to the needs of people.
With a much smaller parliamentary party in the last Dáil we published more legislation, asked more serious questions and had a bigger impact than any other group or party. Much of this received no coverage, but it did two fundamental things:
First, it enabled us to have an ongoing dialogue with communities and organisations. Second, it ensured that we could offer the people a credible alternative to those whose only policy was to tell people to ‘keep it going’.
We didn’t start talking about fairness in February – we had identified the two-tiered recovery as a fundamental concern early in the last Dáil. While publishing credible and costed budgets every year, we also showed how action was possible on housing, household debt, health, education and many other urgent issues.
The rest of the opposition took the approach of pretending there was money for everything and no hard choices were required. The government offered more of the same including grossly unfair taxes weighted to help the wealthiest most. We took a different approach of offering ambitious yet credible plans focused on urgent issues and tackling growing unfairness.
We did this because it is Fianna Fáil’s fundamental belief that the Irish people understand that the crude ideological positions of others have nothing to offer. To succeed our country must both encourage enterprise and support a decent society. Where tough choices have to be made the priority must be to promote an inclusive society.
That was our position through the last Dáil, in February and it remains so today.
Last week’s Fine Gael and Sinn Fein events showcased two parties focused on themselves. They spent most of their time talking about their leaders and how to avoid another poor election. In contrast we are going to focus on substance – on the major issues which will confront us in the Dáil’s next session.
We’re not going to waste all our time talking about party politics, but there is one point we need to be very clear on. We worked to remove Fine Gael from government. We campaigned in the election to change the government and afterwards we offered the Dáil an alternative government in three votes.
Fianna Fáil TDs are the only members of the Dáil who voted to create a possible alternative government.
And unlike others we believe that every Deputy has a duty to work to the democratic will of the Irish people. Others refused to support or participate in an alternative government so we took our responsibility and acted constructively.
The confidence and supply agreement which allowed the new government to be formed was extremely difficult to negotiate and reinforced the fundamental gaps between our parties.
Fine Gael has taken an increasingly ideological approach and simply doesn’t understand the need to replace complacent and divisive policies with ones which help all parts of our society.
The new government has been out of touch and reactive on a range of essential issues. Fianna Fáil had been pushing for proper Brexit preparations since that referendum was first suggested in 2013 – but nothing serious was done. A rising climate of industrial disputes has been met with near complete indifference from ministers. The lack of preparation for the recent Apple tax judgement involved an issue with profound implications for employment and public revenue.
The confidence and supply agreement gives them the security and space to bring forward policy. It secures a responsible fiscal policy, action on a number of urgent issues and a mitigation of the gross unfairness of Fine Gael’s policies. We will rigorously hold them to this.
Their lack of a majority in the Dáil does not stop them proposing policy. It does not stop their ministers using the enormous resources available to them to set out a strategic direction. So far, they are just carrying on regardless and refusing to offer any new departure.
Last week we did see an ‘Action Plan for Education’ launched. If you take even a few minutes to look through the document you see that it is nothing more than the re-presentation of existing policies. In some cases it even tries to claim credit for policies forced on the government by Fianna Fáil.
What they just don’t understand is that the public want to hear a vision for the future of our country. We’ve had enough of government by spin and short-term manoeuvring.
Education will continue to be a priority for Fianna Fáil. 50 years after Fianna Fáil opened up secondary education – accessible quality education remains a core belief for us.
Before the last government our policies were delivering rising participation and achievement in our schools. Ireland reached its highest ever international position in school completion and educational inclusion. We will be pushing for priority actions to help the students and schools most in need. This must include the early restoration of the guidance and counselling service central to helping those who might leave education too early.
The crisis in our third-level system has now reached breaking point. The policy of neglect and crude cuts has had exactly the impact we predicted it would. Our universities are becoming less inclusive, have fallen in quality and can take no more. Our budget plans will address this.
We are the party which has championed research as central to creating good jobs in all regions – a policy which has been hugely successful. Yet research policy has been downgraded and nothing is being done to stop a haemorrhaging of talent which we need to secure our long-term success.
We have allocated specific responsibility for this area to a spokesperson and our enterprise and education teams are going to be moving forward with a new round of policy work. We will champion education as the essential foundation for economic and social progress and we will show how the government’s neglect and damage can be ended.
In recent months Fine Gael finally conceded what everyone knew already – their compulsory health insurance plan would make matters worse and cost enormous amounts to implement. Having abandoned what was that party’s policy for a decade, it now has no health policy. Yet the damage of the Reilly/Varadkar years goes on.
Where we stand is clear – we believe in developing public health services. In the last Dáil we commissioned independent research on the most efficient, cost effective and equitable way of funding services. This continues to underpin our policy.
No more time can be wasted on speculative funding models and dishonest budgeting. We want a system with honest funding, prioritising urgent areas and giving fair access to all citizens.
While the new Minister for Health is a bit more likely to talk about health than his predecessor, he needs to recognise that the health sector needs more than just PR.
The lack of preparation for the possibility of a vote for Brexit was an immense failure by this government. We all have a role to play in making up for lost time and ensuring that Ireland does not suffer because of it.
The Scottish Parliament has already published an all-party report on Brexit yet no substantive progress has been seen here. We will be pushing for a rapid process of consultation with groups most likely to be impacted by Brexit and the publication by the end of the year of a detailed statement of national objectives in the Brexit negotiations.
The crass dishonesty of the Brexit campaigners was admitted in the last few days by Nigel Farage when he accepted that core claims they made were untrue. The failure of the Tory government to agree even when they want to start the negotiations shows again how they are making it up as they go along – even with three leading Brexit advocates in charge.
However this has no impact on our government deciding exactly what we want out of the negotiations and holding proper consultations with key sectors. We believe that a task force focused on the border region is now required. We have the time to be ready to help businesses and communities cope with whatever arises. We can’t keep playing catch-up.
The first duty of a member of the Oireachtas is to focus on the people’s concerns and that is what we will do in the coming term. We will be constructive. We will keep our promises and we will continue to promote a credible and sustainable fiscal policy. But we will also be assertive in demanding that the government address the area after area where its laid-back, complacent attitude is causing real damage.
This will be an active term. We will continue to develop long-term policies as well as do the work of holding ministers to account for their failures. Our priority will be doing the work which we were elected to undertake and we will not join the other parties in their obsessive concern with party positioning.
In February we promoted a message which resonated with the public. Our guiding principle today remains unchanged. We need an Ireland which serves all of its people.