This is our first session since May’s elections and its right that we start by reminding ourselves of exactly what we achieved.
Three years ago the commentators were writing our obituary. One of our opponents even talked about “feasting on the corpse of Fianna Fáil”. In the run up to May the media was full of stories about how we were supposedly unprepared and polls predicting that we would come third.
In reality there has never been such a disconnect between national commentary and what is actually going on in communities. Our members and representatives worked on the ground – staying in contact with people and offering a credible alternative.
Against all predictions but our own, we not only gained seats in all regions, we won the most votes and the most seats. We defied the polls and the commentaries – something very few have written about, but no one can deny.
I want to acknowledge the role of parliamentary party members in this success, especially Michael Moynihan, as well as our party staff and our members throughout the country. It was a victory for the team and one we have every right to be proud of.
Since May I’ve continued to visit constituencies and meet our members. There is an extra enthusiasm there since May. They know we have taken an important step forward and they are ready to take the next one.
This week we have three significant tasks to prepare for. We have to keep holding the government to account. We have to expand our policy work in offering a fairer way forward for Ireland. And we have to move forward with planning for the general election. I want to address each of these.
The next Dáil session is going to be even more important than the hectic events of the last year. As everyone here knows, the level of public anger at a government of spin and unfair policies is growing all the time.
While Fine Gael and Labour keep telling everyone what a great job they’ve done, people see the reality of a two-tier recovery and a government which is making it worse.
After their huge losses in May and the failure of their year-long campaign to present themselves as our economic saviours, Fine Gael and Labour are scrambling for a new strategy. They are desperately trying to change the discussion away from their own policies – both the ones they implemented which are hurting people and those they announced but have collapsed.
We have to be ready to challenge them on their hype and broken promises – but this isn’t our only work. People have been badly burned by trusting a Fine Gael/Labour opposition which opposed everything and claimed they had all the answers. The level of scrutiny by the public at the next election is going to be much higher than in 2011 – and we will be ready for this by setting out a comprehensive platform for a government which will deliver a fairer recovery.
Our focus is on the future, but let’s not forgets about some of the real impact we’ve been having.
Our parliamentary party operates under constraints not experienced before, yet there is a growing list of areas where we have succeeded in having a real political impact. Other groups and individuals shout louder and often get more coverage, but the facts show it is our TDs and Senators who have been challenging the government effectively.
Our spokespeople have published 29 policy documents and 77 pieces of legislation addressing a full range of issues and providing not just opposition to the government – but an alternative.
In relation to health, justice, education, water charges, property tax, the beef crisis, rural cutbacks, the peace process and many other areas we have had an impact far beyond our size – showing a commitment even when attention has been on other issues.
If it wasn’t for our spokespeople and the work of our team James Reilly would still be happily taking an axe to the health service, Alan Shatter would still be undermining our justice system and the government would be still claiming to have protected families from unfair taxes and charges.
Holding the government to account takes a lot more work than just giving angry speeches, but it’s been the only reason that the gulf between the government’s rhetoric and the reality of people’s lives has been exposed.
There is mounting evidence of government deliberately misleading the public on issue after issue. When core policy proposals are published, this government has been following the practice of hiding all inconvenient information and deliberately misleading people.
Water charges are going to continue to be a major issue in the months ahead. As we predicted, the government hid information about the impact of the charges until after the election. On every substantive issue about the bloated bureaucracy of Irish Water and the inequity of these charges we have been proven right.
Barry Cowen has exposed the mounting waste, the impact of the charges on families and the false claims of ministers about their involvement.
The bottom line is that these charges are higher than promised and more regressive than promised.
They said that families would not have to pay for water used by children – but it has turned out that this assumes that no child goes to the toilet more than once a day or washes more than once a week.
During the summer one minister made the incredible claim “we produce water to a Ballygowan standard and up to now haven’t been charging for it”. Try telling that to the thousands of families in Roscommon and elsewhere who have been warned by Irish Water not to drink water from their tap.
This week in Private Members time we are going to bring to a vote a proposal, on a simple proposal – if you can’t drink the water you’re supplied with you don’t have to pay for it.
In the last few weeks it has been revealed that the government knew its health plans were unworkable when they were published. They published a full white paper, set a timescale and held numerous press briefings but were aware that their claims were false. This is exactly as they did when claiming that there were no medical card cuts and when they censored the HSE’s service plan.
The Taoiseach’s only answer to these revelations has been to publicly discipline his Minister for Health for being too honest. This only serves to confirm the fact that James Reilly wasn’t acting alone in his campaign of bringing chaos to the health system; he had the full support of the Taoiseach and government.
And while he is today doing all he can to distance himself from James Reilly, Leo Varadkar was one of his big cheerleaders. When attacking our motion of no confidence in James Reilly his colleague told the Dáil “the Minister, Deputy Reilly, is making real progress and is making real change happen. He deserves our confidence and our support.”
Now that false claims on reforms and budgeting have been admitted, there are still many health areas where we urgently need a reversal of their damaging policies.
Our position is quite clear. As the policy document which Billy Kelleher launched this year states out, we believe in a public health system which is routed in the community and is funded through transparent and fair taxation.
If the Taoiseach follows up on his statement that Compulsory Health Insurance is still their policy then we will redouble our campaign against it and we will highlight the impact on people of the services which are being cut to fund ill-thought out and damaging policies.
During his time in office Alan Shatter did immense damage to public faith in the administration of justice. He withdrew Gardaí from communities throughout the country, ignored basic accountability and did nothing in the face of rising problems. We challenged him and we repeatedly pushed for his removal. He survived because his colleagues supported him. They jeered as Niall Collins claimed he would bring an unprecedented crisis to the Garda Siochana.
Now that he’s gone they think it’s all over, but it’s not – because the problem was never one out of control minister, it was his policies and government’s support for them.
That’s why Justice will continue to be a major topic in the coming months. We’re going to keep pressure on the Taoiseach to tell the people about his role in effectively sacking a Garda Commissioner.
We will oppose moves to undermine equal access to the law. We will campaign against a policing strategy which is causing huge damage. In particular we will stand with communities facing the scourge of drugs who are being abandoned by a government which, for the first time in two decades, doesn’t even have a minister with responsibility for fighting drugs.
Spend five minutes talking to people in Roscommon and all of the government’s spin about helping rural communities disappears. Health, schools, Gardaí and transport have seen as sustained and targeted cut in support over the last three years.
This is a government which has been engaged in an ongoing recentralisation of government and public policy. As long as a few at the centre are doing well they believe that’s enough. It has caused real economic and social damage as well as rising anger.
We’ll be using every available opportunity in the coming term to challenge them and to speak up for rural services.
Next month’s Budget is already one of the most hyped in our history. We’ve just past the anniversary of the first newspaper headline that relief was on the way for hard-pressed families and we can expect to see more of the same.
The reality is that families see their disposable income under constant pressure from taxes and charges which are imposed with no concern for the ability to pay. Progressive policies which we followed have been replaced by deeply regressive ones – a fact confirmed by every independent analysis.
The fact is that our country still has a tight budgetary situation. The claim by Sinn Fein and others that there is an opportunity to give everyone whatever they want is cynical nonsense. There are still choices to be made – and what we are saying is that they should be fairer and cause less damage to our communities.
As our spokespeople have shown, government decisions taken in the name of fiscal responsibility have often damaged government revenue – and they have undermined public faith in the fairness of policy.
The early indications are that Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin will continue the policy of claiming one thing but doing the opposite in practice. Just like last year when they said they were protecting the weakest when they were actually targeting them on vital supports like medical cards.
The pickup in the U.S. economy and falling Eurozone interest rates have given the government a lot more flexibility. This should be used to undo some of the worst damage of their decisions and it should be used to make the recovery stronger, broader and more sustainable.
Michael McGrath and Seán Fleming will be publishing our budget proposals. They will be firmly grounded in economic reality, but they will also show how much more can be done for hard-pressed working families.
Last month we said a final farewell to our former leader Albert Reynolds. The public outpouring of goodwill and reflection towards Albert was a powerful reminder of just how central our party was towards pulling illegitimate on both sides away from violence and towards democracy. The strength of the reaction to Albert’s passing showed how deeply the Irish people appreciate the peace process.
Unfortunately the evidence is that it has been taken for granted for too long by the governments in Dublin and London. For three years they have followed a ‘hand off’ policy of leaving everything to Sinn Fein and the DUP. For over two years we have been pointing out that a crisis was building because of this disengagement and it appears that it is now coming to a head.
The peace process was built because of political leaders in government understanding that they had to be directly and permanently involved. It’s long past time for our government to face up to its responsibilities and to begin re-establishing and urgent and close engagement with Northern issues.
Whatever happens in the Scottish referendum on Thursday there will be considerable implications for Ireland. At a very minimum, if the referendum is defeated Westminster will significantly increase devolved powers to Scotland. The issue of constitutional arrangements within the United Kingdom is alive and urgent. While it is absolutely right that we stay out of Scotland’s decision what is absolutely wrong has been the fact that our government has no serious dialogue ongoing with either London or the parties in the North about the future for Northern Ireland.
Fianna Fáil is immensely proud of its role in promoting democratic republicanism and representing the fixed will of the Irish people for a peaceful and close link between all who share this island. We’ve kept talking about the North even when others have shown no interest.
Representatives like Brendan Smith have been tireless in working to build and maintain links across historic divisions. We’re now going to redouble our work by proposing a new level of North-South engagement and pushing for the governments to face up to their responsibility to safeguard the process from the party interests which are dominant.
As I said, you the members of our parliamentary party, have not only held the government to account, you’ve made sure that we are setting out our proposals. Irrespective of whether it has an impact in the media it is having an impact with the groups and communities looking to see a positive alternative to the government.
The government has been on a permanent electoral campaign since 2011 and this will only get worse. We’ve stepped out of this because we see that the public is tired of the endless round of talk about what happens in elections and wants to hear more about what the people they elect actually do in office.
Sometime in the next 12 to 16 months the general election will be held and we will be ready with a solid policy alternative to an already tired government.
There is no issue as to where Fianna Fáil will stand – we are a progressive republican party. We believe the state can and should help the people but we also recognise that it can’t do everything.
Fine Gael and Labour will say we need more of the same, and that they should just be left to get on with things. Sinn Fein and others will offer a blend of cynical politics and hard-left policies which will promise everything but deliver nothing.
Fianna Fáil will accept the need for fiscal restraint, but propose a fairer way for lasting recovery. We will not compete with others on promises but we will beat them on setting out a credible vision for an Ireland which does not leave communities behind and provides opportunity for all.
This will not be an election dominated by marketing ideas or media campaigns – it will be fought and won by the harder work of offering credible solutions. That’s exactly what we did in May and why we surprised so many commentators.
We are well advanced already in the work of setting out an alternative agenda. The 77 bills and policy documents we have published are the start of the process and we will now build on it.
Our core principles are clear. The alternative for Ireland we will promote will be based on a progressive and republican approach to social, economic and national issues.
At our next Ard Fheis, we will have a vote on the key policy elements of our platform. Between now and then we will run a comprehensive and inclusive policy consultation by actively involving our 20,000 members and the general public.
This week I am writing to every constituency asking them to organise at least one public policy conference in the next six months. They will be asked to address a policy priority of their area and party spokespeople will attend. We will have at least one policy discussion document in every policy area published before next Easter and actively seek feedback.
We will also hold four national conferences, one each on an overall priority. These will be held in different parts of the country and they will address the major challenges of:
- A strong economy for all
- Quality public services available to all
- A real reform of politics and government
- All-Ireland reconciliation and prosperity
As a party founded by leaders of 1916 and which gave this country a republican constitution, we will also play an active part in debate and commemoration of the centenary of the Rising. We will fight against the efforts of others on both extremes to falsify history and turn 1916 to their narrow interests. It should be recognised as a historic milestone which should be marked with respect and open to all sections of our community.
In May we showed in the local elections that we have strong organisation and many great candidates. A lot of constituencies are raring to go as soon as possible. It’s better to get things right than to rush them, but we are going to start immediately.
We will be setting up a General Election constituencies committee under Michael Moynihan TD. The selection conventions will begin next month and will be completed by May next year .This will be the earliest we have ever had our general election conventions. Headquarters will also agree with each constituency a plan of activities to take us up to next October.
Tomorrow morning we will have a discussion about gender quotas with Professor Yvonne Galligan of Queens University who is chairperson of the Markiewicz Commission. We will be discussing how we are going to increase the number of female candidates we run in the next general election.
This year we have had both political and electoral impact. We’ve shaken the government and we’ve received the most votes in two national electoral contests. A party that was written off three years ago is reconnecting with the people. We’ve shown that there is a big difference between what happens in the Leinster House bubble and on the doorsteps.
In the period ahead of us we’re going to continue to offer robust and effective opposition. But we’re going to step-up our work on offering real solutions to the problems that face people every day. We’re going to run the widest ever policy consultation and put in place our team for the general election.
It will be a tough and active year, but I have no doubt we can again prove that Fianna Fáil is winning the trust of people and showing that there is a fairer alternative to this government.