Is noimead cinniunach tabhachtach i saol an daonlathais ceannaireacht rialtais a athru. Go hairithe nuair a tharlaionn an tathru seo I lar thearma na Parlaiminte, tugann se dushlain duinn uilig mar Theachtai Dala ata tofa ag an bpobal seasamh siar o dhiospoireacht laethuil polaitiuil agus bheith ag smaoineanh go gear ar na dushlain roimh an tir anois agus sa todhchai.
Debates on the nomination of a Taoiseach have far too often been defined by loud partisan speeches and attacks on the legitimacy of the mandates held by others. In fact, in some cases the smaller the mandate of your party the more likely you are to claim to speak on behalf of the Irish people.
Yesterday we saw this again when Deputy John Brady of Sinn Fein went as far as to tweet from the chamber an attack on the fact that I described Deputy Kenny as an Irish patriot.
In addressing the nomination of Deputy Varadkar I start from the basic belief that everybody in this House has a mandate and has a sincere concern for the interests of our country. There are deeply important policy differences between us which demand robust debate, and different levels of commitment to the democratic republicanism which defines our state. But the people who sent us here have a right to demand that we be constructive.
A change of Taoiseach in circumstances such as this is a standard democratic procedure. No dramatic change in the basic policy of government has been proposed which would require a general election in order to obtain public legitimacy.
In addressing this nomination I would like to deal with the role of the Taoiseach, the priorities of his government and the work of this Dáil. Within this I will of course deal with the basis upon which my party is honouring its existing commitments as part of the Confidence and Supply Agreement.
First of all let me make a personal point.
This is a very special day for Deputy Leo Varadkar. In becoming Taoiseach he has both fulfilled his clearest ambition and secured the most important role in our parliamentary democracy. His family and loved ones have every right to be immensely proud of him and his achievement. This also applies to the many people who make up his local organisation and who have worked with him since he first stood for election 18 years ago.
I think even Deputy Varadkar was somewhat embarrassed by the euphoria with which his election as Fine Gael leader was embraced by some commentators. However there is no doubt that his unique personal story and success is important for many and this should acknowledged and valued.
As we showed repeatedly last year, our preference in this Dáil was for Fine Gael to be removed from government. In fact, Fianna Fáil’s TDs are the only deputies who voted for a realistic means of ending Fine Gael’s leadership of government. Others delivered long-winded harangues where their bottom line was a demand that others be in government.
We continue to oppose core Fine Gael policies as outlined in its manifestos and its approach to government. We do not share the enthusiasm of Deputy O’Connell’s ‘choirboys’ for a new dawn being ushered in by their leader.
However because we wish our country well we also wish Deputy Varadkar well and we hope that he is successful in significantly changing the performance of the government he is a member of and which he will now lead.
He has today started well in his decision to get someone other than Deputy Noel Rock to nominate him. As we all know that didn’t end up too well the last time. I hope he will answer the rumour that he sent Deputy Rock out of the country for the duration the leadership election and only allowed him back in for the vote.
Deputy Varadkar’s decade as a party spokesman and minister has shown us a lot about how he approaches politics – but he will reach the office of Taoiseach with almost nothing known about his views on many major policy areas.
Even his most ardent supporters have had to strain themselves to claim that he has more than a modest policy record as a minister. They ultimately had to resort to claiming for him policies which had clearly been initiated by others. In fact there was something almost indecent about the attempt to snatch credit from James Reilly for the few bright spots in his time as Minister for Health.
Deputy Varadkar’s views on the challenge of building a lasting peace, prosperity and unity on this island are largely unknown beyond a few general statements about being in favour of all three things. The same is true about the development and reform of the European Union, industrial policy, education policy and even the future of health services.
It is certainly true that Deputy Varadkar’s views would be significantly more right wing on most economic topics than the centre-ground consensus. In last year’s negotiations his approach was very distinct from that of his colleagues. During his leadership contest he again gave an emphasis which showed him to be by instinct more inclined to prioritising deregulation and tax cuts ahead of a more social emphasis. This morning’s headlines suggest he is going to temper his ideology. Let us hope that this is has some substance to it.
The core reason why he secured such a crushing victory in his parliamentary party is because his colleagues hope that he will restore their political fortunes not because he was offering the type of genuinely transformative and modernising leadership offered by a Taoiseach such as Seán Lemass.
He won their hearts conclusively by using his opportunities as a stand-in at Leader’s Questions to be more aggressively partisan in attacking opponents. This followed on from a series of electoral campaigns where his preferred role was as designated attacker of the opposition.
His colleagues were also impressed by his open approach to the media. For many years he has been renowned as the most accessible source in government. His skill at avoiding hard news and distancing himself from the controversies of a government he sat in was remarkable. Added to this has been his ability to spin every minor development in one of his departments as a step-change.
It is striking that the strong support which this record won him in his parliamentary party was not reflected in the much broader membership of Fine Gael.
The role of Taoiseach is profoundly different from that of being a departmental minister and party spokesman. It is only by him holding the office that we will see if Deputy Varadkar is willing to make the changes necessary to be successful.
There will come a point when the soft coverage ends and the accountability begins. The tactical obsession with managing headlines can only work for a while.
It has already been indicated that a raft of initiatives such as the new infrastructure plan have been held up so that they can be branded as showing new energy in the government.
This is the same approach which for six years has seen every passing policy put in new covers and stamped with the words “Action Plan”. In taking over a government defined by its ability to over-spin and under-deliver on nearly all major issues, success will not be achieved by the implementation of a new media-management grid for sharing out policy morsels.
The true mark of success for you Deputy Varadkar will be if you understand just how wrong you are when you say “if you try to represent everyone you will represent no one.”
The very definition of the job of Taoiseach and the government is to represent all of the people.
It is not about picking winners and losers, or finding new labels to divide people – it is about representing every citizens. It is about fighting against the growing polarisation we have seen in recent years – where a deep sense of unfairness has developed especially amongst those who feel that their struggles are ignored.
Our country faces many deep challenges. Some of these are the result of a refusal to acknowledge problems until they became crises – others are the result of external threats.
The confidence and supply agreement which we agreed last year is unusual in international terms in only one respect – it is solely focused on policy. We have sought and received none of the access to patronage or resources found in nearly all such agreements.
We did this because we wanted to ensure an absolute focus on the substance of new and targeted policies.
The most important thing which has been achieved is that Fine Gael’s divisive approach to budgets has been curtailed. The regressive tax cuts and assault on key services have been halted. Deputy Varadkar himself said last year that the latest budget is the first fair one of his party’s time in office.
However the broader implementation of the policy agreement has been unacceptable. In housing, commitments for delivery on social housing have been missed while misleading figures have been used to cover this up.
In mental health, the government has simply refused to allocate or spend the agreed and desperately needed extra funding.
In relation to hospital services, the manipulation of rising waiting lists continues, but the full funding of an agreed and proven way of tackling the lists has been delayed.
In relation to the Budget, the lack of transparency and bad faith in outlining available resources was an unequivocal breach of the agreement – as was the use of financial powers to block a non-financial Bill introduced by Fianna Fáil.
Even in relation to a small but deeply important commitment such as a restoration of dedicated career and guidance counselling in schools there have been unjustified delays and splitting of hairs.
In broader terms the last year has been one of ongoing drift and excuses from the government. The two principal excuses have been that Deputy Kenny was on his way out and had left a leadership vacuum and that ministers are scared to propose anything because they don’t know how the Dáil will vote.
With the change of Fine Gael’s leader the first excuse is gone. The second was always nonsense.
The bulk of legislation which has not been published is uncontroversial. For other initiatives there is no credibility whatsoever because ministers have failed to even set out what they would like to do let alone produce proposals which we could vote on.
Today the time for excuses ends. You have the dominant control of government. You have major staffing and financial resources at your disposal to develop and more importantly implement badly needed improvements for our people.
The full, complete and fast implementation of the agreement which allows you to be in government is not open for debate. If you operate in good faith and with transparency, the agreement will run its full course – but if you see every issue as a partisan opportunity, and seek to manipulate the Budget process to suit immediate electoral strategies then you know the consequences.
I have been assured by Deputy Varadkar that he will fully implement the agreement and that he will instruct ministers to end delays on agreed funding. In addition he has accepted the need to immediately move on other agreed proposals such as a new initiative on mental health.
I have also raised our concerns about Northern Ireland and Brexit. We need a much more active and ambitious engagement if we are to overcome threats of historic significance. This is not about having more photocalls, but a return to the days of Dublin seeking to take an active leadership and ending the stranglehold of narrow party interests.
I say to Deputy Varadkar, if you wish to do more than talk about changing politics you have an opportunity to do this today before the vote on the new government.
Yesterday’s appointment to the Court of Appeal represents the first time in nearly a quarter of a century that an appointment such as this was made in this manner. It directly by-passed established procedures and the excuse that there were no qualified applicants is clearly false given that the last application process closed nearly six months ago and there was no public advertisement of this vacancy.
Given the controversies which the outgoing Attorney has been involved in, and the findings of the Fennelly report, the rushed and unusual manner of the appointment, to which Deputy Varadkar and all of his colleagues agreed, is at best squalid.
Added to this is the behaviour of Minister Ross. Where he once insisted on removing politics completely from such appointments he has now agreed to the most directly political appointment in nearly a quarter of a century.
It is essential that you address this controversy. We expect you to explain what you knew and to outline your discussions with Minister Ross on this matter and the highly unusual decision to take one partial recommendation of an incomplete report from the Garda Commissioner and announce it with a banner on a South Dublin road.
The challenges which are faced by our country are as they were last year. The obligation on the government and the Dáil to act constructively to tackle this challenges remains.
After a wasted year of drift and delay the time for excuses is over.
We will have a new Taoiseach who has been chosen by his party to turn around electoral performance. What we need is a new focus on the much harder work of delivering for the people.