Ceann Comháirle I welcome the calling of these by-elections. I have no doubt that they will mark another wake-up call for a government which is more and more out of touch with the reality faced every day by families throughout this country.
From its first moments in office this has been a government obsessed with putting spin ahead of substance. Fundamental election promises were abandoned overnight and it began a permanent public relations campaign. It is almost three years since the Taoiseach went on the airwaves to declare that his government had saved us all.
It is even longer since the Labour Party started making speeches about how it was delivering fairness in everything.
In the gap between the rhetoric and the reality what has emerged is a two-tiered recovery – where some are doing well because of the improved international situation but many are being left behind.
The only decisive shift in policy which came in with Fine Gael and Labour in 2011 was a shift to more regressive policies.
Policies which have hit struggling families and communities the hardest.
Policies which have piled up charge upon charge with no consideration for the ability to pay.
Policies which have undermined services and brought chaos to too many vital sectors.
Every single independent study, national or international, has confirmed that the more difficulty you have in paying your bills the harder this government has hit you.
Yesterday we had what may be the 50th front page headline of the year proclaiming that relief is on the way for hard-pressed families. This was greeted with weary derision throughout the country.
With the property tax, water charges and other bills landing in their homes, hard-pressed families know that this is nothing but an exercise in trying to take them for fools.
In Roscommon/South Leitrim and Dublin South West we have communities which have felt the impact of government policies even more than others. In 2011 these constituencies believed Fine Gael and Labour’s promises and gave them seven out of a possible nine seats.
Instead of getting the democratic revolution or the long list of actions they were promised they got a record of neglect locally and combined with national policies which have hit them disproportionately.
In these elections Fianna Fáil is fielding two candidates who are offering a different approach. Rooted in their communities, they share a commitment to standing against deeply unfair government policies and standing up for essential local services.
In the past few weeks I have been able to visit many parts of both constituencies. I am very grateful for the warm welcome which I have received and the time which people have been willing to spend with me talking about the issues which concern them.
I hope the Taoiseach and his Ministers will find the time to do more than a few photo-opportunities during these elections, because if they do they will find that their complacent picture of the economy and of the impact of their policies is detached from reality.
In Roscommon/South Leitrim people are already being bombarded with government material claiming to have delivered all sorts of progress. The facts show a part of the country particularly badly hit by a combination of neglect and damaging policies.
It was in this constituency that the sheer cynicism of Fine Gael’s 2011 campaign was first exposed. The party started by distributing leaflets pledging to protect services in the hospital. Then the Taoiseach stood in a market square and said at great volume that Fine Gael could be trusted to protect hospital services as a priority in government.
In fact soon after they took up office Roscommon hospital was put on a priority list to have services closed down – and this was rushed through at maximum speed.
The Taoiseach, who is developing a record for his lack of candour on health, first denied that there had been any promise. This fell apart when a journalist produced a tape of him making the promise.
From the day he made the promise to the day he broke it the fiscal situation of the country hadn’t change – a fact confirmed by his own ministers. The Taoiseach himself said closing the services was not intended to save any money.
This cynical breach of faith with the people of Roscommon is still a raw issue, but it is increasingly one amongst many.
There are thousands of families who are piped with water they cannot drink – yet now they are being asked to pay for that water. When they hear from a senior Fine Gael minister that they are being “supplied with Ballygowan standard water” they are rightly angry.
Families with young children are still being told that their children will be covered by a free allowance – but the final figures show that a child will only have free water if they have one shower a week and go to the toilet once a day.
People see that all of the money they are to pay is going to establish a monster of a gold-plated bureaucracy which has lost all public trust before it has even begun its work properly.
Every piece of information about what is going on and what it is costing people has had to be dragged out the government by Fianna Fáil’s spokesman. But the facts on the ground have caught up with Fine Gael and Labour.
This week we are putting to the vote a proposal on the principle that people should not have to pay for water they cannot drink. I hope we will see another last-minute conversion from the government. If not they will reap the consequences.
Roscommon and Leitrim schools are disproportionately suffering from staffing cutbacks, because of the smaller communities they serve. Their Garda stations have been cut more than elsewhere by a government still committed to the idea of policing from a car rather than in the community.
Farmers are suffering because of a beef crisis which is decimating their income and a government which is sitting back and doing nothing to address the imbalance in the market between producers and processors.
This has been one of the most centralising governments in our history. In area after area it has implemented a policy of favouring already strong.
The people of Roscommon and South Leitrim have seen three and a half years of this government’s record and they are not happy. The want to send a message but they also want see the alternative. This is what we are committed to doing in this campaign.
Dublin South West is a very different community but it too has every reason to be angry with the government. It is a large and diverse community with many concerns. Over the years it benefitted from a coordinated effort to plan and develop services, particularly for the most disadvantaged areas. There was a collective commitment, underpinned by government, to shared action against some of the most intractable social problems.
This government’s record is one of disengagement and disinterest. On its first day in office it abolished any cabinet-level involvement in community development. For the first time in twenty years there is not even a junior minister responsible for action on drugs.
Schools which had been leading the way in helping young people have seen vital services like counselling and special needs assistance withdrawn and other schemes cut back.
As independent studies have shown, poorer families with children are to be hit hardest with the water charges. The failure of the property tax to take any account of debts or ability to pay means that thousands of families are paying the tax based on property prices which have no relevance to them.
This week Fianna Fáil councillors in Dublin revealed that the government is actively undermining the efforts to cut property taxes by 15%.
The many people I have already met in Dublin South West are unanimous in saying that they understand that tough choices had to be made – and equally they are unanimous in saying that it was the government’s choice to make them so unfair.
People welcome the improved overall economic outlook but are increasingly scared of a situation where government settles for a two-tiered labour force, with the majority stuck in low-security and low-paid jobs.
John Lahart has built up a reputation as a strong and effective local representative. He is campaigning on a positive message of getting things done and offering a fairer way forward for the people of Dublin South West.
He will not join with Sinn Féin and others in their tactic of following Labour’s pre-2011 approach of claiming there are easy answers to even the most difficult problems.
We should also today be agreeing to hold the Carlow-Kilkenny by-election. Deputy Hogan has announced that he has no more interest in being active in Irish politics and has stopped working as a TD. He should have resigned already and allowed his by-election to be held on the same day as these ones.
I hope the government does not use the excuse of the forthcoming Budget to shy away from these by-elections. Limiting the campaigning of the Taoiseach and his ministers to a few staged photos will deny the people of Dublin South-West and Roscommon/South Leitrim of their right to challenge the people in whom they placed their trust in 2011.
For my part and that of my party we will campaign actively and we will engage with people on the issues. These are welcome by-elections and I believe they will help us to send an important message to the government that the two-tiered recovery is causing immense damage.