During the coming Dáil session there is simply no question what the public wants to see – and that is action.
In every part of the country people are frustrated with an approach to government which over-spins and under-delivers in nearly everything.
In their families and communities people can see problems which have been allowed to develop to the level of emergencies. A constantly repeating pattern from ministers has developed of denial, delay and then half-measures which are only half-delivered.
Fianna Fáil’s challenge today remains to be a voice for people’s concerns and to offer real solutions. While others waste time with empty slogans and cynical promises, the unique role which we play is to be constructive and substantive.
As we saw last year, when we are constructive and focused on putting substance ahead of politics people are willing to listen to us – often in the face of the indifference of commentators too busy with following the spin cycle.
The agenda for the months ahead is absolutely clear. People are demanding action on housing and on health. They want an urgent and credible plan for dealing with Brexit. They want a budget which is fair and helps those under pressure. They want action on essential investment.
This is where our focus will be. We will respond to events and we will continue to hold ministers to account for their many failures, but pushing for meaningful action on the issues which matter to people is our absolute priority.
In every area members of the front bench will present policy papers setting out our proposals. These will draw on the programme of consultation with non-party organisations as well as our members which has been in place since shortly after this Dáil was elected.
We will propose approaches to meeting long-term objectives, but we will also address urgent action. We will use our Dáil time to push for specific policy changes and action-focused legislation.
Of course we have to be aware of the approach of a government which is obsessed with political manoeuvring.
The media presentation of policies has become the absolute priority. In every substantive area real or imagined initiatives are being trailed in a long-series of media briefings and launched in situations which limit scrutiny and that lack substance.
The attempt to bury bad news on busy news days is now a regular occurrence, with members of government rarely available to discuss reports and statistics which are inconvenient.
Last month, otherwise omnipresent ministers weren’t available when more horrific figures for homelessness and hospital waiting lists were issued. In July the Spring Economic Statement was launched at a press conference before it was presented to the Dáil.
In the last three months headlines have told us that there is no money, there is lots of money, infrastructure will be the priority, tax cuts will be the priority, health will be the priority, pensioners will come first, pensioners will come second, housing will be dealt with ,the new Brexit policy will be detailed, there will be no new Brexit policy because it’s up to the British to propose one.
In the months ahead of us a 10-year capital plan, which was first presented to a cabinet committee last Winter, will finally be published. It is apparently due to be accompanied by a major marketing initiative.
In the Budget itself the unprecedented step will be made of a government announcing tax and spending changes as a general aspiration rather than as fully-costed proposals to be implemented.
From what we can tell the only common thread in all of this is a desire to move the focus away from the lack of action on urgent issues and to claim that everything will be fine if they are just given enough time.
To be honest it is difficult to accept 5 and 10 year plans from a government which is consistently failing to deliver commitments made for here and now.
A lot of people have been commenting about how the new Taoiseach is putting his primary emphasis on presentation. It’s hard to disagree with this.
There is a preponderance of staff involved in media announcements and spin. The Taoiseach saw no need to hire an expert on economics, or housing, or health but immediately appointed a marketing expert to his team.
Today the Taoiseach’s Department has a Press Office, an Information Service and a Strategic Communications Unit. It seems that the government believes that if we all just knew a bit more about what they were doing they would be more popular.
They seem to be determined to to fill the media with unsubstantiated plans and to illustrate how they are very busy with busyness, rather than actually dealing and taking action on challenges facing the country.
It’s hard to miss the fact that last week the Taoiseach announced that Fine Gael will finalise its manifesto before the middle of November.
Irrespective of what their intentions are our obligations remain the same – we have a mandate from the people to focus on the issues of concern to them and that is what we will do.
The scale of the housing emergency continues to get worse. For some inexplicable reason it took the new minister three months to arrange a meeting with the people charged with delivering housing in local authorities. In the coming weeks he will publish the fourth housing plan in as many years.
Our policy is clear – we are proposing action at every level of housing supply with the biggest action being targeted at social and affordable housing.
Last week the Taoiseach announced that the government will be utilising NAMA to tackle the housing crisis .However there was no detail given on how exactly they were going to do this .We proposed utilising NAMA 19 months ago in our Party’s manifesto.
A year ago Barry Cowen showed how the potential for NAMA to help was being ignored – with over 4,000 housing units offered by NAMA for social housing being turned down for no sustainable reason.
Unfortunately housing is an area where Fine Gael in particular can’t help playing politics. When we sought costings on our proposal to use VAT concessions to prioritise affordable housing we were told they weren’t readily available. However, when the proposal was covered in the media Ministers immediately put out a clearly exaggerated cost together with a partisan attack.
The housing emergency is too serious for this type of empty-political behaviour. People want action and an end to the hype and over-claims which define the government’s response.
We are going to keep on pushing for delivery on social housing, on affordable housing, on helping families with serious household debt problems and on rental supply and affordability.
Tackling the rising crisis within key elements of the health system will be another focus for us. While the incredibly damaging changes of the Reilly/Varadkar era are no longer to be built upon, they still remain in place. This is the first government in a quarter of a century which doesn’t actually have a health strategy – something which is adding to the sense of drift and uncertainty. Access to services has never been as bad. Despite opening a new theatre to treat children with scoliosis earlier this year the waiting lists have actually managed to get much longer .
Our position remains that we believe in a strong public health service which enables professionals to deliver services and addresses core weaknesses.
The Treatment Purchase Fund is a proven way of reducing waiting times and lists which should be restored without the half-commitment and reluctant funding we’ve seen. It has the potential of helping thousands of people get treatment.
We will continue to take the lead in pushing for development of mental health services and we have made it absolutely clear that the excuses for failure to deliver the promised extra funding are over.
In relation to the upcoming budget and capital plans, Dara Calleary and Michael McGrath have already undertaken a lot of detailed work.
Our position remains that we believe in a sustainable budget which improves services and invests in our future. It is not yet clear what the exact parameters of the Budget will be, and the experience of last year is that these could be changed by the government without notice.
If the figures allow, then there should be some tax relief. In talking about the last budget the Taoiseach said that it was the first fair one since Fine Gael got into government. The reason for this is that we made it clear that the Fine Gael policy of prioritising the wealthiest groups in society wouldn’t get through the Dáil.
Our position remains that any tax relief must be fair, it must be sustainable, it must be accompanied by increases for groups such as pensioners and it must not undermine the ability to respond to the emergencies which have developed on this government’s watch.
We will be insisting that the agreement to establish a credible rainy day fund be honoured in full – and we will also be asking that the technical paper on its operations which was first promised a year and a half ago be published before the budget.
The damage from the UK’s Brexit vote remains a dramatic threat to our country. This has been something which we have been addressing as a party since early 2013 when the decision to hold the referendum was first announced. It remains a priority for us and one which we will be addressing in increasing detail in the coming months.
We are very concerned at the current state of negotiations. Obviously the shambles in the government in London is the biggest problem. However, we believe that our Government must start being far more active and ambitious in its proposals. Saying that we won’t help the British design a border is all full and well, but when will there be an actual proposal for what our government believes should happen?
Fianna Fáil believes that we need a special economic zone to be created which would cover Northern Ireland and at least the border counties. This would enable a means of protecting cross-border connections and allow priority measures to help develop disadvantaged areas.
We also believe that industries and communities which are already suffering because of Brexit need help now and not just in 2019.
Most of all we are determined to keep on the pressure to protect the peace process which is a defining achievement of our time in government.
At the moment Northern Ireland has no voice at the table. Historic damage is being threatened but the pro-EU majority in the Assembly is being stopped from being heard because one party is refusing to allow the institutions to be re-established.
So far this island’s most consistently anti-EU party Sinn Féin is holding to the obviously cynical position that while the threat of Brexit is a threat to every element of the peace settlement but that no one is allowed to do anything about it.
It is long-past time for the institutions to be restored. Vital issues concerning the equality agenda can be dealt with, but nothing will be achieved and great harm will be done if the situation doesn’t change fast.
The coming Dáil session is going to be a busy one. Our policy objectives are clear – we want action on the housing and health emergencies, we want greater urgency on Brexit and we want a Budget which is fair and sustainable.
We will pursue these priorities in the Dáil, in policy papers and in the Árd Fheis which we will hold next month.
We have a mandate to deliver constructive politics and this is what we will continue to do.
For the government the time for spin is over.
The public doesn’t need or want more glittering launches we they want action.