Ceann Comháirle, on behalf of the Fianna Fáil party I would like to outline our approach to this vote and to the broader issue of how our country is to be governed during the 32nd Dáil.
Today represents a major turning-point for Irish democracy. It marks a decisive shift away from a government with the absolute power to control our parliament.
In many ways it is a new beginning and it presents challenges and opportunities to every person given the honour of being elected to Dáil Éireann. It brings with it new rules and new expectations.
The result of February’s election was unprecedented.
In the election Fianna Fáil won the support of over half a million people. We had the highest increase in vote numbers, percentage of votes and in extra seats won. This progress was seen in every part of the country.
However, while this is a strong mandate, we accept that this is a diverse Dáil and we respect the mandates of others.
My party presented a very clear platform to the people and since the election we have worked every day to try to implement as much of that platform as possible.
The election represented an overwhelming rejection of the Fine Gael/Labour government, its policies and its hyper-political behaviour. That is why we sought to completely replace that government.
We sought to secure a government led by Fianna Fáil with the inclusion and support of others. This was the only possible way of removing Fine Gael from government.
On three separate occasions we put this option to the House and on each of those three occasions no party and no independent supported the alternative.
Those in the House who try and lecture us about facilitating a Fine Gael –led minority government need to remember that they refused point-blank to vote for the only way of preventing this.
As I said when we last voted on nominations for Taoiseach, there came a point when we had to move on and consider alternative approaches. We did this because unlike Sinn Fein, the hard-left alliance, Labour and others, we believe it is the duty of all Deputies to be constructive and we reject their approach of seeking to maintain a model of dominant government versus total opposition.
As the House knows, we entered into lengthy discussions with the Fine Gael Party concerning allowing a minority government to be formed. These negotiations were not easy and they confirmed the serious and substantive policy differences which there are between our parties.
We believe that Fine Gael remains committed to the idea that the outgoing government’s policies were correct and is reluctant to accept the need for a significantly more progressive approach to many areas. For example there was a near total resistance to any initiative which would tackle the massive increase in waiting times within the acute hospital system. Initiatives to address the social and economic damage of household debt received equally strong resistance.
While the agreement does contain a commitment to restart efforts to build real North/South cooperation on services and policies, we have seen no understanding of the deep damage caused by five years of disengagement from Northern Ireland by a government which is a co-guarantor of agreements which remain only partly implemented.
Just as important, five years of dominating the Labour Party and aggressively spinning everything has left a deep impact. As we saw yesterday, Fine Gael’s concept of partnership does not yet extend to agreeing in advance about media briefings.
The difficulties encountered in reaching the short arrangement published earlier this week confirmed that no credible coalition between the parties was possible. Such a government would have been all about sharing the spoils of power and not an honest partnership with an agreed action programme.
The arrangement we have reached is similar in scope and duration to models followed in many other countries. As we said when we first proposed the idea of a minority government, they are a regular feature of successful European democracies with high standards of governance.
The confidence and supply arrangement allows the government to achieve and retain office for a defined period, enables it to administer agreed public policy and to ensure that government can be funded.
However it leaves the majority in Dáil Éireann to decide on the vast majority of legislative and other policies. This ‘confidence and supply’ approach is today in operation in a number of European countries.
The confidence and supply arrangement covers broad principles of policy and is comparable to a full programme for government. It sets certain conditions on policy areas where government is primarily responsible for introducing measures.
Fianna Fáil retains the right and ability to seek to create majorities for proposals outside of those agreed. We retain the right and the intention to actively scrutinise the work of ministers and to propose resolutions seeking new policies and criticising existing ones.
Fundamentally it is up to the government to come here and win debates in order to pass many measures – and it is the government’s duty to allow this parliament to play a full and active role in the development and enactment of policy.
The agreement covers three budget cycles subject to an overriding framework. This framework requires that Ireland achieve the reasonable fiscal targets most parties accepted during the election.
This will demand restrained budgeting which will see a significant fall in the relative size of the national debt. Where there is space for new measures the weighting must be towards improving services with a minimum ratio of two to one in favour of service improvements over tax cuts.
Within the tax cuts, there must be a decisive shift towards a more progressive approach and the regressive policy of abolishing the USC during this Dáil will not be pursued. If the government implements the agreement then it will allow important but sustainable relief weighted to medium and low income families.
In terms of specific policy areas there are important measures, but again it is not and does not seek to be a comprehensive statement of policies for this Dáil. In each of our priority areas for delivering a recovery which is felt by all there are provisions which will make a big difference.
These include employment, homelessness, housing, training, education, health, urban and community development, tackling crime and strengthening the recovery. The people across rural Ireland know that there is a two tier recovery in place and far more has to be done to address the issues impacting on people who live in rural Ireland.
In housing, immediate action on rent allowance and HAP will prevent more people becoming homeless. There are commitments to build more local authority houses and to introduce e an affordable housing scheme. Every TD elected to this House believes that more immediate action has to be taken on Housing. We also have to address mortgage arrears and variable mortgage rates as families are still under fierce pressure.
In education, the reduction of class sizes, the reintroduction of guidance counselling and the restoration of grant support for disadvantaged students to access postgraduate education are important and urgent measures.
We have a strong society and a strengthening economy. This is because of the Irish people, the skills they have developed over decades, their commitment to community and their belief in building an inclusive future.
The damage of regressive and divisive policies in recent years has been significant. The new government is not committed to the scale of comprehensive and urgent action which we believe is needed. In many areas the programme for government represents a repackaging of current policies and bland aspiration rather than a radical commitment to action. Policy on health remains as incoherent as ever and specific actions on most areas are limited. Pushing for movement on these areas will form our priority in every part of our work in this House.
We do, however, acknowledge that the programme for government marks a step away from the priorities of Fine Gael and Labour during the last five years. It now talks about a Fairer Ireland. This is a step in the right direction.
Since our arrangement concerning a minority government was published we have had the absurd situation where parties who agreed to nothing are condemning us for not agreeing enough.
In many cases these are the same people condemning us for allowing Fine Gael back into government having spent two months demanding that we go into government with them.
Given Sinn Fein’s attacks on us today that party they might take the time to look back on what they said before. I know that Deputy Adams is a great believer in trying to delete past statements but the record of the House still shows that on this day last month he said “I urge [Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael], therefore, to accept the new realities and that they are the only ones fit to form a Government.”
Unlike Sinn Fein and others we have worked constructively and have focused on substance – and I believe we have achieved important progress. They believe in finding problems to exploit. We believe in finding problems to solve.
The House will shortly get the opportunity to vote on a Bill which will suspend water charges. Following a reasonable process the majority in the Dáil will then decide what happens to water charges.
In addition the days of an out-of-control, bloated and arrogant commercial firm will be ended. Oireachtas and independent oversight will be asserted. The massive expenditures on lobbying, opinion polls and corporate brand-building will stop.
Water policy is not the most important issue facing our country and it has taken too much time. It should not have taken so much effort to reverse a clearly failed policy which had been rejected by the people following a full debate.
Deputy Alan Kelly, suffering from the withdrawal of his drug of choice, has claimed that it is treason to remove this regressive, inefficient and democratically-rejected tax.
If they think it is treason to set out a policy, cost it, secure overwhelming public support for it and then try to implement it, then it says a lot about the state of the Labour Party. Labour remains so committed to the “ah sure isn’t that what you say during an election” style of politics that the only thing which currently unites its members is fury that another party might keep its promises.
We should note that Labour’s seven TD’s will today vote against Deputy Kenny even though every one of them was elected on a platform of wanting to participate in a government led by Deputy Kenny.
The formation of a minority government on the basis of a confidence and supply agreement represents one of the most radical changes in our politics since independence. The rules of how we all do the people’s business are changing profoundly.
Fianna Fáil is very pleased that our suggestion on the Monday after the election for immediate movement on deep reform of Dáil proceedings has led to an ambitious reform programme that will shortly be implemented. If the House is serious about implementing this Dáil will be a far more constructive and consultative place that will have to come up with solutions issues and not just the normal ‘Punch and Judy’ politics.
The end of the government’s ability to order all business and decide matters without consultation fundamentally changes the dynamic.
It represents a huge challenge to government to treat the Oireachtas seriously and to build support for policies. However it is also a challenge to every member of the Oireachtas.
As we’ve seen since the election, there are those who want to maintain the model of dominant government and total opposition. They don’t like the challenge of finding compromise and building consensus. They want to maintain a winner-takes-all system so that someday they might get their turn.
They are satisfied with the narcissism of large differences – where there is no such thing as a middle-ground and the only valid differences are ones based on ideological clarity.
We reject that approach. We believe that the Irish people elected us all to both put in place a government and to play a full and active part as parliamentarians in developing and enacting policy.
With no fixed majority in the House the only way any of us can pass measures is to make our cases and build support. Certainly there will be a lot of game-playing such as we saw in recent weeks from parties who wanted to play politics on motions about water charges rather than do the work of actually getting something done. However, I thing we’ve seen in the last five years that the people aren’t fooled by such manoeuvring.
The government will most likely regularly not get its way on motions and specific proposals. If it accepts this and reduces the number of areas where it demands the right to be decisive then there is no reason to be concerned.
If it maintains its obsessive focus on media spinning and presentation – together with its habit of denying problems until they reach crisis level – then there will be serious obstacles to the working of this new reality.
We believe that Fine Gael should be replaced in government; however the majority of this House refused to support us in this effort. We have accepted the responsibility we believe every Deputy carries of ensuring that a government is in place and of ensuring that we radically reform the Dáil so that it will respond to the people’s will as expressed in the election.
By our abstention in this vote and the vote on the nomination of ministers a government will be able to be formed. Commitments have been given that the worst elements of the last government’s policies and approaches will be ended and important progress will be seen in some areas.
Most of all the formation of a minority government means that we will have to opportunity to continue to seek to implement the policies upon which we were elected by working to build majority support for them from opposition.
This new departure for Irish politics is a major challenge. It requires putting aside old assumptions and lazy conventions. It gives everyone a role to play and a duty to be active and constructive.
We accept this and look forward to getting on with the business of this Dáil.