Saturday, 27 June 2020
Ceapachán an Taoisigh agus Ainmniú Chomhaltaí an Rialtais: Tairiscint - Appointment of Taoiseach and Nomination of Members of Government: Motion
Róisín Shortall (Dublin North West, Social Democrats)
I congratulate the Taoiseach. The idea of the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, will take a bit of getting used to, but on a personal note I wish him well.
He has waited for this for a long time. There is no doubt that today must be a very proud day for him and his family. I also congratulate the Cabinet Ministers who have been appointed today.
The election of a three-party coalition Government is taking place in what are the most inauspicious of circumstances. As a result of Covid-19, the country is going through a devastating period in which, tragically, 1,736 people have lost their lives, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their livelihoods and countless lives have been changed forever. Worldwide, we must remind ourselves that we are still in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Here in Ireland, we must recognise that it remains a real and ever-present danger.
I thank our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Tony Holohan, and all of those working on the front line, in particular, in the health area, but also across retail and other essential services. These people have done exceptional work over recent months and continue to do that work on behalf of us all. I also acknowledge members of the public who have adhered magnificently to the advice, despite many having lost loved ones or their jobs and making so many huge sacrifices over recent months.
Today, we must recognise that in February’s election the electorate roundly rejected the kind of politics provided by the outgoing Government of Fine Gael supported by Fianna Fáil. Rarely before had people been so exercised by and so conversant with Government policy and the harmful negative effects much of it was having on their quality of life and that of their families. People had enough of the high cost of living and the difficulty in accessing those public services which are so essential to living a decent life. On top of that, there is a raft of other charges and costs, such as insurance, energy costs and mortgage interest, which the Government had failed to control. All of this was happening in the context of 25% of the workforce being on low pay and an increasingly precarious and insecure world of work.
The cruel irony is that the very people who created those problems are today back in power. During the election, the most common response on the doorsteps to the question of who people would be voting for was, "Not Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael anyway". When the votes were counted those once large parties, the Civil War parties, mustered just 43% of the vote between them. People voted predominantly for a different kind of politics. They voted for a new approach and a different value system or ideology. The general election result strongly signified the desire of the Irish people for a fundamental shift towards a more equal, fair and inclusive society.
In mid-April, as the pandemic had taken hold, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael agreed a framework document. It contained many worthy aspirations and in an apparent candid admission of mistakes made, they made a remarkable statement. They said:
We know that there is no going back to the old way of doing things. Radical actions have been taken to protect as many people as possible, and new ways of doing things have been found in a time of crisis. The importance of the well resourced, properly functioning and responsive State has never been clearer.
For a moment, we thought that lessons had been learned, the penny had finally dropped and there was a realisation that a strong State is critical to the well-being of a society and to people’s lives. When the pandemic struck the frailties of our State were all too graphically exposed in an under-resourced public health service with nowhere near enough staff or hospital beds; our arm’s length privatised model of social care; the prevalence of low-paid, low-hours work with limited rights and protections; our disjointed, underfunded, mainly for-profit childcare services; high rents and lack of security for many tenants; overcrowded and overpriced housing; inhumane conditions in direct provision; and so many other weaknesses.
In responding to Covid-19, the Government moved to socialise many of these essential public services because that was the only way we would survive. Initially, it seemed as if the Government was serious about radical change. However, very soon it became clear that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael fully intended going back to the old ways of doing things as soon as Covid had been brought under control. People had voted for permanent change and a genuine social contract where people pay taxes according to their means and, in return, have access to universal public services and where Government works for the common good. That was never the Fine Gael way, however. It is a party which operates on the basis that the market is king and that if one cannot afford to pay for the essential services that are available as of right in most other European countries, it is tough luck and one does not get access to those services. That is one of the reasons that, when Fine Gael approached the Social Democrats with a view to coalition, we knew it was not going to change its spots. It was clear that while Fine Gael talked the talk of inclusion and public services, there was no financial underpinning to the aspirations. So it is with the programme for Government. There is continued reliance on developers for the elusive affordable housing that we have been promised so often. We will have another 18 months of free rein and poor planning standards with strategic housing developments. Sláintecare is supposedly to be accelerated but without any budget until at least 2022. The diversion of funding from the public healthcare system through the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, will continue. There is no indication of a public model of childcare and no reform of corporation tax or other taxes, and on it goes.
The lack of any real funding commitment to change runs right through the programme for Government. It is clear that following the immediate crisis, the intention is to get back to business as usual. Key questions about the size and duration of the stimulus package needed and the extent of the borrowing required are kicked down the road.
Fianna Fáil, on the other hand, had choices about where it would go. It knew very well that the market-led politics of Fine Gael, which it supported for the past four years, had done the country and both parties much damage. However, when it had an opportunity to make a break with the past, shift to the left and lead a genuine social democratic Government that people had voted for, it eschewed that opportunity and instead locked itself into Fine Gael. That is an utterly retrograde step for the country.
I genuinely hope the Green Party is successful in furthering the climate change and biodiversity agenda but I have to express concern about that being possible to achieve within the prevailing agenda of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The lack of any commitment to a reduction in carbon emissions in the context of the national herd is reflective of just that challenge.
For our part, the expanded Social Democrats group will play a constructive and positive role in this Dáil. We will fight unapologetically for a fair society based on high quality universal public services and for the kind of politics which challenges the many vested interests in Irish society and hold us back so much. We will provide strong opposition in order to hold the Government to account and we will work tirelessly to further the ideals of social democracy in order to create the kind of society we believe will serve the best interests of all of the Irish people. Go raibh maith agaibh.