Thursday, 20 January 2011
Termination of Ministerial Appointments: Announcement by Taoiseach
I wish to announce for the information of the House that the President, acting on my advice, has accepted the resignations of Deputies Mary Harney, Noel Dempsey, Dermot Ahern, Batt O'Keeffe and Tony Killeen as members of the Government. I advised the House yesterday of the resignation of Deputy Micheál Martin. I want to put on the record of the House my gratitude to each of them for their distinguished contributions to the work of the Government and the country.
The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, has advanced a strategic approach to tackling the problems in our health services. She has done a first class job and shown extraordinary endurance and intelligence in dealing with our most challenging portfolio.
In her previous work as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Tánaiste she made an enduring contribution to developing the economic base of the country.
Deputy Noel Dempsey has served this country well in a variety of portfolios. At the Cabinet table he was a straight talking and respected colleague, forceful in his contributions and a loyal supporter of Government decisions. His achievements as a Minister are many. As Minister for Transport he brought forward significant legislation and initiatives which have reduced the number of road deaths in Ireland, thus saving many lives.
Deputy Dermot Ahern has been a reforming Minister for Justice and Law Reform who carried out his duties with great ability and commitment to the public good. He, too, has many achievements, including the recent groundbreaking anti-gangland legislation. I also served with Dermot in the Governments of Deputy Bertie Ahern and saw at first-hand the strong contribution he made to the Irish peace process from its inception in his role as envoy for the UN Secretary General.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin has represented the country with distinction at home and abroad. I especially want to place on the record of the House my gratitude to him for the work he has done to bring further significant progress in the political landscape in Northern Ireland. The Hillsborough agreement last February opened a new and positive chapter for the people of Northern Ireland and Micheál's political skills were crucial to that outcome. Deputy Martin is a politician of substance who have served the people extremely well in the Departments of Education and Science, Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Health and Children and Foreign Affairs.
Deputy Batt O'Keeffe has been one of my best friends in politics and in life. He is a politician of great wisdom, intelligence and loyalty. He has been a hard-working public representative for over a quarter of a century and he has come to a decision not to contest the next election. From our discussions I know he shares my assessment that there is a need to have more young people in Government as a necessary source of renewal and vitality in our politics. He has made a major contribution to the Government. As Minister for Education and Science he placed at centre stage the debate on how we are to resource our universities and institutes of technology to make them the best in the world. He embarked on radical programmes of school curriculum reform, including project maths. As Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation he ensured significant and tailored investment in the enterprise and innovation agencies which are now helping to drive export-led recovery. He turned a policy focus on commercialised research and set in motion the implementation of the report of the innovation task force.
It was my great pleasure to appoint Deputy Tony Killeen as the Minister for Defence in March last year. Although his time in the Department of Defence was brief, he was responsible for a number of significant developments. He oversaw the successful completion of the Defence Forces UN mission from Chad last summer and announced a new peacekeeping deployment to the Lebanon before Christmas. Overall, his was a wise and sensible voice at Cabinet during some of the most challenging times ever faced by an Irish Government.
I want again to express my attitude to each of the aforementioned Deputies and wish them well for the future. We in this House are all aware of the immense challenges each and every member of this Administration has faced in charting a way through some of the most difficult economic times since the foundation of the State. History will show that the Government has worked hard in the national interest to implement difficult but necessary decisions to help lead our country through an international economic and financial crisis, the likes of which we have not seen in over 80 years. The Government, under my leadership, has followed a consistent path to help stabilise the economy in the aftermath of the biggest downturn in modern Irish economic history.
Our budgetary strategy has helped to stabilise the economy and return it to economic growth. I understand that people are suffering and experiencing immense hardship because of the recession, which we deeply regret. It is incumbent on all of us in public office to put the interests of the country above everything else. Politics as usual should not be allowed to distract from the overriding priority of getting Ireland back on track. As I said previously, there will be a general election this spring but before that the Government has important work to complete.
The Government has obtained approval for its national recovery plan, providing for the proper funding of the State through the negotiation of the EU and IMF package. It will give us time and space to continue on the path of adjustment to restore economic growth and thereby create jobs. It will allow us to continue to bring our public finances back to order while providing necessary public services for our people. It is important in the weeks ahead that the Government gives legislative effect to the budget through the enactment of the finance Bill and other related Bills which benefit the people. There is nothing more important than doing precisely that.
In the interest of proper governance, I have decided to reassign the portfolios of those Ministers who have resigned. Pursuant to section 4(1) of the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Act 1946, I am assigning their Departments as follows: the Department of Health and Children to the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Mary Coughlan; the Department of Transport to the Minister for Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Pat Carey; the Department of Justice and Law Reform to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith; the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation to the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Culture, Deputy Mary Hanafin; and the Department of Defence to the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív.
From the outset, the main task of the Government I have led has been to secure the best interests of the nation in these challenging times. We have made hard choices and taken unpopular decisions, in the interest of the security and well-being of the people. I believe the best interests of Ireland demand that Government gets on with implementing the national recovery plan, by passing the Finance Bill and other legislation and that a new Government then receives a new mandate from the people at a general election. Until then, as Taoiseach, my priorities, along with those of my Government colleagues, will continue to be returning Ireland to recovery, creating jobs and restoring the public finances. It is my intention in due course to seek a dissolution of Dáil Éireann, with a view to a general election taking place on Friday, 11 March next. Prior to the general election, we are committed to enacting key pieces of legislation to secure Ireland's economic future.
I know that the Government's policies are returning Ireland to recovery and growth and I want us to get through the hard times and see the country prosper in the future. To do that, we need now at this crucial time to get on with the important work in hand. As Taoiseach, my focus today and every day until election day is on completing the work I have undertaken on behalf of the people to continue the process of implementing the economic recovery plan.
The unprecedented situation that arose this morning showed complete disrespect for this House and I welcome the fact that the Taoiseach has seen fit to attend at 1.30 p.m. to clarify some matters. It looks as if he and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, have, in a Laurel and Hardy situation, got themselves into another fine mess. The fact that no new Minister has been appointed is clearly because of desperation and fear on the part of the Government of putting it to a vote in the House. The fact that the Green Party is not represented in the Chamber at this time speaks for itself and the fact the Government is unable to fill the Front Bench speaks for the level to which the situation has descended. If I am correct, there are at least 20 Ministers and former Ministers on the backbenches, which is almost one for everyone in the audience.
I thank the Taoiseach for the clarification that we are to have a general election on 11 March. What is the timescale the Taoiseach envisages now for the Finance Bill? He set out a time schedule previously and I wrote to him yesterday indicating we could deal with it earlier and still give it the same amount of Dáil and committee time. Does the Taoiseach intend to adhere to the original timescale or will there be a new timescale? Does he intend that the Climate Change Bill, which is so important for the Green Party, will be completed before that date also?
It is always a matter of great pride for people to be appointed as Ministers and to serve in Government. For a variety of reasons, this Government has run its writ. I wish those who have served in Government well for the future. History might be kinder to some of them could it flip over some of the Departments they have held. I look forward to the coming campaign so as to spell out to people our perspective and view of the kind of Ireland we should have, the potential of our people and the consequences of real change, through leadership from the front that will engender motivation, spirit, confidence and hope in our people and bring about a resolution of the situation in our indigenous economy which is so dispiriting for so many. At the end of the process, on 11 March, the people will have their say and will decide what kind of Government they want to represent them for the future.
If we were disruptive here this morning or if, as in the Ceann Comhairle's words, there was "gross disorder", at least it has now brought finality, a conclusion and clarity to something the electorate has wanted for a long time. I hope the fact the Taoiseach has attended the House and clarified the position restores some sense of authority, respect and dignity to the House. To whoever stands, in whatever capacity, for whatever party or none, the next few weeks will be of critical importance. For our part, we will set out our stall as to how we believe we can get Ireland working again.
On a personal level, I wish the Ministers who have resigned from office the best for their future. Today is not a day to dwell on their political legacy or their contribution to Government.
I welcome that at long last a date has been set for the general election. Since the Green Party announced that it was withdrawing from Government in November, I have been making the point, and made it very clear prior to Christmas, that the Labour Party would not tolerate a situation where Fianna Fáil attempted to cling on to the reins of office month in and out. Finality and certainty had to be brought to the situation and this has now happened. I would have preferred if the election were at an earlier date, but it is 11 March, and we must now concentrate on the future and on restoring some hope and confidence to the people.
I regret that the Taoiseach has handled matters the way he has. The announcement he has just made is one that could and should have been made this morning, which would have avoided the chaos we experienced here earlier and the damage that has been done to the country due to the sense of disintegration that prevailed throughout the morning. I wonder why it happened this way. We knew that some of the Ministers who have retired had announced already that they were not contesting the elections although there may have been some surprise with regard to the intentions of others.
I wonder why, in circumstances where we will now have an election on 11 March, it was necessary for them to resign their ministerial office today and why it was necessary for them all to do so on the one day. The answer is clear. The Taoiseach attempted a stroke and it backfired. The Taoiseach attempted an arrangement which would have involved the appointment of new Ministers, in an attempt to prolong the life of his Government, but the whistle was blown on that. As a result, he has now ended up today as a Taoiseach without authority who no longer, it would appear, has the authority as Head of Government to do the most essential thing a head of government does in a democracy, which is to appoint the members of his Government. That is the consequence of the way in which he has handled the situation today.
From here on, we must concentrate on moving the country forward. The country and its people have come through hell and fire over the past couple of years. What was a good economy has been turned around. We have ended up in hock and with disastrous decisions being made by the Government as a result of the decisions made on banking. Many people have lost their jobs - 300,000 in the course of this recession - young people face emigration, people fortunate to be in work have seen their pay packets diminished through taxes and levies and people who need essential services must wait for them.
We need to restore hope and confidence in this country. The country has a great future and its best days are ahead. A young man I met in a shop this morning said to me, "Mr. Gilmore, I have never been interested in politics, but I cannot wait to vote". People cannot wait to bring about the political change that will release this country's energies, restore hope and confidence and continue the urgent job of recovery, thus getting back people back to work and fixing a system that has been manifestly broken.
Tomorrow is the 92nd anniversary of the first meeting of Dáil Éireann. I have no doubt that were those who convened in the Mansion House on 21 January 1919 to see what is unfolding today in this House, they would feel ashamed. There can be no question but that what the Taoiseach has just read into the record of the House was not what he, when he got out of bed this morning, intended to read into the record today or next Tuesday in terms of replacements for the list of resignations announced. There is no question but that it was not the Taoiseach's intention to further burden his team of Ministers with the additional responsibility he has now placed on their shoulders. I doubt any of them is thanking him. This further responsibility, in an already difficult time, must surely be the last thing in the world they needed.
There is no question but that the orchestrated series of resignations were definitely in the context of what I stated in this House earlier this morning, namely, the elevation of others from within the ranks of Fianna Fáil to Front Bench positions requiring the approval of the Dáil for all of those not already Cabinet Members. That is the reason the Taoiseach has fallen back on this scenario. The Green Party's absence speaks volumes. It speaks louder than does anything else at this moment in time. The Green Party was clearly not up for this and believed this was the straw that would break the camel's back and indicated so to the Taoiseach. That is the reason for the scenario just announced by the Taoiseach. Perhaps the Taoiseach will say if the resignations of those Ministers of State who are not standing in the next election are to hand.
The latest ESRI report indicates that approximately 1,000 young people will each week over the next two years leave the shores of this island. Some 100,000 people are expected to emigrate from this jurisdiction.
That is the projection of the conservative Economic and Social Research Institute. That is a damning indictment of this Government. We have a lame duck Taoiseach with a lame duck Government in terms of the Cabinet on which he will be depending in the remaining weeks of this Government. It is good that the announcement in regard to the election has now been made. I welcome that we now have a date for it. All I can say in its favour is that in selecting the date of 11 March the Taoiseach has at least allowed many young people the prospect and opportunity of directly participating in the election as that date falls on a Friday.
I remind the Taoiseach that constitutionally he would have been able to go to the park today. Rather than wait until 11 March he could have brought the election forward to 11 February. Three weeks from tomorrow was within the scope of what is statutorily required to give notice and allow the election to proceed. That was the announcement the Taoiseach should have made today.
If I may, I would like reply to some of the assertions that have been made. As outlined in my statement to the House, I believe it is essential for the country that we proceed with publication and enactment of the Finance Bill 2011.
Deputy Kenny inquired as to the revision of the scheduling in that regard. Second Stage of the Bill will be taken next week and subsequent Stages will be taken in subsequent weeks. While Fine Gael's suggestion was not realistic, we have sought to accelerate enactment of the Bill, consistent with proper consideration of the Bill, so that we could arrange for the holding of the election on 11 March. Members will be aware that the expectation was that the election would be held in late March or early April. Therefore, bringing back the schedule enables this to happen on 11 March.
In response to Deputy Gilmore's points, there was no question of me, as Taoiseach, engaging in any sort of stunts. What is involved is that Ministers have resigned because they believe it important they do so as they will not be accountable for the actions of Government at the holding of the next election. They are of the view that they should in those circumstances resign and have also given their own reasons in their resignation statements and subsequent commentaries and interviews. Members will also be aware that under the Constitution the Taoiseach has the prerogative to appoint Members to his Government. Therefore, arising out of the resignations the question of assignation, reassignation or appointment arises.
Uniquely, in respect of newly appointed Ministers, it is intended that they will derive no personal financial benefit from their promotions and that there would be no extra financial burden placed on the State as a result of such appointments. The end result has been a reassignation of the appointments. I believe a cynical view is the idea that people who would not be standing should remain on in office. That is the view of those who have decided to resign. I believe it would be far better that the Government, in this case new Fianna Fáil nominees to Government, would be made up of people who are in a position to go out and defend, advocate and set out with vigour and determination the position of Fianna Fáil in government over the past three and a half years.
Members will be aware that the convention of coalition Governments has been for respective leaders of parties to have the power to nominate and appoint nominees to ministerial posts. That has been the convention of every coalition Government here. I contend that by asserting my authority as Taoiseach I am enabling people to consider all parties on 11 March, all of whom will be competing for and not walking away from power. The sovereign will of the people will be determined by spokespersons, and in this instance Ministers, who have the authority and ability to put the case that must be put in the aftermath of the crisis of the magnitude with which we have had to contend and the plans we have set out-----
-----which we believe help it confront and overcome. That is the issue as far as I am concerned. I challenge the politically correct view that suggests that it was a stunt; far from it.
On 11 March, following enactment of the Finance Bill 2011, we will go to the country with a strong Front Bench line up that will put the case of this party to secure the future of our country and to stay with the policies which will bring us success.
I will not back down from such a challenge now or in the future.
On a point of order, it is a tradition in the House that on an occasion such as this the leader of each party makes a contribution. I am wondering whether we are going to hear from Banquo's ghost. I wonder will the leader of the Green Party or his sidekick-----