Dáil debates

Tuesday, 9 April 2024

Éirí as Oifig an Taoisigh - Resignation of Taoiseach


10:30 am

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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A Cheann Comhairle, tá orm a chur in iúl duit gur éirigh mé as oifig mar Thaoiseach inné trína chur sin in iúl don Uachtarán de bhun an Bhunreachta.

Yesterday, I resigned from the office of Taoiseach by placing my resignation in the hands of the President, pursuant to the Constitution. I have had the privilege to serve for the past 20 years as a public representative, 13 years in Cabinet, and seven as leader of my party, as Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Taoiseach again. It has been the most fulfilling and rewarding time of my life but today is the beginning of a new era for my party, a new chapter in my life and a new phase for this coalition Government. I want to offer some special words of thanks to my constituents in Castleknock, Blanchardstown and Dublin West who have elected me to represent them on Fingal County Council and in Dáil Éireann on five separate occasions. I shall continue as their TD and look forward to being a full-time parliamentarian and constituency TD again. I want to thank my loyal, brilliant, hard-working staff, most of whom left Government Buildings for the last time this morning when I did. I want to thank my party for choosing me to be their leader, for their support and confidence these past seven years, and I want to thank my ministerial colleagues past and present. They are among the most talented, committed and capable people I have ever known and in particular Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Coveney, who leaves Government today as well. I also want to thank the Tánaiste and Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan. This historic Government ended civil war politics in our Parliament and was the first to include Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party. The trust and respect we have built up together ensured that this Government remained solid and stayed the course, and I think will be a model for future coalitions of equals in this State and elsewhere. I want to thank the Civil Service and public service for their commitment to the State. They might not put themselves on the ballot papers in the way politicians do but they do put public service first, and that ought to be recognised more.

A Cheann Chomhairle, before I leave this seat I want to offer some short reflections. The first is that Ireland is a great country. We have been a stable and continuous democracy for over 100 years, one of only a handful in the world. We have our problems but we are free, prosperous and safe with huge opportunities for our citizens that would have been unimaginable in the past. In almost every ranking we are placed in the top ten or 20 countries in the world of 200. We are not a failed State. We are a great State. We should love it, protect it and build on all that has been achieved since independence to make it better still.

The second reflection is that most if not all of the problems we have faced in the past 15 years have been international or external in origin or have had an international dimension to them. The banking and financial crash, Brexit, the pandemic, inflation, the energy crisis, climate change and migration - these are all problems with an external origin. Even challenges like health and housing that are more domestic in nature have a strong international element too. Health services are under pressure all over the world due to rising and aging populations, the development of new and often expensive treatments, and a global skills shortage. Ireland is not an outlier on health. When it comes to housing, many of the problems we face are linked to changes in the way that housing construction and purchase has been financed. As well as rising populations and incomes, there was a prolonged period of low interest rates and internationalisation of how new home building and mortgages are funded, which has meant profound changes in rental and housing markets globally. Ireland is an island but it is not a separate planet. It is a fallacy to believe that most of our problems are home-grown or due to any particular political party or ideology. They are mostly global mega-trends. We are a small ship on a big and restless ocean and we need that ship to be crewed by good people. The only workable and sustainable solutions involve multilateralism, tackling these challenges with other countries through international bodies like the European Union, the UN system, the OECD and through international agreements. We must not lose sight of this.

The third reflection is to guard against excessive caution. The majority of officials, advisory bodies and academics will recommend caution, playing it safe, conservative with a small "c". It is not always the best advice. Certainly had we known that the economy would recover so quickly after the crash, that it would not stagnate as a consequence of Brexit, that it would bounce back so strongly after Covid, many of the investment decisions we have made would have been made two or three years sooner. Policies that are now starting to show results would have done so much earlier had we been a little more confident.

The fourth is health. Health is not a black hole and health can be fixed. It is just expensive, takes time and is never easy due to resistance to reform. Just do not give up. As the international medical journal The Lancetacknowledged a few weeks ago, Ireland in the past seven years has become a "more equitable place, not least in terms of health". People live longer and healthier lives than ever before. Most people no longer have to pay to see their GP or stay the night in a public hospital. Survival rates for stroke, heart attacks and many cancers have dramatically improved in the past ten years. Waiting lists have fallen for two years in a row and will fall again this year. Private practice is being disentangled and phased out of our public hospitals and the budget for new buildings, IT and equipment has trebled. We now, per capita, have levels of spending and investment that are comparable with our peers. We have more nurses per head than almost any country in the developed world and more doctors per head than most developed countries, including Britain and Australia, albeit not always doing the right work in the right places with the right support. My point is that universal healthcare is achievable, but it will need ongoing leadership, political prioritisation and investment.

The fifth is national security. For the first time in decades, we have a full-scale war in Europe with Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Sweden has abandoned 200 years of neutrality. Finland has joined NATO. Some European countries are debating the introduction of national service, while others are raising taxes, cutting spending and reducing public holidays to pay for increased defence expenditure. The European leaders I speak to see very dark clouds on the near horizon. They may be wrong - I hope they are wrong - but we cannot assume they are or ignore the growing risks of a world in which democracy is in retreat and autocrats become ever more powerful. Our geography and our neutrality do not protect us in the way they did in the past and the nature of security threats has changed utterly. We have to be prepared for the consequences of an attack on an EU country and how we would respond to that.

The final reflection is about politicians. There has been much debate about the change in tone in political debate, the growth and encouragement of anger and a new coarseness and even toxicity. It is true that these are reflections of changes in our society and are not unique to politicians. They are also amplified by algorithms and social media. It is also something that we are, at least in part, responsible for ourselves. We should not twist each other's words, misquote each other, misrepresent each other or demonise each other. We should be much slower to question each other's motives. Above all, we need to learn to disagree better. I have worked with Members in government from four different parties and with Independents. I have seen people move from the Opposition benches to the Government ones and back again. In my constituency and many campaigns, I have worked with people from political traditions and perspectives that are the opposite of mine. With very few exceptions, they are all people who are motivated by a desire to improve their country and communities which they care about deeply. If we want politicians to be more respected, we have to respect each other a little bit better.

Working with colleagues, I have had the honour of helping to lead Ireland from unemployment to full employment, from budget deficits to budget surplus to a point where we have the resources to invest in public services and public goods in a way we could not in the past, through a pandemic in which we saved lives and livelihoods, and through Brexit, where we prevented a hard border between North and South and protected our place in Europe. We have made the country more equal and modern when it comes to the rights of children, the LGBT community and women. More recently, we led the country through inflation and a cost-of-living crisis, the worst of which is now, thankfully, behind us. We have made work pay better, with higher pay and lower personal taxes, the introduction of a living wage and statutory sick pay, pay-related benefits and better family leave. I was very pleased that at my last Cabinet meeting we approved legislation to introduce auto enrolment, ensuring that all workers will have an occupational pension to top up their State pension when they retire. This is a transformative reform that will make a real difference in the lives of millions of people for decades to come and make our country richer and more financially secure.

I am also pleased that during my time as Taoiseach, we have doubled spending on the arts, culture and sport. This is making a real difference now and will continue to do so into the future. We have increased our spending on international development and expanded our diplomatic footprint around the world, building on Ireland's already strong soft power, and the national broadband plan is under way, bringing fibre-based Internet connections to every home, school, farm and community in Ireland.

I am also proud that we, as Irish people, have welcomed more than 100,000 refugees from Ukraine to our shores when they needed our protection, notwithstanding the enormous challenges it brought. We have reduced consistent poverty and income inequality, and housing construction has more than doubled since 2017, with 500 people becoming homeowners every week now, the highest number in almost two decades. More people are attending higher and further education than ever before and from more diverse backgrounds than ever before. Greenhouse gas emissions are now falling, renewable energy is booming and Ireland is no longer a laggard on climate change. We are turning the tide on climate and biodiversity loss.

With the North-South Ministerial Council having met yesterday, the Good Friday Agreement institutions are working again and the trading relationship with the United Kingdom in the post-Brexit era is settled and stable. Of course, there are many areas in which we have been much less successful as a Government and some in which we have gone backwards, and these are problems still to be solved. There will always be problems to be solved and always more work to be done. This work will now be led by others.

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to wish the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, every success in his new role as Taoiseach. I always knew he would be Taoiseach one day. This is perhaps coming a little sooner than he might have planned or expected, but I know he will rise to the occasion. He has the empathy, energy, experience, campaigning skills and political antennae to take us forward, and I look forward to voting for him and the new Cabinet in the House later day. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

10:55 am

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Can I just, as Ceann Comhairle, say to you, Deputy Varadkar, that I, as Chair, am deeply grateful to you for your constant co-operation, for your total professionalism as a parliamentarian over the years, having held the office of Taoiseach, and for the very sound advice you gave on those occasions when it was required? On behalf of everyone here, I wish you all the very best in the future that lies ahead for you. I am sure it is going to be long, successful and happy.

I now call on the Chief Whip and Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to outline the proposed business for the week.