Ceann Comháirle, I welcome the opportunity to move the motion that Dáil Éireann has confidence in the Government, and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Government’s record and our plans for the rest of our mandate.
This is a good time to take stock of the past two years. More importantly it is also a good time to start having an honest debate between two very different views about how we can serve the Irish people and address their concerns.
Fundamentally this is a debate between those who believe in tackling problems and those who believe in exploiting them.
It is between those who have an honest and ambitious programme and based on what can be achieved and those who have taken cynical and populist politics to a new level in our country.
It is a debate between those who understand and respect diversity in politics, and those who have introduced legal threats and online abuse as weapons to silence other members of the Oireachtas and the media.
Today we are being told that the government has supposedly failed because it hasn’t implemented its full programme in just two years. In contrast, last week Deputy McDonald insisted that Sinn Fein should only be judged after 10 years and two full terms of office. As always, double standards are the watchword of this cynical opposition.
Ireland is a modern, diverse and dynamic country. It has problems to overcome of course, but those who deny its successes are simply showing that they have no interest in honest debate.
They are proving that the progress of our country, and the future of our people, is not actually their core concern.
Shouting ‘not enough’, ‘more’ and ‘what-about’ represents an approach to politics that is, at its heart, deeply dishonest.
In my first speech after being nomination by this House for appointment as Taoiseach I explained both how I intended to approach the task of holding this office and the priorities of the then new government.
The two most urgent crises we faced were a historic pandemic and the fastest moving recession ever recorded. It was a time of deep uncertainty and much fear.
I promised then that I as Taoiseach and we as a Government would do everything possible to mitigate the terrible toll of the pandemic and to work to achieve as fast a recovery as possible.
By any fair judgement of our performance on these measures this government has served the Irish people well on these critical challenges.
The truth is that Ireland has been assessed as one of the top three in the world for the resilience of its Covid response. We have the second highest vaccination rate in Europe. Most importantly, the fact is that this Government’s actions in responding to the greatest public health crisis of our times, protected public health and saved lives.
Of course, we didn’t get everything right, but we got more right than the great majority of governments. If Ireland had performed simply at the average level of the European Union, there would have been over 4,500 more deaths. If we had performed at the same level as the UK, there would have been 5,500 more deaths.
How often did we have to read and listen to attacks on our vaccine rollout as being supposedly a shambles? It was the largest public health mobilisation in Irish history, and frankly the glitches it had were minor.
In attacking the government, the opposition likes to ignore or dismiss actions which dramatically reduced the impact of covid here versus other countries, reinforcing the equally strong fact of its cynicism.
And so too they will ignore the fact that sustained government action has helped our country emerge from recession faster and more successfully than most countries.
Within weeks of taking office we published new policies to limit job losses, help companies and help families. Initiatives were designed, agreed and implemented at a record speed and with very clear success.
The hard yards of working to ensure high levels of employment and a strong economy is something which appears to bore the opposition. These issues have basically disappeared from their daily agenda and every time a journalist has the temerity to report good news they get accused of being a hack.
But Ireland today has the lowest youth unemployment in Europe. The economy is strong and it is not just supporting employment, it is providing the resources to deliver essential social investments.
This government understands the fact that you need a strong economy to support social services and investment, and we are proud of the fact that we have led Ireland so quickly out of recession and that this enables us to help people when world affairs are having such a direct impact.
Two years ago, I told the Dáil that the three parties which had agreed to form a government understood that we had to work constructively together. The members of Fianna Fáil participated in the largest party vote ever recorded in Ireland and expressed clearly their desire to take on a daunting agenda.
As a government we have disagreements, but we work hard to overcome them and to honour the ambitious and achievable programme.
We each have our priorities and remain separate parties. This is how successful coalition governments across Europe work.
I want to thank members of each of the parties for their work and their constructive approach. While the opposition acts as if the pandemic had no impact on government, it was in fact profound in placing great pressure on individuals.
Due to the limited time available I can’t cover all of the areas of the government’s work but I want to broadly address what we have been working to achieve in the past two years and what we aim to achieve over the next two.
I have been determined that we address the great unmet challenge of the Good Friday Agreement to build stronger links and understanding on this island. I immediately launched the first sustained effort to develop these links through the Shared Island Initiative. This is supporting a wide agenda of investments, dialogues and essential studies.
For the first time we are actually preparing vital, rigorous and independent work on key services and policies on both sides of the Border.
It is a striking fact that the party which is today telling us how our country is a basket case where everything has been wrong for 100 years is at the same time claiming that country is so successful that it should be irresistible to the North.
As a government we continue to work to force all who have responsibility for the Agreement to make it work – and we have been resolute in demanding that both the text and the spirit of the Agreement be honoured.
The strength of our relations with other European countries and with the Commission has been a vital support for Ireland in opposing the legal and political vandalism directed against the Northern Ireland Protocol and the progress it protects.
In contrast to the oppositions consistent anti-EU stands, we see the EU as a forum for enabling countries to prosper, protecting democracy from the extremes and solidarity such as the recovery funding which we negotiated. We are proud of our record of support for democracy and the cause of Ukraine – something we have promoted actively in Europe and in the UN’s Security Council.
My party went into this government eager to embrace the hardest challenges. We understood that they were never going to be areas which could be solved quickly, but we were determined to deliver sustained action which would show real results over the full course of the mandate of the Dáil and the government.
The challenge of ensuring housing for a rapidly rising population is one of the most important facing Irish politics. Of all areas, this is one of those which is least open to overnight change. However it can be done a lot faster than the target of 15 years set out in a proposed housing strategy for Northern Ireland published by Deputy McDonald’s hand-picked Housing Minister in Belfast.
There is now in place an ambitious, funded and comprehensive plan for expanding housing provision for the benefit of all sectors. Housing for All is still in its early stages, but the facts show that planning applications are up, housing construction is up and housing completion is up. And this is in spite of the thousands of homes which one party has sought to block – more interested in talking about a crisis then allowing it to be addressed.
But most importantly this government has in two years put in place the largest social housing programme in our history.
Home ownership matters as well. The new affordable housing scheme launched last week is an example of a plan directed at those most in need. In its first 24 hours nearly 400 pre-applications were received and thousands more looked for information.
The sustainable way of controlling prices and rents is to increase supply.
The latest twelve-monthly figures recorded 35,000 new homes – the highest figure since records began. Only the most cynical could claim that that is a failure.
There is no doubt that when our mandate finishes we will have delivered a sustained and significant increase in housing of all types and especially social housing.
We will also deliver a sustained improvement in key health services and in particular those where the pressures are being felt the most.
The pandemic was a dramatic challenge for health services and everyone who works within them. It led many thousands of treatments being cancelled and lengthened nearly all waiting lists.
However, in spite of the pandemic and the recession, the last two years are seeing vital improvements.
There are already an extra 850 permanent new hospital beds. New diagnostic facilities are being put in place. A major increase in staff and investment in the ambulance service is underway. Mental health services are expanding and a range of initiatives are underway to support wider mental health challenges.
And new services are being rolled-out. A comprehensive Women’s Health Programme, including the first national programmes on endometritis and menopause have been developed, funded and are underway.
And access and fairness are being extended with an extension of medical cards, the abolition of hospital charges for under-16s and other measures.
And yes, there are many more issues to tackle, there are many who do not have access to the services they need – but you help these people by delivering credible, sustained and secure services not by the cynical politics of refusing to acknowledge any progress.
This year 469,000 people currently on waiting will benefit from this progress – and many more will benefit during the rest of our term.
Education is a core priority for us. A new Department of Further and Higher Education is in place. For our schools, I am proud that over the past two years we have begun an ambitious programme to increase resources, reform provision and develop facilities.
Because of this government, Irish children are benefitting from smaller classes, with disadvantaged schools benefiting the most. Guidance provision has been made available in every school. There are 300 new school building projects on site and many more being advanced. And the most significant reform of the Senior Cycle in fifty years has begun.
Having been the minister who gave the first recognition to special needs as a national concern, supporting students with special needs has always been a deep priority for me and it is a priority for this government. The number of special needs teachers and assistants is up 10% in only two years and action is being taken on a range of support issues.
When we have finished our mandate, we will deliver a significant and sustained improvement in special needs education – and this will take a lot less time than the ten years Deputy McDonald has promised.
We have also ensured with our colleagues in government that the Budgets which we have implemented are supporting an expansion of public services, have helped our country through a recession, underpin a new National Development Programme and have given the most help to those most in need.
Every single analysis has confirmed that our Budgets have been progressive and have given the greatest benefit to those on lowest and fixed incomes such as pensioners and families facing back to school costs.
Over the past year we have face a new international challenge – dramatic pressures on prices and the impact which these are having on people.
We cannot start chasing our tails on inflation – making thinks ever worse with massive compensation for everyone. We can and we are prioritising those under the most pressure. We will prepare and implement a Budget which does as much as possible to protect the economy, protect public services and relieve the cost of living pressures on working families and low incomes.
And we will also continue to focus on the existential challenge of climate change and the loss of our island’s bio-diversity. We reject the posturing of those who claim they want to save the planet but oppose everything difficult required to achieve this objective.
The Climate Action Act that Minister Ryan developed, published and already brought into law is both transformative and challenging and it has the support of the entire government.
Addressing climate change and protecting our biodiversity is not about any one sector, it’s about everyone. And this government will implement sustained support for a just transition which lessons the impact and creates new opportunities for areas most affected.
We will also continue to show a deep commitment to rural Ireland and to the role of farm families and the food industry – our largest indigenous industry.
In the past two years we have already negotiated a new CAP which delivers €1 billion extra for farm families. We are working on an ambitious and achievable sectoral plan on climate which will deliver new supports for farms.
And, in spite of the pressure of a full agenda, we have published and will enact proposals to deliver fairness and transparency in pricing for farmers.
In this and in every element of government, and in spite of unprecedented challenges because of the pandemic, we have worked to implement a programme which will over our full mandate deliver real and sustained progress for the Irish people.
When we hear the loud and aggressive speeches of the opposition that nothing is being done, that the people are being ignored, that everything is miserable, that we live in a failed state it’s not hard to understand what’s going on. It is the same aggressive populist politics which we are seeing in much of the world at the moment.
But this will not last, because the extreme cynicism of this strategy is becoming clearer by the day.
It will run out of road. It will be found out.
They push aside the fact that the government confronted and overcame the challenges of an historic pandemic and recession – demanding today that we be condemned for not delivering everything in two years.
I am proud of what my party and our partners in government have together helped our country to overcome in the past two years – and the policies we have put in place for sustained, long-term progress.
We believe in a politics which works for the long-term interests of our country not one looks for issues to exploit.