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New cabinet will face many massive challenges – Ó Caoláin

7 May, 2008


Speaking in the Dáil this evening after new Taoiseach Brian Cowen named his first cabinet Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD said the new cabinet will face many challenges. Deputy Ó Caoláin said he deplores the proposal to retain Deputy Mary Harney as Minister for Health and set out the challenges Sinn Féin see are facing the new cabinet.

He said, "The new cabinet will face many massive challenges. The new Taoiseach will take up responsibility for the continuing consolidation of the peace process and the developing all-Ireland political process. He brings with him his experience as Minister for Foreign Affairs. I believe his commitment is sincere. Like the outgoing Taoiseach, the incoming Taoiseach has played his part. Tremendous progress has been made. But it must be remembered that this is a process. Momentum is required.

"I deplore the proposal to retain Deputy Harney as Health Minister, not because I bear ill-will towards her personally, but because her retention in that post signals a continuation of the disastrous policies fronted by this Minister. I say fronted deliberately because these are Fianna Fáil policies and every Deputy and Senator of that party bears collective responsibility for them. They cannot hide behind Minister Harney and she cannot hide behind the HSE.

"The hands-off approach to economic management adopted to date should be brought to an end by the new Finance Minister. There should be action to tackle those factors undermining competitiveness such as deficiencies in transport and communications infrastructure. There must be intervention to provide training and up-skilling to vulnerable workers and those recently made unemployed.

"Minister Mary Hanafin has, in no small way, contributed to the range of major problems now plain to see in the education system. The problems include the state of existing school buildings and the shortage of accommodation, her attack on early immersion Irish language education, the under funding of primary schools, insufficient third-level grants and school secretaries being paid disparate rates of pay and in some cases under the minimum wage. And of course we have the scandal of families of children with autism and other special needs being denied the services they so desperately require. The new minister must make a fresh start.

"The fight against drugs must receive the priority and resources it requires. The full cost of the drugs crisis ranges from overdoses and road deaths, hospital stays, addiction treatments, social welfare payments and absenteeism from work to gangland murder and intimidation. Funding to frontline services must be sufficient and secure. Pilot projects should be mainstreamed without delay." ENDS

Full text of Deputy Ó Caoláin's speech follows:

Nomination of New Ministers

Ar dtús ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur leis an méid a dúirt an Taoiseach nua maidir leis an Ghaeilge. Tá súil agam go mbeidh toradh praicticúil air sin, mar shampla le tacaíocht iomlán don tumoideachas, do fhorbairt eacnamaíochta na Gaeltachta, do Bhille Teanga sna Sé Chontae agus do mhéadú ar úsáid na Gaeilge anseo san Oireachtas.

The departure of the outgoing Taoiseach has been one of the longest goodbyes in political history. I do not begrudge him his moment of history in Washington or his day in the sun beside the River Boyne. But his party, Fianna Fáil, has been benefiting from a virtual political truce called by Fine Gael and Labour since he announced his resignation. And with the PDs and the Greens, all these parties are in the 'Yes' camp in the Lisbon Treaty debate. They are very clearly not representing large swathes of their own support bases who oppose ratification of Lisbon. A cosy media consensus follows suit.

Fianna Fáil has been riding high as health cuts, education shortfalls, job losses and the overall economic slump were swept from the headlines. The politics of personality has reigned supreme. The new Taoiseach and the Ministers may bask again in the media spotlight today but tomorrow and next week and next month will present a very different reality.

They will face massive challenges. The new Taoiseach will take up responsibility for the continuing consolidation of the peace process and the developing all-Ireland political process. He brings with him his experience as Minister for Foreign Affairs. I believe his commitment is sincere. Like the outgoing Taoiseach, the incoming Taoiseach has played his part. Tremendous progress has been made. But it must be remembered that this is a process. Momentum is required.

Yesterday was a good day and as an Irish republican I would see what happened at the site of the Battle of the Boyne not as commemorating two foreign kings who vied for the supremacy of Ireland and Britain at the cost of much Irish blood but as the celebration of new relationships among all the people who share this island. The Agreements of Good Friday 1998 and St. Andrews 2006 form the basis of these new relationships and of the successful new political dispensation. The transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast is an essential requirement and it will be a serious setback if there is slippage from the promised date of transfer of powers in this month of May 2008. That is the biggest single challenge facing the new Taoiseach with regard to the all-Ireland political process. I urge him to spare no effort to ensure the delivery of that absolutely vital element of the agreements on which so much progress has been made and on which rest so much hope for the future.

Sinn Féin seeks constructive consensus based on progressive politics. We seek all-party co-operation to build on the peace process, to develop the all-Ireland political dynamic and to work in a planned way towards the unification of our island and of all the people who call it home. We look forward to working with the new Taoiseach on that great national project.

The new Taoiseach is also a former Health Minister. He preceded Mícheál Martin who anchored the Government Health Strategy of 2001, the longest list of broken promises ever to gather dust on a shelf. He was famous for commissioning reports but presided over an unreformed health service with escalating waiting lists. He in turn was succeeded by the present Minister Mary Harney. Her term of office as Health Minister has been nothing short of disastrous. She oversaw the creation of the HSE - the quango from hell. There is no longer any democratic accountability for health policy and healthcare delivery. Minister Harney has pursued a ruthless drive to centralise and privatise our health services. On top of this are the current HSE cutbacks which are attacking already overstretched and under-resourced services and are making patients suffer.

I deplore the proposal to retain Deputy Harney as Health Minister, not because I bear ill-will towards her personally, but because her retention in that post signals a continuation of the disastrous policies fronted by this Minister. I say fronted deliberately because these are Fianna Fáil policies and every Deputy and Senator of that party bears collective responsibility for them. They cannot hide behind Minister Harney and she cannot hide behind the HSE.

I have urged the new Taoiseach to change direction and I again urge him to do so, even though he wishes to retain Deputy Harney in Health. I strongly contend that no party calling itself republican can continue with current health policies which are deepening the divide in our two-tier system.

Sinn Féin would like to be part of an all-party agreement on health. The foundation of that agreement would be the ending of healthcare apartheid and the creation of a single-tier service with equal access for all based on need and need alone. Centralisation and privatisation should end, with services supported and developed at our local hospitals. We need a coalition for equality and excellence in our health services, a coalition that will build up our public health system and harness the commitment and dedication of health services workers. It would be an alliance of those workers along with communities and patients groups and everyone in our society concerned with building better and fairer health services.

The new Taoiseach comes into office from Finance at a time of economic downturn. Unemployment rates continue to increase. Nothing has been done to protect or retrain workers in vulnerable sectors. Tax revenue is well below projections. €927 million or 6.5 per cent less in tax revenue was collected during the first four months of 2008 than in 2007. Under Finance Minister Cowen and his predecessors the exchequer became ever more dependent on revenue from construction and domestic consumption. We are paying the price for this now as revenue from these sectors declines.

The Government has allowed the economy to become unsustainable as economic growth over recent years was driven by domestic consumption rather than by exports or trade. Nothing was done to tackle this. This dependence on economic growth on domestic consumption left the economy particularly vulnerable. In fact both Finance Minister Cowen and Mícheál Martin, at Enterprise Trade and Employment, failed to take any action in response to the downturn in the economy.

The hands-off approach to economic management adopted to date should be brought to an end by the new Finance Minister. There should be action to tackle those factors undermining competitiveness such as deficiencies in transport and communications infrastructure. There must be intervention to provide training and up-skilling to vulnerable workers and those recently made unemployed. Tax and PRSI cuts proposed in the Programme for Government are not viable and should not go ahead and revenue should be retained to provide public services.

The new Taoiseach faces a major challenge in attempting to negotiate a successor to the Towards 2016 agreement. He should ignore the hypocritical calls for pay restraint from top management in the private sector who have awarded themselves massive pay rises while ordinary workers struggle to keep up with the cost of living. Any new agreement must also guarantee the right to union recognition.

We urge the immediate introduction of legislation on agency workers based on the principle of equal rights. This issue is damaging our economy by allowing a race to the bottom in terms of workers' rights and wages. Agency workers are being used to casualise the labour market and the claims of employers' bodies that agency workers allow us to be more competitive are blown out of the water by the fact that every country ranking more competitive than us in Europe already has protective legislation for agency workers. The trade union movement has called this the potential breaking point of the talks on social partnership.

The new Minister for Social and Family Affairs, as well as raising welfare payments to a decent standard, should review the entire system of social welfare to make it customer accessible and more efficient, as well as geared towards removing barriers to work. Specifically he/she should step back from the plan to push single parents into the workplace while there are still no adequate childcare facilities available to them. Two weeks paid paternity leave should be introduced and maternity benefit payment should be raised to an acceptable living standard.

Minister Mary Hanafin has, in no small way, contributed to the range of major problems now plain to see in the education system. The problems include the state of existing school buildings and the shortage of accommodation, her attack on early immersion Irish language education, the under funding of primary schools, insufficient third-level grants and school secretaries being paid disparate rates of pay and in some cases under the minimum wage. And of course we have the scandal of families of children with autism and other special needs being denied the services they so desperately require. The new minister must make a fresh start.

The challenges for the Justice Minister are huge. Successive Fianna Fáil led governments refused to properly resource the six-year National Drugs Strategy which concludes this year. The Strategy has been starved of funding. In the meantime the heroin epidemic has spread beyond the capital and cocaine is in use in every town on the island. Drug-related and gangland crime have flourished as a direct result of government in-action. Under Budget 2008 finance to the Drugs Initiative/Young People's Facilities and Services Fund which includes the National Drugs Strategy is to be €64 million. Contrast this figure with the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund which is to receive €76.6 million and it is clear where the Government's priorities lie.

The HSE have already made cuts in the area of drug treatment and have reneged on promises to deliver. The fight against drugs must receive the priority and resources it requires. The full cost of the drugs crisis ranges from overdoses and road deaths, hospital stays, addiction treatments, social welfare payments and absenteeism from work to gangland murder and intimidation. Funding to frontline services must be sufficient and secure. Pilot projects should be mainstreamed without delay.

The New Agriculture Minister needs to take a strong line in relation to the WTO negotiations and ensure that the EU Commission does not sacrifice the interests of Irish agriculture in pursuit of a deal favourable to the larger member states. The current proposals, associated with Trade Commissioner Mandelson but in reality the Commission's proposals, represent a betrayal of the commitment given to farmers in 2003 when they agreed to the reform of CAP and in particular to the introduction of the decoupled Single Farm Payment. The new Minister must ensure that that commitment is not reneged upon and that farmers are not forced down a road that could lead to the decimation of the sector with all the implications that would have in terms of food production, employment and the fabric of rural Ireland.

Under this government Irish neutrality and independent international policy have been undermined as never before. Shannon Airport became a staging post in the US-British war in Iraq. Our neutrality and sovereignty are under attack again in the Lisbon Treaty. As the sole party in the Oireachtas calling for a 'No' vote I reaffirm Sinn Féin's determination to campaign for rejection of the Lisbon Treaty and for a better deal for Ireland and for Europe.

Sinn Féin represents a different voice. We will not be part of any cosy consensus. Therefore we will not be supporting this Cabinet and we will continue in constructive opposition, representing as honestly and as comprehensively as we can all who have elected us and also the people who have been abandoned by those in whom they placed their trust.

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