Five years ago we entered an election in circumstances which were embarrassing for our country. The outgoing government had just entered a bailout agreement with the Troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment was at 14.3%.
The global economic situation has improved, and Ireland has more than taken advantage of it. We are now the fastest growing economy in the EU, with unemployment at 8.8% and falling, and a steadily improving rate of job creation. We have regained a position of respect within the European Union. This was done under the guidance of the Troika institutions, a program Ireland successfully exited from. Ireland compares very favourably to other countries which were very badly affected by the global economic crisis. This government of Fine Gael and Labour deserves credit for this stewardship of the economy.
No government shifts and improves a country’s budgetary position and economic standing as significantly as has been done here without taking decisions which merit or deserve criticism. This can be particularly said in the area of housing. However, what matters most is that there is a strong environment favouring job creation and growing incomes, to create the resources to tackle these problems, whether privately or by government.
But apart from the improved economic situation, there are many other ways in which we are a changed country since early 2011. We have seen a significant program of positive law reform.
It is now a crime to withhold information on the abuse of children. Our Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke out strongly in the Dáil, condemning the role of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican in covering up the sexual abuse of children, the first Taoiseach to do so in clear and unambiguous terms. Children are now specifically protected in the Constitution, so that their voice can be heard in the legal process and their best interests considered.
Instead of filing in the District Court, in between regular business there, new Irish citizens now swear their allegiance in welcoming and open Citizenship Ceremonies.
After a wait of 21 years, and many governments, we finally had legislation in response to the X Case, which activists had called for since the judgment, legislation which certainly came at political cost, the first change to abortion law in this country since 1861. I would support more extensive reform, but this is as far as our current constitutional position allows, and it made space for debate on the next stage from here.
Local authorities now have the power to alter the local property tax within a range of 15% on either side of a base rate, giving much greater meaning and effect to local elections than before. The next Ceann Comhairle will be elected by secret ballot of TDs, creating a measure of independence from the government.
Reform of minor sentencing now allows for fines by installments, rather than needlessly sending people for short prison sentences.
We had the beginning of the process of school divestment from religious management, though admittedly this has been a process that has been slower than desired.
Gender quotas for candidate selection at general elections were introduced; though it will take more than one election to have an effect on the makeup of the Dáil, it is the beginning of a process.
A new Register of Lobbyists was created to monitor corruption in public services and provision.
The government called a vote on marriage equality, and with so many others too, strongly campaigned for a Yes vote. Both parties did so enthusiastically, and our country had a moment of pride on the world stage when we became the first in the world to vote in support of equal marriage in a popular referendum, in a campaign that captured the public imagination.
Last year also saw the enactment of one of the best gender recognition laws worldwide, with provision within the act itself for progressive review in two years’ time.
The Children and Family Relationships Act was the most comprehensive review of family law since the 1960s, which among its many provisions, gave fathers greater automatic guardianship in cases of cohabitation, allowed cohabiting couples or civil partners as well as married couples to adopt jointly, and provided for donor-assisted reproduction.
Changes to equality law mean that the ethos of a school or hospital can no longer be the basis of employment discrimination solely on the basis of personal characteristics like sexuality, or family status, or any of the other grounds of anti-discrimination.
I will be voting for a return of this government of Fine Gael and Labour. I do not expect it to be returned to office. But I do expect that it will be remembered as a reforming government, and that these many reforms will stand well to this country, improving the lives of those who live here in many small and significant ways, allowing us to continue to become a more open society.
Much later than initially intended, these are details on the proposals on political reform which were carried by vote last Saturday week at Young Fine Gael Summer School, on 9 July. Some themes run through these, of distinguishing clearly between the roles of elected representatives at a local and at a national level.
The most notable call was for the party whip to be relaxed for non-budgetary votes. This was to be on our agenda before Denis Naughton lost the whip for his vote against the government on Roscommon hospital, but the incident served as a concrete example in people’s minds. My own reasoning is that for debates in the Dáil to mean something, there should be times when those speaking should be trying to convince others, and genuinely hope to change their fellow TDs’ minds. There are times watching TDs traipse in to vote by party line on an amendment to a private members’ bill, and then by the same numbers on the new motion, that we may as well have trained monkeys to press the right button. With a government majority so large, this is the perfect opportunity to allow TDs have a say for themselves.
In an effort to strengthen the role of county councils, we passed motions calling for the abolition of town councils, and to remove the right of Oireachtas members to be treated as county councillors at a local level. The latter provision would clearly delineate the distinct roles of local and national politicians, and could be achieved simply by amending the Local Government Act 2003, deleting Section 3. It wouldn’t eliminate TDs acting locally, but it would reduce their capacity to do so.
A motion opposing the government’s proposal on gender quotas was carried. While the participation of women in politics in Ireland is incredibly low by European standards, t is a very blunt instrument, that does not address the deeper structural problems limiting participation. There are ways around it too, such as parties adding women to the ticket where there are already established TDs.
The only proposal that would require a referendum was to lower the age of office for all positions to 18. I can’t imagine a rush of young adults rushing to be elected, but throughout history, and in different countries, there have been those who have led at young ages, whether William Pitt, Michael Collins or Alexander the Great. As any candidate has to be nominated and seek a popular mandate, the constitutional bar seems unnecessary.
This is a full summary of the votes in this political reform session of summer school:
- Young Fine Gael believes that Town and Borough Councils should be abolished. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael believes legislation should be brought forward to outlaw members of the Oireachtas making official representations at council level on behalf of individual constituents. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael calls for the voting age for local elections to be lowered to 16. – Defeated
- Young Fine Gael calls for the electorate to the presidency to be extended to all Irish citizens, with voting in embassies and by postal vote across the world. – Defeated
- Young Fine Gael calls for a universal age of 18 for eligibility to serve in political office. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael opposes the Governments position on the introduction of gender quotas whereupon a political party will have its funding reduced if it does not have a minimum number of female candidates. – Carried
- Young Fine Gael calls for the whip system to be relaxed in the case of non-budgetary votes. – Carried