Good afternoon everyone.
I was delighted to be invited to speak to you here today at the Spring Lunch, not least because it reminds me that it is, at last, Spring – I suspect the weather gods, however, have not gotten the memo.
I am particularly glad to be here with the Institute of Directors in Ireland which plays such an important role in supporting and developing Ireland’s business leaders.
The personal and professional development of your members not only helps Irish businesses grow, but also helps to support the Government:- without a vibrant economy we cannot fund services like schools and hospitals or build the kind of social and economic infrastructure we need for the future.
And considering the various challenges, both at home and abroad, that we face, that could not be more important.
We face the very real challenges of Brexit.
We await the details of President Trump’s plans on trade and taxation.
The economic situation across the Eurozone remains volatile, with debt concerns in Greece and banking worries in Italy concerning Governments across the European Union.
And that is why we must be ready.
One of the ways we are preparing for the future is the real progress we have made in reforming how we carry out the business of government in our country.
Governing well means governing effectively, governing efficiently, and most importantly governing always in the interest of you, the taxpayer.
I said as much in my first speech in my current role on the night of my appointment. I promised in the Dáil that I would never forget the word “public” in my title and that I was the guardian not of the Government’s money and certainly not of my money, but of the public’s money.
Examples of real, tangible reform of Government in recent years include the Freedom of Information Act 2014, the Protected Disclosures Act 2014 and the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015.
You may also be aware that a draft General Scheme for a Data Sharing and Governance Bill was approved by Government in 2015 and is progressing to Oireachtas Scrutiny in the near future.
That Bill will mandate greater data sharing between public bodies; provide a lawful mechanism to facilitate data sharing between those bodies; and define standards for data governance and security to be followed in any data sharing activities.
On the last point, the safeguarding of the privacy of businesses and individuals, is a primary concern of mine and will be central to our approach.
Also, the Public Sector Standards Bill 2015 is currently progressing through the Oireachtas and my aim is for the Bill to be enacted before the summer recess.
The Bill aims to significantly enhance the existing framework for identifying, disclosing and managing conflicts of interest and minimising corruption risks.
On a related matter, I am glad to say that the level of compliance with the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 is very encouraging with currently over 11,000 returns submitted to the lobbying register.
I know that many of you will interact with the register, sometimes happily, sometimes impatiently, but always diligently! And I want to thank you all for that.
More than 1,600 persons and organisations have now registered and we are now undertaking the first review of the operation of the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 as required under the Act, including a public consultation process.
THE CODE OF PRACTICE FOR THE GOVERNANCE OF STATE BODIES
How State bodies conduct their business is also a vital part of good governance for the country and one of the first things I did as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform was to publish the updated Code of Practice which is designed to ensure that both commercial and non-commercial State bodies meet the highest standards of corporate governance.
It followed a detailed review of the previous Code and the issues raised, including by the Institute, and is based on the underlying principles of good governance:
- Probity; and
- Long-term sustainable success.
One of the most important aspects of the Code is about developing capacity and ensuring that State bodies, which serve you, the taxpayer, have the right balance of skills and knowledge to do the job and that this is constantly monitored.
Because if we want a State that works well, our institutions and agencies must work well too.
STATE BOARD APPOINTMENTS
I hardly need to tell this audience that the Board of a company is vital to its future.
So it is with State bodies too. It is with this in mind that the Government agreed in 2014 to introduce a new system for State board appointments based on key principles such as;
- The promotion of wider access to opportunities on State Boards;
- The establishment of detailed and comprehensive criteria for those roles;
- And the introduction of transparent and rigorous assessment of candidates against these criteria.
A key aim was to encourage more women on to State boards and of more than 7,500 applications for vacancies advertised since the new guidelines were introduced, about a third came from women, with 45% – almost half- of the appointees being female.
Another core objective of the revised Code, supported by the new approach to appointments to State Boards, is to significantly strengthen the role of the Chairperson in the appointments process, including in relation to the assessment of requirements and selection)of candidates for the Board.
I hope and believe this is making a difference.
Many of you may be members of State Boards yourself and I would like to personally thank you for your service, which does not go unnoticed or unvalued.
I know that the Institute of Directors has made a submission to the review of the 2014 Guidelines that has been completed and which I am now considering and will share with the Oireachtas, the public and yourselves in the near future.
THE CHALLENGE OF BREXIT
Making sure that Government and State bodies are working well is important not only in and of itself, but also to ensure we can address the challenges I mentioned earlier- economic instability in the Eurozone, changes in the United States and, perhaps most importantly, Brexit.
I can certainly state unequivocally that the Government is under no illusion about the nature and scale of the Brexit challenge. How we deal with Brexit will define the future of our island for decades to come.
But our priorities are clear:
- Minimising impact on trade and the economy;
- Protecting the Northern Ireland Peace Process;
- Maintaining the Common Travel Area;
- Influencing the future of the European Union.
And we have a plan:
- Deep analysis has taken place across key sectors;
- The critical negotiating priorities have been identified;
- A programme of dialogue with key stakeholders is underway;
- Engagement with other Member States ,the EU institutions and the Barnier Task Force had intensified;
- State agencies have been motivated and economic opportunities are being pursued.
Consultation is a key part of the Government’s preparation for Brexit and there are ongoing meetings with industry and civic society to verify our analysis and research.
The All-Island Dialogue has seen a range of sectoral events across a diverse range of sectors – Agrifood, Enterprise, Transport, Tourism, Energy, Education to name but a few – as well as two plenaries, most recently in Dublin Castle earlier in the month, with over 1,200 delegates representing industries and organisations from across the country.
A PRUDENT BUT AMBITIOUS RESPONSE
Central to the Government’s approach to Brexit is the pursuit of prudent but ambitious economic policies.
In the short term, the Minister for Finance and I have delivered a Budget for 2017 setting out our approach to Brexit and to building a national economic response.
For the third year in succession it was possible to increase resources for public services and infrastructure.
We will spend over €58 billion of taxpayers’ money in 2017.
Resources have been allocated towards areas that may be significantly impacted by Brexit, in particular in our regional and rural communities.
We have stepped up investment in State agencies like Enterprise Ireland, to support entrepreneurship at home, IDA Ireland, to attract foreign investment here and into supports for sectors like Agrifood which might be described as being at the “sharp end” of Brexit.
Beyond these measures, in the longer term, I announced in the Budget a review of current spending to take place in 2017. This will ensure taxpayers’ money is being spent sensibly and strategically, particularly in light of the changed economic and fiscal context.
In tandem with the current spending review, the Capital Plan “Building on Recovery”, which sets out a €42 billion framework to address our priority infrastructure needs up to 2021, is now being reviewed to build on that investment and to ensure that we are investing in the right projects to equip us for a post-Brexit future.
A public consultation will be undertaken to inform the review and I hope many of you will feed into that process.
But just to make it crystal clear, Ireland will remain at the heart of Europe.
Ireland is fully committed to our membership of the European Union and to the Eurozone.
EU membership remains central to the success of our open, competitive economy. It has been the cornerstone of social progress in Ireland over the last generation.
Public support for the European Union in Ireland remains high.
And our shared problems – international peace, climate change, terrorism, migration – can only be addressed in an integrated, international way.
Our interests are best served from within the European Union, helping to shape and influence our times ahead.
I said earlier that the challenges facing us at home and abroad concerned the Government.
I want to assure you that the Government is very much aware that these are concerns you share as well.
Our job over the months and years to come will be to travel with you and face these challenges together, by seizing the opportunities that I am confident will come our way.
Thank you for listening, and thanks again to the Institute for the invitation to speak.