A year in minority Government and standing up for the political centre

8th May, 2017

While 2016 was a bad year for centrist politics, 2017 has given more hope for optimism. The Dutch and French elections, presaged by the outcome of the Austrian presidential election last summer, have seen the extremes underperform and moderate voices win the day. This, I believe, is linked to the strengthening of the Eurozone economy and the belief amongst many that, finally, things are looking up.


Here, the Partnership Government is one year old this week and, while looking always to the future, we can reflect on the fact that we are playing our part in the steadying of centrist politics. Since taking office, in an environment of great scepticism, we have maintained stability and taken the next steps on our national journey.


Our economy continues to grow. Our society continues to heal. I am heartened that more of us are in work, fewer of us are on the dole, and more people are now coming to live in Ireland than are leaving it.


Investment is up too – we are implementing the Capital Plan, and we are increasing investment by €5 billion on what was originally envisaged when the Plan was published in 2015. Over €2 billion of this increased investment has already been allocated to Rebuilding Ireland; our plan to tackle the housing shortage and the scourge of homelessness.


Our plans for transport will see Luas Cross City running by the end of the year, while Metro North moves to planning and design stage and our road network around the country is upgraded.  


Similarly, work is starting, at long last, on the National Children’s Hospital, improving the experience and outcomes for sick children while we also invest in our primary care centres, as part of the greatest level of health spending in the history of the State.


All this is taking place as unemployment approaches a post-crash low of six per cent. This reduction did not happen quickly, or by accident. In reducing unemployment, we saw falls of one tenth of one per cent, month on month, for five years – undramatic, except for those who secured a job, and incremental. This is thanks to the gradual return of confidence that our policies have enabled.  


It is a similar picture when it comes to our public finances, which are now moving towards a sustainable position. And while the job is far from finished, it is fair to say that in 2011, when things were at their most bleak, few would have predicted the kind of progress we have made would be possible at this stage.


Great threats to our progress are there, of course. The decisions of electorates in Britain and America pose great challenges for our country and the European Union, of which we remain a committed member.


In particular, the hardening tone of both politicians and the media in Britain in recent weeks, as Brexit and general election debates become one and the same, highlights the divergent paths our countries are taking- and how difficult the divorce negotiations are going to be.


Broader geo-political trends towards protectionism are troubling too.


There are home-grown challenges as well. In the coming weeks, the issue of public sector pay and pensions will be centre stage, and will be a key test for our national resolve not to return to the unsustainable spending policies of the past.


The Public Service Pay Commission’s report, which is due shortly, will outline the facts when it comes to pay and pensions, in a transparent fashion. Equipped with this information, both sides will meet before the end of this month to begin negotiations on an extension to the Lansdowne Road Agreement; one that is fair, affordable and sustainable. After all, the unfunded spending increase of today is the savage pay cut of tomorrow. Nobody wants to go down that path again.


Agreeing a deal with not be without difficulty but I believe all sides will enter negotiations in good faith and with the shared objective of reaching consensus.  If and when such a deal is reached, this will inform our plans for Budget 2018, which I plan to deliver with Minister Noonan in October.


Recent tax return figures, while showing continued growth, were lower than expected and remind us that we need to remain prudent. The returns also underline the need for a fair but sustainable deal on pay, rooted in economic reality.


The importance of collective agreements cannot be understated – they are an example of centrist politics at its best and avoid a situation whereby those who shout loudest benefit most.


None of this will be easy. But as well as posing a challenge, the pay talks allow us the opportunity to show that in the era of new politics, we are determined to maintain a sensible approach to spending.


So, as my officials and I chart a course for a new pay deal and geo-political events such as Brexit unfold, the 32nd Dáil enters its second year. We know that the experience of minority Government has not always been easy. Without a majority in Dáil Éireann, it is trickier to pass legislation. No longer can the Cabinet simply decide- others must work with us, and we with them. Opposition leaders, backbenchers and Committee members must all now play their part, constructively. To reach agreement, those of us in the responsible middle ground of politics must be willing to compromise.


While new politics has its critics, the evidence is there to show that compromise is possible. On water charges, a deal was agreed. Budget 2017 passed, despite predictions to the contrary. Even the agreement reached on Dáil reform itself was a result of compromise and cooperation.


This system as it currently exists is far from perfect, but it is up to all of us to make it work. Indeed, it may take years for the new dispensation to result in a changed culture amongst Oireachtas members which will allow it function as fully as it should.


But to say that the Oireachtas, or Government, is at a standstill is simply not true. Twenty pieces of legislation are on the Dáil Order Paper, with nine before the Seanad. Twenty four bills are currently being drafted in Government departments and every week the Dáil debates Private Members’ Motions and Topical Issues, with 134 Private Members’ Bills published in the last 12 months.


The number of Opposition bills, and the reduction in the time allotted to Government to pass its programme, may make the passage of new legislation slower, but it may be none the worse for that. Reflection and consideration are good attributes for any administration to possess.


So, as others gripe, the Government governs. To meet the challenges we face, we must root our political approach in the centre of public opinion, building consensus and seeking agreement whenever possible. Indeed, this is what the electorate mandated us to do.


And while it is popular to shout loudly rather than to knuckle down and work hard, it is absolutely vital that this Government- unprecedented and unique as it is- continues to build on the incremental change of its predecessor and to secure a prosperous and stable future for us all.