Fine Gael remains dedicated to the Just Society – Irish Times op-ed

30th May, 2017

Declan Costello, the author of Fine Gael’s Towards a Just Society, was once a TD for the part of Dublin that I now represent.  It is a huge privilege to follow in his footsteps.


Since my appointment as a Minister, I have kept a copy of his document in my office. It sits beside a book titled Towards a New Ireland by Garret Fitzgerald. Written in 1972, seven years after Costello’s text, it discusses how a peaceful, united Ireland would look and, importantly, what steps needed to be taken to respecting all outlooks and religious backgrounds on the island to make unification happen.


Another intellectual parent of the Just Society was Michael Sweetman, author and visionary industrialist who died tragically at the age of 36 and who is remembered not just by his contribution to Irish life but by the great loss his death represented. In March 2014, I was honoured to give the inaugural Michael Sweetman Memorial Lecture, noting amongst other things in my remarks that Michael would no doubt champion the role the European Union has played in progressing social justice in this country.


So while I cannot claim the personal, familial connection to the Just Society that Mark Fitzgerald so eloquently referred to in last week’s Irish Times, I can say that it is the guiding compass of my membership of Fine Gael and frames my entire political outlook.


My choice in the leadership election does not blind me to the immense capacities of Simon Coveney. It has been an immense privilege to work with Simon over the years and I look forward to continuing to do so. I have seen at first hand his skills and strengths and while it might be clichéd to say we are lucky as a party to have two such strong candidates, it is also true.


My support for Leo, though, comes from my belief that he values the Just Society as much as I do and places its spirit in a modern, outward looking and open Ireland. I hold this view for three reasons.


Firstly, the Just Society says that Fine Gael seeks office “to work towards a society in which freedom and equality are not concepts in a textbook but are expressed in real and tangible conditions which all our people can enjoy”. So does Leo. This is shown by the breadth of reform of our social welfare system that he has instigated and the commitment to disadvantaged people he showed in last year’s Budget when together we increased job seekers allowance and other social welfare payments for the first time in several years.


Secondly, the Just Society majors on the importance of social investment and better economic planning. Social investment, as the name suggests, sees the State invest in people through education, childcare, healthcare and social supports. Proposals to integrate our USC and PRSI systems and set a revised national debt target offer a new macroeconomic policy model to allow Ireland to respond to new opportunities and risks. This will achieve the economic planning that Costello says in the document “involves the conscious management, to the extent consistent with political freedom and individual liberty, of the course in which the national economy should be directed”.


And thirdly, Costello’s vision is an internationalist one, and so is Leo’s. The Just Society is internationalist, much like Leo’s Taking Ireland Forward document launched last week, which seeks to double Ireland’s global footprint, make Ireland an anti-climate change leader and to prepare for a United Ireland in our lifetime. Leo has anchored his proposals in a recognition of a global Ireland in a globalised world, rooted in a principle of openness- while others look to borders and walls, Ireland will take a different path.


So let’s be clear when Leo speaks about representing those that ‘get out of bed early’, it is not just those who go to work, but those caring for relatives, looking for a job, retraining or staying at home to look after their children. By strengthening our social contract with them we can have the resources to do more for all.


Old-fashioned ideas of left and right are just that- old-fashioned. Increasingly in modern politics, the real divide is between those who wish to trade, cooperate and thrive in a globalised world and those who portray such globalisation, and the institutions that support it, as the enemy. Politicians like Justin Trudeau and Emanuel Macron understand this and chart a course for their countries based on openness and tolerance, rooted firmly in the political centre.


Fine Gael is in the process of re-shaping the centre ground of Irish politics, not moving away from it. Leo, and indeed the entire leadership election process, will create a stronger political centre in a changing world.