Speech by Minister for European Affairs, Paschal Donohoe TD, in the Dáil on the Government’s priorities for the year ahead

5th March, 2014

This week marks the third anniversary of the formation of this Government. We have come a long way since then. The Ireland of today, while still composed of far too many people who are out of work and who are struggling to make ends meet, is unrecognisable when compared to the one inherited by the Government in March 2011.

In considering the progress made by the Government over the past three years, I will consider our seventh and most recent Presidency of the Council of the European Union and what that meant for Ireland. I will look at how we are developing Oireachtas scrutiny and oversight of EU legislation, the ways in which we are deepening an understanding here at home of how the EU works and finally the approach we need to take for the years ahead.

Cleaning up the mess
In November 2011, just four months before Fine Gael and Labour came to office, Ireland had had officially become a programme country, availing of financial assistance from the European Commission, the European central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This was after months of speculation about the imminent arrival of the IMF to our shores. With our international reputation on the floor, we faced the significant task of renegotiating a deal that was poorly struck with the Troika and of getting a better outcome for Ireland.

That Ireland was one of economic and social devastation and despondency. Every day, news flooded in of more factories to close, more businesses going bust and an unemployment figure spiralling out of control.

Our banks were a mess, our young homeowners were being strangled by personal debt and any hope of a brighter future seemed redundant.

I am not suggesting that the change of Government was the panacea for all ills. But with the determination and relentless energy that was mirrored by the Irish people, Fine Gael and Labour set about righting the wrongs of the previous 14 years, during which time our tax base was eroded and our Exchequer reliant on people buying and selling houses to one another.

On coming to government, we stemmed the flow of job losses that was crippling our country and sending our young people packing in droves. We put measures in place to give those who had jobs certainty about their take-home pay, and those who did not, hope of securing employment and a better future.

Through initiatives such as the Action Plan for Jobs, and job activation measures such as Pathways to Work, JobBridge and SpringBoard, we have moved from a place where we were losing 7,000 jobs a month to one where 61,000 new jobs were created last year. That’s a significant change for a huge number of people. But there are many more that still need help.

Our unemployment rate, which is still too high, has gone from 15.1% in February 2011 to 12% today with the Live Register falling for the last 20 consecutive months. We will continue to build on that progress. This year has been termed the Year of Jobs. The Government’s commitment to getting the unemployment figure down below 10% by 2016 and the country back to full employment by 2020 will not be diminished.

Bailout exit & progress made
As the second country to enter into a bailout programme, the sacrifices made by the Irish people over the past three years meant we were the first to leave. Ten days before Christmas, we regained our economic sovereignty and exited the bailout, without the need for further support. We are now standing on our own two feet.

Our bond yields have decreased from well over 14% to under 4%. We have not only met our budget deficit targets for the last three years in a row, we have exceeded them and we are on track to achieve our 3% target in 2015. This is from a height of 11.9% in 2009.

We have consigned Anglo Irish Bank to the history books, along with the promissory notes that would see the Irish people paying €3.1 billion annually. The new deal renegotiated on our EFSF loans is worth €20 billion to Ireland over the next 10 years.

Our public services are now leaner and more efficient. So too is the Dáil. We have taken steps to assist those whose mortgages have been preventing them from contributing fully to the domestic economy. And we have an economic strategy in place to manage Ireland’s affairs until 2020.

We have achieved all of this through remaining at the heart of Europe. We have maintained our political engagement and influence by our willingness to send a loud, clear message that the Ireland of the recent past is not the Ireland of the future. And that both Ireland and Europe must change to achieve a positive and secure future.

Our Presidency
Last year, our engagement and influence was deepened further, through our seventh Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Under Ireland’s stewardship of the Council, a number of significant decisions were made, many of which were included within the €960 billion Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) which was agreed under our tenure. All of these decisions had a firm focus on the most effective ways to support jobs and growth and to drive us towards a more stable and secure European future.

The focus placed on youth employment and the need to ensure training and support for our young people saw the agreement of the Youth Guarantee. An €8 billion package dedicated to tackling this issue will mean the offer of a job, training or apprenticeship for young Irish people under the age of 24 who are struggling to secure employment and chart a positive and productive way forward.

In a bid to make Ireland the best small country in the world in which to do business, we have been developing and progressing trade links overseas, including on an historic EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). This has the potential to boost the EU’s economy by €120 billion by removing trade barriers between the EU and the US.

The changed mandate of the European Investment Bank, now allows it to provide direct support for projects such as Grangegorman in my own constituency of Dublin Central, which will provide direct employment to local constituencies and provide a much needed stimulus to areas that have been deprived of capital investment for too long.

Finally, the delivery of a more robust banking union, through the Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM) and associated measures, will facilitate renewed confidence in financial system across the eurozone. Early agreement on the Single Resolution Mechanism, at the ECOFIN meeting last December, will allow us to resolve issues with our banks in the same way as we monitor them; centrally. These developments also bring us a step closer to dealing with Ireland’s legacy debt issues.

Scrutiny & Oversight
In the same way that our banks must demonstrate transparency, the Government must also outline how and why decisions it takes are being made.

As members will know at first-hand from their work on Joint Oireachtas Committees, significant progress has been made towards more effective parliamentary engagement with EU legislation and policy.

Enhanced EU scrutiny by the relevant Committee ensures that legislative proposals published by the Commission are considered by the Oireachtas members with expertise in the relevant policy area.

Importantly, this new approach also includes regular Committee engagement with Ministers prior to meetings of the Council. And as members will be aware, the Taoiseach briefs this House in advance of, and following, each European Council meeting.

As always, however, there is room for improvement. Scrutiny systems in general should be seen as a work in progress. That is why we are examining the current system, with a view to assessing the progress made to date and identifying scope for further changes to be made.

By supporting early and focussed engagement by Oireachtas Committees in the EU legislative process, addressing duplication or inefficiency, including in relation to reporting arrangements; and appropriately scrutinising the implementation of EU law, we will ensure that the members of Dáil and Seanad Éireann, who were elected by the people, get an early opportunity to examine and contribute to proposed EU legislation.

Consulting Government Departments through the Interdepartmental Committee on EU Engagement (ICEE), which I chair, is also key to ensuring a more integrated role for the Oireachtas in the policy decisions taken at European level.

At this stage, most Departments have responded to the consultation. I am now awaiting the views of Oireachtas Committees, who were also consulted during the process, and hope to be able to put forward proposals for improvements before the summer.

Deepening understanding of Europe
In a bid to deepening an understanding of Europe and bringing the EU institutions closer to home, a number of initiatives have been undertaken. Through the Blue Star primary schools programme, our young children are taught the benefits of the diversity that comes with membership of the EU. By learning about other Member States and what it means to be part of the European family our children will grow up not only feeling a sense of Irishness, but also a stronger connection to their place as part of the wider European Union.

Another initiative underway is the EU Jobs campaign, which is being led by the Department of An Taoiseach and which aims to educate our graduates about the benefits of a career in the Commission, the Parliament and the Council. Ireland has always been very well represented in the EU institutions. Ensuring that remains the case, especially in the face of the imminent retirement of so many of our experienced people there, so that Irish interests can be articulated when it matters, is essential.

For that to happen, we have to encourage our graduates and jobseekers to look favourably on EU jobs. I have been visiting our third level universities, talking to students and reminding them of the rewarding opportunities that are open to them and of the Government support available to them as they make their way through the recruitment process in a bid to reaching that goal.

I will be continuing that work next week as I visit DCU, DIT, UL and Maynooth.

The adoption of Europe Week further promotes and enhances the EU agenda.

By dedicating a week in May that allows the Dáil to debate key EU priorities for Ireland; to discuss the progress of legislation; and examine relevant EU issues relevant we are encouraging debate and engagement like never before.

The future
Ensuring that the jobs and growth agenda remains central to all of our activity at EU level is key to our continued growth and development. If the first three years in Government were all about restoring stability, the next two, until the end of the Dáil term, are about prosperity and progress.

To do this, we must focus on three priorities.

First, we must ensure that an emphasis on job creation and the restoration of economic growth remains strong at European level. We can do this by sustaining the economic recovery, increasing employment and addressing the social dimension. We have to ensure that the progress we have made so far is not lost and that the recovery we are working so hard to achieve is felt by all.

Second, we must demonstrate full engagement in the eurozone semester process, which Ireland will participate in for the first time this year, through the Oireachtas and through government.

Stability in the eurozone and the EU financial sector is key. Having a banking system in place that has the confidence of the people, that is properly regulated and that has the capacity to lend to small and medium sized business is central to growing jobs at home and getting our people back to work.

Continuing to enhancing the Single Market, which gives us access to a consumer market of 500 million and reducing administrative red-tape will allow our industries to grow and trade and advance into new markets.

Finally, we must advance Irish interests in the wake of so many changes taking place in the European parliament and the Commission following the elections taking place on May 23rd.

We have to continue to promote an understanding of the EU and to address the concerns felt by the public on issues that matter to them.

The Economist this month cites the founders of modern democracy, James Madison and John Stuart Mill, who regarded the democratic process as a ‘powerful but imperfect mechanism that needed to be constantly oiled, adjusted and worked upon’. The European Union is no different.

This Government is resolute in that regard. We are unwavering in our determination to build on the progress we have made so far in restoring Ireland to greatness and building a stronger Europe Union; one in which Ireland remains at the very heart.