Speech by Brendan Howlin TD on election of Taoiseach

Issued 14 June 2017

Minister Varadkar,

On a personal level, I want to wish you well today.

While my party cannot support your election as Taoiseach on the basis of the existing programme for Government, it is a proud day for you.

Equally, I am sure it is a happy day for your partner Matthew, for your parents Ashok and Miriam, and for all of your friends and family.

For a gay man, for the son of a migrant, to be elected Taoiseach, is an important step.

As you have pointed out yourself it speaks well of this Republic.

But, as I think you agree, that is not and should not be the end of the story.

I wish you well in your time as Taoiseach, and I mean that sincerely.

However, Labour will continue to oppose this Government.

The Programme for Government, and the Confidence and Supply Agreement which underpins it, are deeply flawed documents.

At a high level, they retain a wrong and short-sighted commitment to spending a third of all available funding on tax cuts, at a time when our public services badly need investment.

The rainy day fund, as you yourself have recognised, represents a wasted opportunity to increase capital investment.

And in a range of other areas, as a policy programme, these documents are startlingly deficient.

 

There is no real agenda here to advance the rights of people who work;

No brave commitment to universal, high-quality public services;

No determination to deal with challenging but important social issues – from admission to schools to the eighth amendment.

As your agreements are between one party of the centre-right, another party of the centre-right, and a smattering of independents, I suppose the reasons for these deficiencies are obvious.

If we were sceptical about this Programme for Government in May of last year, that is even more the case now.

For over a year, we have endured this do-nothing Dáil.

New politics has become a notion worthy only of scorn and ridicule.

Only one piece of opposition legislation has been passed – my party’s bill to give trade union rights to freelance workers.

And the Government has enacted fewer pieces of legislation than any preceding Government.

As I have said on more than one occasion, when a Government does nothing, in reality it begins to do harm.

I hope that you will restart the engines of Government upon your election.

But I’m afraid I don’t expect much – the decision to put the House into recess after the election of your Cabinet this evening doesn’t bode well at all.

I know that newly appointed Ministers need time to be briefed.

But you could have taken questions;

Legislation could have been advanced;

Private members’ time could have been restored.

Unfortunately, you have chosen to forego an opportunity to show from the start a determination to change the way business is going on in this House.

Minister,

I think it’s fair to say that your own views have moderated on a range of issues over the years.

The young man in a hurry who enjoyed writing letters to the Irish Times was a decidedly right-wing chap.

Even in 2011, you were a different politician to the one who stands here today.

When Fine Gael policy was to address the economic crisis by reducing public expenditure and increasing taxation on a ratio of 3:1, your view was that it should be 4:1.

More recently, the welfare cheats campaign gave many of us on this side of the House great pause indeed.

I hope as Taoiseach you will take a more compassionate approach to those who have the least in our society.

It can be easy at times to make political targets of those who rely on the state.

Whether as a dog-whistle to an electoral base, or as a mechanism for reducing the size and capacity of the state to intervene on behalf of the most marginalised, too often these policies are favoured by politicians of the right.

You now like to disavow such a description of yourself.

I hope that your stewardship of our country will see these tactics abandoned by your Government.

As an aside, speaking of things that should be disavowed, I note that you will be supported today by Deputy Lowry.

I am informed that you have spoken with him on a couple of occasions.

And I have read in the Tipperary Star that Deputy Lowry has claimed that in return for his support, he will have access to your office, to your officials, and to your Ministers.

As Taoiseach, I hope you will put such contact to an end.

The Deputy has had serious findings of wrongdoing made against him by a tribunal of inquiry.

You should not depend on his support.

As I’ve said, your views on a range of other issues have already begun to change.

Your opposition to adoption by same sex couples; and to gender recognition legislation have now, thankfully been dropped.

But for those who regard your election as a liberal triumph, I’m afraid they still have much cause for concern.

I recall only too well the agonising debates between your party and mine over the X case legislation.

At every step, you wanted more checks on women.

Ludicrously at one point your party suggested that women should require six medical opinions – a view regarded by my party as an attempt to renege on our commitment to legislate for the X case.

To give him credit, former Minister James Reilly was one of the few rational people within your party on that issue.

Now, to give you credit, it seems that you favour a referendum on their eighth amendment next year.

On the face of it that’s welcome.

But that commitment must now be tested.

You seek to make a particular virtue of allowing everyone to take their own position on the issue.

That is fine for as long as you remain a Minister.

But as Taoiseach you will have a duty to lead – to guide the proposed solution; to advocate for it; and to make sure it commands the support of the people and a majority in these Houses.

Serious change happens because serious people lead.

And this, Minister, brings me to my ultimate ask of you.

As Taoiseach, you cannot continue in a role of commentator.

I hope you won’t miss too much the proffering of pithy soundbites to Newstalk on issues of the day.

We might miss those soundbites on issues such as the opening of the Garda station at Stepaside that coincidentally leaked out yesterday.

But you must now be willing to lead.

Your predecessor was not a perfect man, but he was and is a good man.

He always sought to lead from the front – with humour and integrity.

If you can do the same, that will be a start.

Agus tús maith, leath na hoibre!

I said at the start of my contribution that I wish you well.

Our country, having recovered from an appalling crisis, stands at a moment of wonderful opportunity.

Our growing prosperity could transform our society;

Or it could be squandered in the search for electoral success.

Much of that choice will be yours to make.