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Taoiseach's speech to Seanad Eireann 29 September 2016

 

I am delighted to have the opportunity to address you all here today, early in the new session and to formally welcome all our newly elected Senators as well as welcoming back those who have been re-elected to the House.

Programme for Government
As you will be aware, this Government is unlike any other established in Ireland since the foundation of the State. It required a completely new approach based on consultation and building consensus towards a new vision for our people.

· We want a fair society based on a strong economy
· We want thriving communities in urban and rural Ireland
· We want an Ireland that looks after its people from the time they come into the world to the time they leave
· We want an Ireland where everybody is given the opportunity to succeed, where nobody is left behind
· We want people to have the peace of mind that comes from feeling safe and secure in their lives

The new Programme for a Partnership Government sets out a detailed set of actions and commitments to be implemented by Government over its lifetime.

The new political landscape has presented an opportunity to radically reform Irish politics, to fundamentally change the relationship between Government and the Oireachtas, and with it the relationship between the Irish people and their parliament. We have embraced a new and collaborative approach, not only with the partners of Government, but with the partners of the Opposition.

This includes a reform of how the Dáil conducts its business, reforming the budgetary process, reforming our Oireachtas committee structures, and developing a communication process between Departments and Deputies. I will return to this later.

The Programme for Government sets out an ambitious programme of work but has one simple objective at its core which is to make people's lives better in every part of Ireland.

A fair society must lean on a strong economy. But that strong economy will work primarily to create a fair and compassionate society which people can feel part of and proud of, a society for everyone.

Our country and our people have come through an unprecedented economic crash. Every family in Ireland has been touched in some way or other during the crisis. For the past five years I and the previous Government have worked to end the crisis, exit the international bailout and to help the creation of new jobs. Ireland’s continued economic success remains central to our work. While the sense of economic crisis may have passed we still have a great deal of work ahead of us to ensure that work and opportunity is present for all families across Ireland.

The Action Plan for Jobs has won recognition from the OECD as a coherent and effective way to confront urgent priorities and its features can equally be applied to other urgent priorities. It also facilitates a way of governing that is a genuine partnership and maximises the chance of delivering the objectives. One of the first priority actions of the Government has been to apply this process to tackle the housing crisis by publishing a new Action Plan for Housing.

There are many challenges ahead including areas such as housing and homelessness, education and health, and broadband and rural development. We are committed to tackling these challenges head-on to build a society where the recovery is felt by every individual and family around the country.

As part of the process, I have met with individual Ministers to agree their priorities for the coming year taking into account the actions and ambitions in the Programme for Government.

Brexit
The outcome of the UK EU Referendum was not the result that we hoped for. However, the Government has a clear plan in place to deal with this and has a Contingency Framework which maps the key issues that will be most important to Ireland in the coming months.

The priority areas for Government are: Northern Ireland and the peace process; the Common Travel Area; the economy; and the EU.

I am satisfied from all of my engagements with international leaders that Ireland’s priorities are understood - in particular the importance of protecting the peace process, and of Europe’s contribution to peace in Ireland.


Northern Ireland
The peace settlement in the North is by now well established, but we are still far from a time when we can take it for granted.

At the North South Ministerial Council Plenary Summit in Dublin Castle in July, the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to work together to ensure that the peace process is safeguarded; that Northern Ireland's interests are protected and the importance of North South co-operation is fully recognised in any new arrangements which emerge from negotiations.

The Government believes that there is a need for the widest possible conversation on the implications of the referendum result for Ireland, North and South and for North/South relations.

As I said in the Dáil earlier in the week, I intend to convene an all-island dialogue on the implications of Brexit in the near future because I believe that there are many issues of mutual interest and mutual concern.

I welcome Prime Minister May's assurances that Northern Ireland, with all the devolved administrations, will be involved in developing the UK's position prior to entering into negotiations with the EU.

Common Travel Area
Neither the Irish nor the British Government wishes to see a return to the borders of the past on the island of Ireland. We will do our utmost to avoid barriers to cross-border traffic and economic activity.

We are also conscious of the past symbolism of the border and the wider, negative psychological impact which it had, both on the border areas and more generally across both parts of the island.

We value the Common Travel Area and will work to keep this in place to the greatest extent possible as part of future arrangements. There is no desire to limit the freedom of people on both sides of the Irish sea to live, work and travel freely across these islands.

The Economy
It remains to be seen precisely what impact Brexit might have on the UK economy. But, because of our close economic ties, any negative impact on the UK economy could have adverse implications for ours.

Ireland's strong recovery has ensured that our economy is open, attractive and competitive. I am confident that it is resilient and that appropriate fiscal policies are now in place to help us adjust to the economic effects of Brexit.

We don't expect our Budget for 2017 to be significantly affected, but it will take account of likely impacts to the extent possible at this early stage.

We are continuing to promote the attractiveness of Ireland as a location of choice for mobile international investment and for talented people. We will of course seek to take any opportunities arising for Ireland, from Britain’s decision to leave the EU.

The economic interests of both our countries are most certainly best served by having the UK in a close trading relationship with the EU.

European Union
Ireland remains fully committed to our membership of the EU and the Eurozone.

Engagement with EU partners and the EU institutions remains a high priority. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, and I remain actively engaged with our European counterparts, as are other Ministers. Diplomatic contacts are being intensified in European capitals.

At an informal meeting of the 27 EU leaders on 16 September in Bratislava, I outlined Ireland’s contribution to the vision for the future of the European Union.

Ireland will continue to contribute to discussions on the renewal of the EU and will be an integral part of a re-energised European Union.

Budget 2017
We will shortly bring forward our budget proposals for 2017.

While we as a country have many reasons to be positive about the future, we must remember the lessons that have been learned over the last decade. The gains we have made have been hard won and this Government will not put them at risk.

Budget 2017 will be prudent, reflecting our need to underpin Ireland’s economic recovery and to ready us for the future.

This is especially necessary given that the international environment remains uncertain – not least in the context of the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the continuing low levels of economic growth in Europe.

The Government will, therefore, continue to take a responsible approach to the management of the public finances – the choices we make must be forward-looking and sustainable, and must be focussed on those areas where need is greatest.

We have made clear that where we have headroom – and, as the Minister for Finance has made clear this will be limited - two-thirds will be directed towards investment in public spending and one-third towards tax measures.

The Budget for 2017 will prioritise new measures to help make people’s lives better and to deliver better services to them, specifically for hard pressed working families.

The Government will also maintain its strong focus on the issues we have identified as being of greatest urgency- not least ensuring a functioning housing market and investment in the infrastructure Ireland needs for the future.

We will also continue to work to ensure that our economy is Brexit-ready and that Ireland continues to be an open and attractive place in which to do business.

These are the pillars we are building on.

Housing
Another key priority for the Government is responding to the housing and homelessness challenge.

It is universally acknowledged that as a country we are not producing enough new homes to meet our needs.

Reflecting the urgency and priority attached to the issue, I appointed Minister Coveney as Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.

As I already said, we also committed in our Programme for Partnership Government to the publication of a new Action Plan for Housing within 100 days.

We published our comprehensive plan – Rebuilding Ireland – in July, well within this ambitious timeframe.

The detailed and comprehensive work carried out by the Oireachtas Committee on Housing and Homelessness over a very tight timeframe fed into the development of the plan.

Our plan is based around five key Pillars:
1. Addressing Homelessness;
2. Accelerating Social Housing Delivery;
3. Building More Homes for the wider housing market;
4. Improving the Rental Sector; and
5. Making the best use of the housing we have.

The Plan contains over 80 specific, time-bound commitments.

These include commitments to:
· double the annual level of residential construction to 25,000 units;
· rollout a €200m Local Infrastructure Housing Activation Fund; and
· develop a comprehensive strategy for the rental sector.

Government has set a target of 47,000 new social homes by 2021, supported by investment of €5.35 billion.

We are trebling the Rapid-Build programme to 1,500 homes, and have provided €70m for the Housing Agency to buy vacant properties.

Implementation of the plan is progressing, overseen by the Cabinet Committee on Housing, and we will publish quarterly progress reports.

Citizens’ Assembly
Moving on to the Citizens’ Assembly, you will be aware that its establishment was a commitment in the Programme for Government.

A Resolution approving the establishment of the Assembly was passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas in July. The following topics will be for consideration by the Assembly and the Assembly will make a Report to the Houses of the Oireachtas on each item:
(i) the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution;
(ii) how we best respond to the challenges and opportunities of an ageing population;
(iii) fixed-term parliaments;
(iv) the manner in which referendums are held; and
(v) how the State can make Ireland a leader in tackling climate change.

The Assembly will also be asked to consider such other matters as may be referred to it.

The Resolution sets a time limit of one year from the date of the first Assembly meeting for completion of the Assembly's work, but does not set a time limit for individual items. However, it specifies that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution will be the first item that the Assembly will report on. The report on the Eighth Amendment, when completed, will be sent to the Houses of the Oireachtas, which on receipt will refer the report for consideration to a Committee of both Houses, which in turn will bring its conclusions to the Houses for debate.

On 27 July, the Government approved the appointment of Justice Mary Laffoy as Chairperson.

Membership of the Citizens' Assembly will consist of 100 persons: 99 citizens entitled to vote at a referendum, randomly selected so as to be broadly representative of Irish society by a polling company commissioned for that purpose, plus the Chairperson. This recruitment process is nearing completion.

The inaugural meeting of the Citizen's Assembly will take place on 15 October next. The timing and nature of public consultation and the method by which interested parties will be selected to make presentations to the Assembly will be a matter for the Chairperson and Assembly members themselves to decide. It will, of course, be open to interest groups and members of the public to make written submissions for consideration by the Assembly. Plenary meetings of the Citizen’s Assembly will be streamed live via the website, the focus of the Broadcast will be on those making presentations.

Dáil reform
As I said earlier, the new political landscape in Ireland presents an opportunity to reform Irish politics, to change the relationship between Government and the Oireachtas.

On 10th March 2016, the first sitting day of the 32nd Dáil, the House passed an all-party motion to task the sub-Committee with identifying a package of reforms to strengthen parliament for the people, which members on all sides agreed was necessary.

As an initial step, the sub-Committee consulted members of the Dáil and sought submissions for consideration. 28 submissions were received. Since then, the sub-Committee has met 18 times to consider a number of matters raised in those submissions. On 19th May 2016, the House adopted a package of reforms proposed by the sub-Committee and, over the following weeks, the House also amended existing Standing Orders and adopted new Standing Orders to give effect to those reforms.

The main reforms proposed can be summarised as follows:
Ø more power for parliament to plan and make arrangements for its own business, with the establishment of a new Business Committee comprising of both Government and Opposition TDs, who together plan the House business on a weekly, sessional and yearly basis. The legislative priorities of the House are now agreed by all parties. The Business Committee has been operating successfully since June with all decisions reached by consensus; - I understand that you, here in Seanad Éireann, have also implemented a system whereby the Leader convenes a meeting with all the other Seanad group leaders every Wednesday to discuss the following weeks' business.

Ø better scrutiny of the annual budgetary cycle by a new Budget Oversight Committee, supported in its work by a new Independent Budget Office (yet to be established), which will ‘crunch the numbers’ for the new Committee;

Ø an increased role for the Office of the Parliamentary Legal Advisor, to allow that Office assist backbench members in drafting legislation, and give advice on all legislation coming before the House;

Ø changes to the rules around ‘groups’, to allow more than one ‘technical group’ to be formed; this enables independents and members in small parties to join forces to get a greater share of parliamentary set pieces, for instance, private members’ time;

Ø a rearrangement of the sitting day, so that the House, wherever possible, does not clash with Committee meetings; this enables members to give more time to both plenary sittings and Committees – members do not have to choose whether to attend one or the other;

Ø pre-legislative scrutiny will be extended to non-Government Bills which pass second stage in the Dáil, which will increase the possibility of those Bills being enacted;

Ø a new Irish Language Committee was established;

Ø members now have the facility to formally record their abstention from a vote, not previously available, and to put an explanation for their abstention, or for the way they voted, on the record of the House;

Ø improvements to both the Parliamentary Questions process and the way in which the Government answers questions on its promised legislation on the Order of Business;

Ø introduction of a voting time on Thursday afternoons which represents a more efficient use of the House’s time.

This new way of doing business will be a catalyst for improved communication between Ministers and their Departments and Opposition spokespersons and their teams. A more cohesive Oireachtas will lead to better consensus on Legislation .
To help facilitate this approach a Parliamentary Liaison Unit has been established in my Department. The role of this Unit is to facilitate the enhanced relationship between the Government and the Oireachtas.

This Unit is working alongside the Chief Whip’s Office to support Ministers and their Departments in relation to the management and implementation of the legislative programme.

Seanad reform
Turning now to a subject that is very relevant to us here - Seanad Reform.

In order to progress the reform process, I established an independent Working Group on Seanad Reform in December 2014. The principal focus of the working group was on possible reforms of the Seanad Electoral system within the existing constitutional parameters. The Working Group also explored ways of reforming Seanad Éireann generally and the manner in which it carries out its business. The Group examined these issues also within existing Constitutional parameters.

The Working Group examined submissions and proposals for reform which have already been made and looked at:
• the role of a reformed Seanad within the political process;
• the powers and functions of a reformed Seanad; and
• any such matter as the working party saw as relevant.

The group also sought submissions and suggestions from interested parties and took into consideration the eleven official reports since 1937 and the many submissions made during the Seanad referendum process in 2013.

The Group, chaired by Dr. Maurice Manning, met on seven occasions and published its Report on 13 April 2015.
The Working Group identified the main problems with the existing situation as:
- An electoral system which was elitist and which disfranchised a majority of citizens;
- A constitutional concept of vocational representation which had little substance in practice; and
- The absence of clear defining guidelines of the distinctive role of the Seanad in public life.

In my view the proposals of the Working Party meet these issues head-on. In essence the Report if implemented will develop and strengthen the vocational nature of the Seanad; it will make possible the participation of all Irish citizens in Seanad general elections; it will establish a franchise for Irish emigrants who are Irish citizens. It will allow electoral participation of those normally resident in Northern Ireland. It will also maintain the link between national and local politics through an electoral college of elected representatives and it will modernise the registration and electoral process in a way that is secure and using the most appropriate and up to date modern technology.

The key recommendations in the Report are:
- Establishment of an interim implementation body to oversee the implementation of the changes;
- Majority of seats to be elected by popular vote, in a “one person one vote” system;
- This principle to be extended to include Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and those living overseas who hold a valid Irish passport;
- Provision for online registration of voters and downloading of ballot papers;
- Greater role for the Seanad in scrutiny, amendment and initiation of legislation; and
- Review of panel system.

The Group also produced a draft Bill to implement the relevant recommendations contained in its’ Report.

I welcomed the Report when it was published and said that there needed to be a public and political discussion and consultation on it. On 5 May and again on 8 July 2015, statements on the Report were made in Seanad Éireann with both the Chair of the Working Group and former Senator Joe O'Toole, a member of the Group, in attendance.
I also met opposition party leaders to discuss the Report's contents in July 2015. Arising from that meeting, I gave a commitment to have a debate in Dáil Éireann on the Working Group's Report. This did not prove possible in the last Dáil but it is still my intention that this debate should take place as soon as possible. The Dáil debate should be the first step in the reform process.

The Working Group recommended that the interim implementation body be established.

The Programme for Partnership Government makes a commitment to move forward with the reforms proposed by the Working Group.

I believe that this implementation Group should be established in the Oireachtas and that its membership should consist of members of both Houses of the Oireachtas, from all parties and groups, with access to independent experts.

Yesterday, I wrote to the leaders of the parties suggesting that we move ahead with the establishment of the Implementation Group and, assuming that they agree, I intend to make the necessary arrangements as soon as possible so that the reform agenda can be advanced.

Seanad Bill 2016
The Seanad Bill 2016, sponsored by Senators McDowell, Black, Boyhan, Craughwell, Dolan, Freeman, Higgins, Kelleher, Mullen, O'Sullivan, Ó Céidigh and Ruane, aims to implement reforms proposed in the Report of the Working.

This Bill commenced Second Stage in the Seanad on 13 July last and my colleague, Minister English, spoke on that occasion to give a broad outline on the Government’s position on the various provisions contained therein at that stage.

Making the proposals put forward by the Working Group happen will have my full support and I have advised the new Leader of the Seanad, Senator Jerry Buttimer, that it should be a priority of his.

Wrap up comments
I would like to thank the Leader of the Seanad for inviting me to address the Seanad and to thank you all here today for your contributions.

You have heard me outline the Government’s priorities for the new Session and the challenges that we face. I have also contacted the opposition party leaders to seek cross party agreement on an implementation group in order to advance the Seanad Reform process.

The Dáil and Seanad need to continue to work closely with each other and complement each other’s work in order to continue Ireland’s recovery and successfully overcome any challenge we may face.

I wish you all well in your endeavours and I look forward to working with you in all in the future.