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8 May 2008 Edition

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New Taoiseach should chart new course

By Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin , Sinn Féin Dáil leader

THE Sinn Féin Teachtaí Dála did not support the nomination of the Minister for Finance Brian Cowen as Taoiseach on Wednesday. The record of Governments dominated by Fianna Fáil since 1997 has been such that we could not endorse them by voting for their nominee. The current Government since its formation last June has shown itself to be essentially a Fianna Fáil Government with the participation of Mary Harney and two Green ministers. It is neither a partnership government nor a coalition in any real sense. It continues the policies of the Fianna Fáil/PD governments led by the outgoing Taoiseach for over a decade.
We see the results of those policies today in our crisis-ridden health services, in poorly resourced schools, in the worsening drugs scourge and violent crime, in the deep divide between the privileged and the marginalized, in the economic slump brought about by over-dependence on the property market, and in the failure to imaginatively support real job creation as workplace after workplace announce redundancies and closures. We could wallpaper the Dáil with Fianna Fáil election manifesto promises of more hospital beds, the end of hospital waiting lists within two years, a network of primary care centres, the extension of the full medical card to an additional 200,000 people, tens of thousands of social and affordable homes, zero tolerance of crime, protection of Irish neutrality and so on. All have been defaulted upon. The outgoing Taoiseach and his Cabinet colleagues have shown themselves to be serial defaulters.
That said, the incoming Taoiseach has now an opportunity, just one year after the General Election, to change all that and to take Government policy in a new direction. We have always said that if a Government proves itself worthy of support then the Sinn Féin TDs would give their support to such a Government and to the Taoiseach at its helm, irrespective of who he or she may be.


What we require and, more importantly, what the people require is a Taoiseach and a Cabinet that place equality at the heart of Government. Such a Government would transform our health services, ending the two-tier system, putting patients first and allowing healthcare workers to provide care to all on the basis of need and need alone. It would ensure that every school, hospital, every primary care centre was fully resourced and providing premium public services. Such a Government would base housing policy on the needs of the people for homes and not on the greed of a voracious market that has left tens of thousands of families without homes or in crippling mortgage debt. Such a Government would support communities and provide the means to tackle both the demand for and the supply of drugs that are causing such misery and mayhem in our society.

This is the new direction we need to see. But I have to say the signs are not good. Already we are hearing about belt-tightening and tough decisions. Health cuts are again hurting the old and the sick and the disabled. In what is supposedly one of the richest states in the world we have classes being taught in converted toilets. And the St. Vincent De Paul Society reports levels of demand on their services not seen since the 1980s. Are we to return to the so-called tough decisions of that era which hit the weakest in our society most?
I have urged the incoming Taoiseach to chart a new course. His talents and energy are undoubted and I wish him well. He has the leadership of his party and command of an apparently stable Government. He is now in prime position to set a fresh agenda.
If such a new direction is indeed forthcoming, if Brian Cowan were to make a genuine commitment to take on these challenges, delivering a just and equal society, delivering a universal health service and working with all opinions across the island to bring about a united Ireland, Sinn Féin will work positively with that government.
The new Taoiseach will take up responsibility for the continuing consolidation of the Peace Process and the developing all-Ireland political process. He brings with him his experience as Minister for Foreign Affairs. I believe his commitment is sincere. Like the outgoing Taoiseach, the incoming Taoiseach has played his part. Tremendous progress has been made. But it must be remembered that this is a process. Momentum is required.

Brian CowenI would see what happened at the site of the Battle of the Boyne this week  not as commemorating two foreign kings who vied for the supremacy of Ireland and Britain at the cost of much Irish blood but as the celebration of new relationships among all the people who share this island. The Agreements of Good Friday 1998 and St. Andrews 2006 form the basis of these new relationships and of the successful new political dispensation. The transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast is an essential requirement and it will be a serious setback if there is slippage from the promised date of transfer of powers in this month of May 2008. That is the biggest single challenge facing the new Taoiseach with regard to the all-Ireland political process. I urged him to spare no effort to ensure the delivery of that absolutely vital element of the agreements on which so much progress has been made and on which rest so much hope for the future.
I deplore the retention of Mary Harney as Health Minister, not because I bear ill-will towards her personally, but because her retention in that post signals a continuation of the disastrous policies fronted by this Minister. I say fronted deliberately because these are Fianna Fáil policies and every Deputy and Senator of that party bears collective responsibility for them. They cannot hide behind Minister Harney and she cannot hide behind the HSE. Her term of office as Health Minister has been nothing short of disastrous. She oversaw the creation of the HSE – the quango from hell. There is no longer any democratic accountability for health policy and healthcare delivery. Minister Harney has pursued a ruthless drive to centralise and privatise our health services. On top of this are the current HSE cutbacks which are attacking already overstretched and under-resourced services and are making patients suffer.
I have urged the new Taoiseach to change direction and I again urge him to do so, even though he retains Mary Harney in Health. I strongly contend that no party calling itself republican can continue with current health policies which are deepening the divide in our two-tier system.

The new Taoiseach comes into office from Finance at a time of economic downturn. Unemployment rates continue to increase. Nothing has been done to protect or retrain workers in vulnerable sectors. Tax revenue is well below projections. €927 million or 6.5 per cent less in tax revenue was collected during the first four months of 2008 than in 2007. Under Finance Minister Cowen and his predecessors the exchequer became ever more dependent on revenue from construction and domestic consumption. We are paying the price for this now as revenue from these sectors declines.
The new Taoiseach faces a major challenge in attempting to negotiate a successor to the Towards 2016 agreement. He should ignore the hypocritical calls for pay restraint from top management in the private sector who have awarded themselves massive pay rises while ordinary workers struggle to keep up with the cost of living. Any new agreement must also guarantee the right to union recognition and legislate to protect agency workers and tackle the ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of workers’ rights, pay and conditions.

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