13 June 2002 Edition
Historic day for Sinn Féin
BY JOANNE CORCORAN
Thursday 6 June was a momentous day in the history of Sinn Féin. It was the day when for the first time five party representatives entered Leinster House as TDs.
On the Thursday morning, despite ominous rain clouds, a large crowd of republican supporters gathered in front of the Mansion House on Dawson Street. The mood was jovial and tricolours were being waved by all and sundry. The first new TD greeting the crowd was Martin Ferris. He said that he was tired but looking forward to the day. "We've worked hard to be here and we will continue to work for the people who voted us in," he said.
Aengus Ó Snodaigh was next to arrive and only just made it after his flight home from his holidays was delayed. He declared it to be "a great day for the party all over the country" and said that it reaffirmed Sinn Féin as "the only all-Ireland party".
Sean Crowe said that now the government was going to have to face real opposition in the Dáil. Arthur Morgan was in great form and said that this was a day for the party and the constituents.
Gerry Adams' arrival was greeted with cheers and applause. He told the excited crowd that this was only the beginning for the party. He also mentioned that it was the constituents who were to be thanked, and their needs would not be forgotten.
"We're going to be making noise in there," he said, referring to the Dáil. "The other TDs are already backing down from their promises but we will be carrying through with ours."
After Caoimghín Ó Caoláin arrived, the crowd got ready to march around to the Dáil, led by Michael Foy on the bagpipes. Passing buses of tourists cheered at the crowd and an army tank kindly stopped and was photographed, much to the crowd's amusement. Foy began the march playing 'The dawning of the day', and across the road from Leinster House everyone joined in for a rousing chorus of 'A nation once again'.
Caoimghín, when asked outside Leinster House whether he was making any predictions for the next election, said the reporters there would need "two hands" next time around to take notes from all the Sinn Féin TDs.
Then the five TDs, escorted by Gerry Adams, were cheered by the crowd as they entered Leinster House. The older people in the crowd were perhaps most satisfied, seeing these historic steps after so many highs and lows over the decades, but young people such as teen Cathy Courtney were also thrilled.
The presence of such candidates as Larry O'Toole and Daithí Doolan reminded people that while they were not joining their colleagues this time, next time the party will have significantly more representation.
Programme for Government continues legacy of inequality
BY MÍCHEÁL MacDONNCHA
Current Standing Orders severely restrict the smaller parties and the independents in their ability to fully represent their voters. This is totally undemocratic and must not be allowed to continue
In the debate on the nominations for Taoiseach on 6 June, the Sinn Féin Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said their role would be one of "constructive opposition". Based on the record of the outgoing government, now re-elected, and on the proposed Programme for Government, Ó Caoláin said the Sinn Féin deputies would not be supporting the nomination of the Taoiseach and his Cabinet.
The Cavan/Monaghan TD opened his contribution by thanking all those people who voted and worked for Sinn Féin candidates, especially those in Counties Cavan and Monaghan, Louth, North Kerry and Dublin who elected five Sinn Féin TDs. "The Sinn Féin group represents the only all-Ireland party in this Dáil and in the country. Some 300,000 people now vote for our party throughout the 32 Counties. Just last night Councillor Alex Maskey became the first Sinn Féin Mayor of Belfast, Ireland's second city," he said.
Pointing out that they were joined that day by MPs Gerry Adams and Pat Doherty, Ó Caolain said he looked forward to the day when Sinn Féin MPs would take their place in a Dáil with full representation from the 32 Counties. "I believe we are moving closer to that day and we in Sinn Féin are determined to make it happen."
Ó Caoláin said the peace process would be at the top of their agenda:
"Advancing the peace process and the cause of Irish unity and sovereignty will be a priority for us in the new Dáil. It should be the priority of other parties also. We look forward to working with others of all parties to create a new political dynamic on this island.
"Four years ago the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed in referenda. The Agreement and the Constitution as amended provide for the reunification of Ireland given `the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island'. Common efforts are necessary to pro-actively seek and achieve this consent and to prepare for the future unity of our people and of our country. That task should begin now and a Green Paper on Irish Unity would be just one element of such a programme."
Change Standing Orders
One of the first issues in the new Dáil is the call for changes in rules to allow proper representation to the small parties and independents. Referring to this, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said:
"Dáil Standing Orders must be changed if the mandate of the electorate is to be respected. Current Standing Orders severely restrict the smaller parties and the independents in their ability to fully represent their voters. This is totally undemocratic and must not be allowed to continue. The government should take the lead in having Standing Orders amended. With a renewed mandate, Sinn Féin is determined that the rights of our electorate will be fully vindicated."
A radical Opposition
Turning to the role of Opposition, Ó Caoláin said:
"There needs to be an effective and constructive opposition in the Dáil. There should also be co-operation among all parties in advancing progressive legislation on which they can agree. In the heat of inter-party rivalry this is often forgotten. The Dáil as a whole is elected to legislate for the people as a whole. Government should be open to accepting legislation brought forward by opposition parties.
"What shape will new opposition take in this new Dáil? The deputies of the Labour Party, the Green Party and Sinn Féin now outnumber the deputies of Fine Gael. There are also more independents elected on manifestos of equity and equality on a range of issues. The incoming government will be conservative and right-wing in character, especially given the increased representation of the Progressive Democrats. A real alternative of the left is therefore both necessary and possible. Fine Gael cannot provide such an alternative. While I congratulate Deputy Enda Kenny on his selection as leader of Fine Gael, it is my view that that party offers only a choice between shades of conservatism.
"A new challenge for all deputies here, regardless of their party affiliation, is whether they will stand for equality for all our people or whether they will stand against equality. Sinn Féin's commitment is to equality and we are ready to work with others who share that commitment.
"Of course each party must take its own counsel and pursue its own agenda. As an independent political party Sinn Féin is committed to both the social and the national principles of James Connolly; we are for political freedom as well as social and economic equality."
The outgoing government failed to use its opportunities to create a more equal society. For that reason we will not be supporting the nomination of Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach
Rejecting Ahern for Taoiseach
Explaining their decision to oppose the nomination of the outgoing Taoiseach and government, Ó Caoláin said:
"The outgoing government had unprecedented resources at its disposal. It had opportunities never available to any previous government. Regrettably it failed to use those opportunities to create a more equal society. For that reason we will not be supporting the nomination of the leader of the Fianna Fáil party, Deputy Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach.
"I fully acknowledge the major contribution made by Deputy Bertie Ahern to the peace process and the achievement of the Good Friday Agreement. The implementation of that Agreement remains the single biggest task facing us all. There is still a lot of work to be done. Whether on policing, demilitarisation, equality, human rights, the all-Ireland institutions and the ongoing need to take all the guns out of Irish politics, the peace process must remain our single overall priority. I look forward to working with the new Taoiseach and his government, and with all parties, in advancing the peace process in what may be difficult days ahead.
"In 1997 I pledged that I would speak and vote on each issue on its merits and on most key questions over the past five years I strongly opposed the course taken by the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats government. That government is returning in greater numbers and, as its programme for government shows, it is set to continue the legacy of inequality of the past five years. My role and that of my colleagues, therefore, is as a party of constructive opposition inside and outside this House."
Ó Caoláin said he and his colleagues would work with the new government in advancing the peace process and fully implementing the Good Friday Agreement in all its respects. "The cause of peace and justice and the unity of the Irish people is a cause that transcends party politics", he said.
Ó Caoláin described the Programme for Government agreed by the Fianna Fáil party and the Progressive Democrats as "flawed" and one in which the government "signals its intention to carry on regardless with its failed approach of the past five years".
The Cavan/Monaghan TD criticised the government's intention to put the Treaty of Nice to a second referendum, despite its rejection last year.
Inequitable Programme for Government
Turning to economic policy in the new Programme, Ó Caoláin pointed out:
"The Programme continues the inequitable taxation policies of the outgoing government. Those on the minimum wage will have to wait another five years before they are removed from the tax net - if they are lucky. In total contrast the reduction of Corporation Tax to 12.5% is to be completed next year. The low paid must wait while major corporations who export their profits enjoy the lowest tax rates in the EU.
"One of our principal reasons for opposing this programme and this incoming government is the inclusion of the privatisation agenda of the Progressive Democrats. That agenda may have been smuggled into the Programme under the coat of Deputy Charlie McCreevy but it is unmistakably there nonetheless. We are told that revenue from the sale of State assets will be used to create a National Transformation Fund. We saw the fiasco that ensued from the flotation of Eircom. We in Sinn Féin will vigorously oppose the privatisation of State companies such as Aer Lingus and the ESB and the destruction of these vital pillars of our economy. We will campaign in defence of the jobs of workers in the State sector and against the stripping of national assets for the enrichment of a handful of private individuals for whom the national interest counts for nothing."
Health was a key issue in the election and Ó Caoláin told the Dáil:
"During the general election campaign Fianna Fáil promised to end hospital waiting lists in two years. That was a promise with no credibility given the massive waiting lists presided over by the government for the past five years and given the fact that it took most of that time for the government to produce its health strategy, let alone implement it. In the new Programme for Government this commitment to end waiting lists in two years is not even mentioned. Having served its purpose during the election campaign it has now been binned and is surely the most glaring omission from the programme to which this incoming government is ostensibly committed.
"One of the commitments in the Programme is for the development of acute hospital services on a balanced regional basis. The experience of the people of County Monaghan has been one of massive regional imbalance and the downgrading of services in our General Hospital. The needs and wishes of the people of County Monaghan have been repeatedly ignored. The people of Dundalk have the same experience and each of my party colleagues knows first hand the deplorable state of the health services as they affect the people of their respective constituencies.
"Every TD in this House knows that health was a primary issue in the general election and I urge the Minister for Health and Children Mícheál Martin to listen to the voice of the people and to work with everybody in this House, with the health service workers, with patients and with the Health Boards to transform our health system. Nothing less will do and if we are to have services based on health needs and not on wealth and ability to pay then the two-tier system must be ended.
"I deplore the lack of priority given to housing by the programme for the incoming government. For five years they presided over rising house prices and rising local authority waiting lists. That situation is worse now than in 1997. Those on average income are priced out of the housing market. They continue to join lower income families on the growing waiting lists. Only a major public housing programme can really address the housing crisis, a crisis the outgoing government failed even to acknowledge."