The opportunity may now be lost to invest in services and our citizens- O’Sullivan

06 May 2016

Firstly can I convey my very sincere congratulations to Richard Bruton on his appointment as Minister for Education and Skills.


It was the privilege of my political career to serve as Minister for Education and Skills.  The new Minister will find an excellent team in Marlborough Street thoroughly committed to public education in its broadest sense.  The Minister will also engage with a wide range of education partners who, while cogently arguing for their own agenda, are also advocates for the broader education system, and specifically for increased public investment in education.


During my time as Minister I am proud to have fought for and secured an increase in the education budget in each year, I have provided additional teachers and SNAs, reduced class sizes and launched a funded six year programme of major school building.


While public attention towards the Department often focuses on schools both myself and my friend and colleague Ruairi Quinn were committed to a vision of lifelong education and that vision has been supported by the Department. 


For instance in recent weeks the first inspections focused on the education quality of early years settings have commenced.  I am also very proud of the fact that working with the Department of Children we now have, for the first time, a programme that specifically addresses the needs of children in early years settings who have disabilities. 


Likewise the past 18 months has seen very significant progress in creating a new, dynamic apprenticeship model for the 21st century.  This area, the capacity of which has been grossly neglected for decades, will make a very real difference to the career choices of thousands of mainly young people over the coming years.


I wish the new Minister well.  You will have a hectic agenda – but it is one of the most important and most fulfilling roles you can have in politics and I hope you appreciate every minute of it.


While wishing the new minister well I have to tell the House that I hold out little hope that the new governing arrangement cobbled together today has the coherence, vision or ambition to achieve an fairer and more equal Republic over the next one, two or three years.


Abraham Lincoln famously put together what became known as the team of rivals.  In contrast the last minute arrangement we are asked to vote on now can only be described as a team for survival.


I have very grave doubts about the capacity of this government, shored and battered into office by Fianna Fáil, to effect any meaningful reform or indeed to survive beyond kissing time given its internal weaknesses.


In saying so I make no judgement on the commitment or character of any individual supporting or a member of the government.  Indeed, echoing the comments earlier of my colleague Brendan Howlin, I will fully acknowledge the individual commitment displayed both in government and on the opposition benches of many individuals.


No, my main criticism and very genuine doubt about the capacity of this government in based on the manner in which it has come to office and the cut and paste card sharks deal which is masquerading as a programme for Government.  By all accounts the horse trading that went on over the past 24 hours would have rivalled the fair at Spancil Hill!


For example, in the education area for example the so-called programme for government is either silent, purposely ignorant or just pays lip service to critical, urgent issues such as – the continued implementation of junior cycle reform, the future funding of the third level sector, tackling disadvantage through education and the review of the DEIS programme that is currently underway, a new, fairer model for the allocation of support to students with special educational needs. 


While ignoring these issues the main education “win” put up in headlights by the spinners for all wings of the new Government is that no small school will be forced to close.  Well I am delighted that the Government is continuing a policy I announced February 2015.  New politics seems to involve stealing someone else’s policy in the hope that no one will notice.


The laziness and confusion in the programme for government unfortunately is repeated in other areas of critical importance to children and families.  There is talk that the supposed support for childcare will come in the form of a tax credit.  This is the less effective way to reduce childcare costs for families. 


Since the new government has no issue with stealing Labour Party achievements or policies can I urge any supporter of the new government to study the detailed childcare proposals contained in the recent Labour Party manifesto.  That model works – it will reduce costs for parents, encourage decent pay in the sector and reward those with qualifications.  It depends on a State commitment to invest directly in the services on the guarantee that savings are passed onto families.  It is a model that received the support of independent childcare advocacy groups. 


Childcare has been neglected by this State for far too long.  It is vital that we invest and it is vital that this government gets the model right.  If we adopt a right of centre tax credit or tax incentive model we will have made an historic error we will regret for decades.  There is a model of public investment and public oversight that works – it is the model Labour argued for and I would ask everyone in this House to give that model the attention it deserves.


We were asked by the first speaker this morning, Deputy Rock, to embrace the politics of the future.  I don’t see any new politics, any vision nor any coherence in this arrangement that will grasp the opportunity we now have.  The previous government restored our economic well-being – for the Labour Party that is not an end in itself.  It only presents us with the means to invest in citizens and invest in services.  That opportunity may now be lost.


How things are made often dictates how things work and I have a very real concern that in the face of every issue, every demand, every claim by an interest group the same approach of buying off trouble one by one will take hold. 


This will have a serious impact on our capacity to take the mature, strategic decisions that are needed over the coming years.  Yes we can buy political peace within and without government from week to week but the price may well be the vital policy goals of reducing primary class sizes, lower childcare costs for families or properly funding our mental health supports are put on the long finger.


I have very real fears about the viability, coherence and capacity of this governing arrangement.  I wish no one – either a member or a supporter of the Government – any ill-will.  However, at a time when vision, courage and tenacity was needed within government I fear we now have an administration that will be crippled by procrastination, weakness and division. 


I, along with my colleagues in the Labour Party will offer constructive opposition.  Given the events earlier today I for one have had enough of grandstanding, brinkmanship and spin.  I look forward to moving on from that and advocating, supporting and advancing progressive policy choices that will make our country a fairer, more equal Republic for all its children.



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