Ireland deserves, and is capable of, so much more
We need a party to marry responsible economics with a more equal social vision
On Wednesday morning, TDs Catherine Murphy, Roisin Shortall and I launched a new political party, the Social Democrats. Why? Because Ireland needs a political party that will champion economic strength and social vision at the same time. It needs a party, and politicians, willing to take on the stale cartel and demand the political system pulls itself out of its 40-year slumber, and makes itself relevant to the Irish people again.
If this sounds like political rhetoric, let me share my experience of walking into the Dail four years ago, having never been involved in politics before.
I discovered that in Political-Land, you can be pro-business or pro-community, but not both. You can be pro-public sector or pro-private sector, but not both.
In spite of advocating consistently on issues like the mortgage crisis, childcare, education and progressive budgeting, I was labelled right-wing, on account of being pro-enterprise (which I unashamedly am) and insisting public services are run efficiently (which they should be).
The world moved on from this sort of thinking years ago. Talk to people in any village or town in Ireland, and they'll tell you what's important to them - great local businesses providing good jobs, high-quality public services like schools and primary care centres, and a strong sense of community, with playgrounds, parks, clubs, Tidy Towns and so on.
Enterprise, public services, community - these things aren't in conflict, they're in harmony. Though not behind the force field surrounding Leinster House. Many people working in Ireland's home-grown businesses will tell you they've been more or less ignored by this Government.
The big public service initiative in this Dail is Irish Water - a disaster from day one. Even if everyone paid the charge, the money collected would only cover the cost of collecting the money - so not one euro of it will be used to upgrade the water infrastructure (one of the reasons we would abolish it).
All four of this Government's budgets have been regressive - taking most from those with the least. One of the most offensive results of this is that one in eight children in Ireland today lives in poverty. Think about that for a second - think where we're being taken as a nation - tens of billions of euro was found to pay foreign banks money we didn't owe them, but a fraction of this couldn't be found to make sure none of our children go to school hungry. The mistakes of the past are being repeated. Politics is plodding along in the same tired old way - Cabinet makes decisions, doesn't explain how or why, then demands blind loyalty from backbenchers.
Tricky parliamentary questions aren't answered, and tricky legislation is rammed through without debate.
Important financial information is withheld. Civil servants are sent to Garda Commissioners in the middle of the night. Short-termism and a lack of ambition for what Ireland is capable of pervades.
The Government mind-set seems to be 'keep the head down, keep the foreign investment coming, spend a load of money just before the election, and maybe it'll all be grand.'
We deserve better than this, we are more capable than this, and people are demanding more than this. Ireland is changing - the Yes Equality campaign is just the latest example of this. And for some time, there's been a growing call for a new political party, one that will try to change how things are done.
So that's what we've done. We've launched the Social Democrats - a new political party founded on four core values - Progress, Equality, Democracy and Sustainability. A party determined to modernise how politics and public services operate in Ireland. A party that understands how social vision and economic strength work in harmony. A party that believes government must be opened up, and made relevant and accountable to the people. A party that's setting out to ask big ambitious questions.
Like how do we get a top-five education system in the next 10 years? How do we replicate the success of foreign direct investment for Irish businesses? How do we ensure everyone has sufficient income in retirement? How do we create a modern, community-based healthcare system? How do we ensure every child has the chance to achieve their potential? Answering questions like this requires a longer-term view than the political system tends to take. And successfully implementing the answers requires a modern approach to public service delivery - starting with clear objectives, tracking progress, improving and refining as we go.
We've started with six policy areas: supporting enterprise and good jobs; ending the mortgage crisis; focusing on children aged 0 to 6 (including childcare quality and cost); tackling the housing crisis; open decision-making and better politics. We'll be adding to this in the coming weeks and months, and are adopting an inclusive policy-making approach - seeking input from a wide range of people and groups for what's needed in Ireland.
It's not easy taking on the cartel. I explained it to a friend working in London like this: Imagine getting together with a small team to set up a new tech start-up, and having to take on Apple, Google and Facebook, at the same time.
Imagine you're not allowed raise more than €2,500 per investor, and the other companies are fully funded by the US Government. That's pretty much what it feels like.
So it's going to need a lot of people to get involved. And they are - we've been humbled by the support since Wednesday. Thousands have signed up, from all over Ireland. People are volunteering - to knock on doors, to organise events, to simply tell more people what we're doing.
Others are making donations via the website, www.socialdemocrats.ie, and offering to run fund-raisers.
People are thinking about running themselves as Social Democrat candidates, and councillors are getting in touch, interested in hearing more. We believe that 'more of the same' just isn't okay. We believe Ireland deserves, and is capable of, much more.
We believe that if enough people share this belief and join us, then there's a chance we can help bring Ireland in a better direction - and that's all any of us can try to do.
The Social Democrats is a new political party that marries support for enterprise and responsible economics with a fundamentally better, more inclusive and more equal social vision. As with anything worth doing, the task ahead will be difficult, but it is most definitely work the effort. I hope you think so too.
Stephen Donnelly is TD for Wicklow and East Carlow, and is a founding member of the Social Democrats.