We now have the potential for a lasting recovery, let's not throw our future away
Published 14/09/2015 | 02:30
Ireland stands on a moment of great potential. Our economy is growing at the fastest rate in Europe and we're adding 1,300 jobs every week. International investment is booming. Consumer confidence is increasing. Two in three people believe the country is now on the right economic track.
We're coming out the right side after the harrowing times since the crash. Labour in government is driving an economic recovery that is the envy of many countries.
Securing that recovery will, in turn, allow us to drive renewal - a social, cultural and community-based renewal that makes life better for every person.
That is the potential, our shared opportunity.
But potential must be realised. We all know stories of gifted young students or athletes who lacked the application to realise their potential or who took the wrong choices.
Which is what will make the general election next spring a crucial moment in this country's future development. The choice will be very clear: between a Government driving recovery and renewal and the risk of an incoherent opposition returning us to ruin.
And let's remember what ruin looked like: Fianna Fail swung a wrecking ball through our economy and our society, leaving misery and a troika bailout in their wake.
In a relatively short period of time, Labour, working with our coalition partners, engineered Ireland's exit from the bailout and return to growth.
That, of course, could only be achieved because of the very real sacrifices people made and the perseverance shown in the face of uphill struggle.
But we've now climbed to the brow of the hill and can see our destination - an Ireland of opportunity, prosperity and decency for all.
We haven't reached that destination yet and I know that a lot of people are still struggling. But it's in sight and within reach and last year's Budget was proof of that - because it began the process of raising living standards.
We'll continue that process in the forthcoming Budget, when my priorities will include ensuring more take-home pay for low and middle-income workers by further reducing Fianna Fail's dreaded USC.
We'll announce increased investment in our health, education and childcare systems because improved public services are essential to a better Ireland.
And as the party of work, we'll continue to prioritise helping people back into work through schemes such as JobsPlus and the Back to Work Family Dividend, so that they can build better financial futures for themselves and their families.
Separately, Brendan Howlin will shortly announce a very significant capital plan to improve crucial infrastructure like roads, railways and broadband. This will both create more jobs and underpin our future growth.
It's vital that we recognise our pensioners, who in many cases have supported adult children and their families through the worst of the crisis. Last year, I restored a partial Christmas bonus of 25pc for all state pension recipients, as well as people with disabilities, carers, lone parents and long-term jobseekers.
This year, I intend increasing that to at least 50pc because, with so many new jobs being created, my department's expenditure on unemployment payments is falling and we can use the money in other ways.
In money terms, a 50pc bonus would mean an extra €115 at Christmas for a person on State contributory pension and almost €220 extra for a pensioner couple.
It would mean an extra €102 for a carer and more if that carer has children.
A Budget along the above lines - helping low- and middle-income earners, families, retired people and the vulnerable - would be another step in the process of raising living standards.
We have the potential to do so much more over the next five years.
We have the potential to not just reduce - but phase out - USC for low- and middle-income workers as part of a structured plan over a series of budgets.
We have the potential to invest more heavily in essential public services, to drive a social, cultural and community renewal.
We have the potential to do this in a steady and prudent way - staying in line with EU fiscal rules but, more importantly, the inherent Irish belief that it's wise to be prepared for a rainy day.
This potential, in many ways, represents a second chance for Ireland.
The chance to do what should have been done when an Irish government last had the chance, only for Fianna Fáil to blow it.
The chance to build a better country for every person.
It's crucial we take it.
Fianna Fáil couldn't. Sinn Féin can't - their inability to govern in Northern Ireland, to say nothing of the dark IRA legacy they insist does not exist - is proof of that.
As for the far left, the tragedy of the experiment in Greece, which continues to be mired in crisis, says it all.
Labour will take that chance. Our track record with Fine Gael is proof of that. Stability, recovery, renewal.
We'll realise our country's potential - an Ireland better for all.
Joan Burton is Minister for Social Protection, Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party.