Tuesday 20 August 2019

The country cannot simply be defined in terms of banks

Simon Harris

IT'S JUST over 100 days since I stood up in the Dáil and made my maiden speech. I had received a phone call the evening before the first sitting of the new Dáil from my party leader and the soon-to-be Taoiseach, Enda Kenny asking me to nominate him to be Taoiseach the following day. It is hard to capture in words how I felt after that phone call; honoured, nervous, excited.

I now had an evening to put together some thoughts of just over a minute long in length to sum up to the Dáil, the media and all the people across the length and breadth of the country who would be watching the proceedings the reasons why I was asking Dáil Éireann to nominate Enda as Taoiseach.

To try to capture all that I wanted to say about Enda, about the new Government and about the future of the country in such a short space of time was challenging to say the least! But as I walked into the Dáil Chamber that day as a brand new TD and the youngest Deputy in the country, the sense of occasion really hit me. Here we were sitting in a new Dáil after an election where the Irish people with a few strokes of a pencil had changed the political landscape of our country for the foreseeable future.

There was a combined total of 113 Government TDs between Fine Gael and Labour. Fianna Fáil had been reduced to just 20 seats. Sinn Fein had increased its numbers hugely and there were a large number of independents with varying political views and backgrounds who had been elected. The people had decided they wanted to turn the very make-up of the Dáil on its head and when I sat in that chamber for the first time it was very obvious it was mission accomplished on that front!

But what struck me much more than the size of the various party groupings was the actual individuals in all parties that had been elected. There were now 76 people elected who had never been TDs before. 84 members of the new Dáil had not been members of the last Dáil - that's a majority of TDs. And what obviously stood out to me was the influx of new young TDs right across the political spectrum. I know for instance in my own party we now have 11 TDs under the age of 35. You cannot have a parliament that makes decisions in the interests of all of society unless its very membership is reflective of society. I think the recent election went some way towards addressing this.

After the euphoria of 'Day 1' of the Dáil, the clock began ticking on how much the new Government could achieve in its first 100 days. Expectations were always going to be high, partly owing to politicians themselves creating such expectations and partly owing to the Irish people feeling so much pressure, pain, stress and frustration from the economic mess this country found itself in.

A Government puts together a plan for five years so obviously the contents of an ambitious Programme for Government cannot be and indeed are not meant to be done and dusted in just over three months. Having said that though, I think a lot of good has been achieved. On the banking front, our banks have been restructured and within three weeks of Michael Noonan becoming Minister for Finance a plan was put in place to ensure that banks had the necessary money to lend.

Work must be ongoing and intensified to ensure that banks live up to their end of the deal in relation to lending money out and this is an issue the Government must keep the pressure on. Efforts are now under way to make Anglo bondholders take their share of the pain. The road ahead on this issue might be complex but we now have a Government trying relentlessly and unapologetically to achieve this and to minimise the burden of banks on hard-pressed Irish taxpayers.

So much of the commentary on the first 100 days in office have been about banks - and I guess that is to be somewhat expected considering the crises the Government inherited. But, nonetheless, for me this country cannot and should not simply be defined in terms of banks and balance sheets. We live in a great country and the two international visits of both Queen Elizabeth II and President Obama gave us an opportunity to show of our nation and its people and to rebuild our international reputation.

Yes, the Government should be judged on how it addresses the banking crisis, but we must also keep a perspective on the fact that there are so many more issues of importance in this country which politicians need to address and which progress has been made on in the first 100 days.

Take for example the need for the society and the political system to prioritise children. In the last number of years we have seen report upon report outlining the past failures of this country to protect and support children. We now have the first even Department of Children and Youth Affairs created with a full Cabinet Minister charged with advocating for children and giving a voice to issues relating to many areas including child protection at the highest level possible in Government.

Or the area of white-collar crime. For years people in this country have quite right criticised the fact that our criminal justice system might send someone to prison for failing to pay a fine but that white collar crime often goes unpunished.

We now have introduced a piece of legislation to finally redress this imbalance and send out a message that crime - white collar or otherwise - will not be tolerated.

On the area of political reform, the Dáil is now sitting longer and quite correctly so. Two referenda have been outlined by Government for the autumn to give Oireachtas Committee investigative powers and to protect whistleblowers. Measures have been put forward to get more women into politics, changes have been made to the way State-board appointments are brought about, Ministerial transport costs have been halved and serious restrictions on corporate donations have been announced.

When it comes to reforming the way our health service is delivered, the Minister for Health has disbanded the Board of the HSE and has now set up a group to work towards Universal Health Care.

And in the area of modernising our education system, Minister Ruairi Quinn has established a Forum on School Patronage, is examining new enrolment policies and has recognised Educate Together as a patron for secondlevel schools.

Every possible effort is being taken to create jobs. We have seen a restoration in the minimum wage, a lowering of VAT on tourism products, a halving of employers' PRSI and literally thousands upon thousands of new training, internship and education places.

It's only been a hundred days but a good start has been made on many issues. Yes, there are complexities and yes, of course, there are things I would like to see being done faster but we operate in difficult times. We have a five year programme and we are just three months into now.

We need positivity and that is not to be confused with blind loyalty - but we must remember that this country can overcome its challenges. Fixing the economy is not an end in itself; it is just a means to creating a better society for us all. The last 100 hundred days have begun that process.

Simon Harris is a Fine Gael TD for Wicklow who was elected to the Dail for the first time this year. He is the youngest member of the Dail.