Why Vote for Michael D.

October 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Michael D Higgins

Five years ago, Liberties Press published Causes for Concern: Irish politics, culture and society, a sometimes eclectic mix of Michael D.s journalism, academic writing and speeches over the years. The book is a testament to the range and breadth of Michael D.’s accomplishments as a politician, a public intellectual and, above all, as a great humanist. Unusually amongst public figures, Michael D. is at home in a range of communication modes from the rhetorical flourishes of the university lecturer, to the incisive observations of the detached columnist to the creative exegesis of the poet. As a political representative, opposition spokesman and Minister he could be relied upon to bring an intellectual acuity and vision to every brief in hand. Reading through the contributions in the book which extend over several decades of public life a few key themes emerge: respect for education and love of learning, the importance of promoting culture and the public sphere and the need to show solidarity with the oppressed.

In developing his world view, Michael D. has drawn on a rich seam of intellectual thinking but he returns repeatedly to the question of authenticity, and the goal of living an authentic life. Michael D.’s analysis of the ills of Irish society- clientelism, consumerism, materialism and technocratic determinism- are trenchant and prescient. He was a critic of the direction of socio-economic change in Ireland when it was neither popular nor profitable to be so. The kind of values that he has been espousing for decades- solidarity, community, democracy, justice, freedom and equality- are exactly the values to which we have now turned as we seek to rebuild our economy and society in the wake of the Celtic Tiger.

As Declan Kiberd so eloquently points out in the introduction to Michael D.’s book “In an age when the great ideological battles between capital and labour have been pronounced to be over, Higgins has kept ideas at the centre of political life; in a time of technocracy, he offers vision; and while others run for office on the basis of competence, he insists on an ethical perspective.”

Michael D. has spent a lifetime putting his considerable intellectual gifts to work in the service of the Irish people. He has used his voice courageously to speak out for those in Irish society and elsewhere who have been oppressed. He will indeed be a President of whom we can all be immensely proud.

Mary Corcoran and Alex White

“One should not allow the perfect be the enemy of the possible”

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last Tuesday, the chamber debated the Electoral Amendment Bill 2011. There are important proposals that being brought forward, such as a lower spending cap for Presidential elections, and a maximum delay of 6 months for by elections. I spoke in favour of the Bill.

I welcome the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2011. It constitutes an important advance and as other speakers have noted, it forms a single element of a highly ambitious programme of reform the Government has set out to achieve and introduce. It is important that Members bear this point in mind.

One of the most important measures that has been agreed in the programme for Government is the establishment of a constitutional convention. I heard Deputies Pearse Doherty and Éamon Ó Cuív making a number of points earlier that I thought had great validity such as, for example, a suggestion about a list system. In addition to a number of suggestions from other speakers, such a change could only be dealt with or addressed through constitutional change, which is the reason it will be extremely important for the Government to turn its attention as quickly as possible, hopefully later this year, to establishing the constitutional convention once it has got through the more immediate proposals regarding constitutional change and the referendums that already are on the blocks. It is only when such a constitutional convention is established that it will be possible to consider all these issues in the round. It will be possible to consider matters more widely.

Electoral reform and the electoral system for the Dáil is one of the priority items in the programme for Government the constitutional convention is to address. It will provide the opportunity to deal with questions such as whether there should be a list system, the broader question of elections or perhaps the establishment of a permanent electoral commission. In itself, that measure would not require a constitutional change but broad questions on what electoral system it is best to have or how best to elect people to this Parliament can be addressed in the context of a constitutional convention. I hope such a convention is brought forward as early as possible in the autumn.

Nevertheless, simply because one states it is necessary to have a broader debate on such issues and on how to have constitutional change, this does not mean there are no measures that can be taken now. One should not allow the perfect be the enemy of the possible or the more immediately achievable measures such as those contained in this legislation. It contains three discrete items, each of which can and should be dealt with at this time and which should not be obliged to wait for the broader programme or agenda. The question of by-elections manifestly should be dealt with as quickly as possible and it is good the Minister has brought forward this measure so quickly. The Government may consider itself to be under a certain amount of pressure on foot of the High Court decision but notwithstanding that, it still is commendable that the Government has brought forward this proposal as quickly as it has.

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Alex White TD Elected Chair of Oireachtas Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform Committee

June 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

From Oireachtas News:

Alex White TD for Dublin South was today elected as Chairman to the key Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform.

Wexford TD, Liam Twomey was elected as Committee Vice-Chair.

The Committee will shadow the activities of the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Refom.

Speaking after his election, Deputy White said;
“I am grateful to my Oireachtas colleagues for electing me to chair this pivotal new Oireachtas Committee. I intend to adopt a professional and business-like approach to the way this Committee does its work, so that we can achieve tangible results and make a real contribution.

Clearly, reform and public expenditure will be among the highest priorities for this Oireachtas. I believe this Committee can have an important function in scrutinising the work of this new Department as well as devising concrete progressive proposals.”

Committee Vice-Chair, Liam Twomey TD said;
“I too look forward to job of work ahead of this Committee. We will be addressing some of the most pressing areas of policy and I believe the Committee’s input can make a meaningful contribution.”

The Committee will hold a meeting shortly to identify its work programme and priorities.

“People expect political reform and want to see it happening”

June 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Yesterday, the chamber discussed a motion put down by the Technical Group on reform of the Oireachtas. Amongst the proposals put forward by the group included the abolition of the whip system and allowing committee input prior to drafting legislation. The full motion can be viewed here.  I spoke in support of the government amendment which cited reform proposals in the Programme for Government. The amendment can be viewed here.

There is no reason why there should not be debate here about the need to change the way the House operates and the practices which may be in existence for decades. As Deputy Eoghan Murphy argued, we should address the elements that should be changed, and I have no problem with the debate or the Technical Group raising those issues.

The point regarding the Whip system has been ventilated and I will not repeat it other than to pose a question. How could it be abolished and who would do so? How can the Dáil determine that people cannot come together in a voluntary way through a political party, make decisions together by compromise and come to the House to vote in a particular way? It is not open to the Dáil to abolish the party political system or the Whips in the sense proposed in the motion. As a result the argument against the Whip system is really unconvincing, demonstrating a frustration which Independents in the Dáil and Seanad have with the system. That is natural and although there is a luxury in being an Independent, those Members must also face the obstacles relating to the processing of business and the ability, essentially, to get work done in this Parliament. As Deputy Stagg and others have argued, practices have evolved through political parties because they are at the heart of our current system. Apart from that it is good to have this debate.

Everybody is in favour of reform and apart from the Whip issue, we are probably all in agreement. There is very little difference between the original motion and the amendments. Calling for reform is one thing, but implementing it or setting it out on paper is another. Prior to the election, the Labour Party carefully and at some length examined this issue. My colleague, the Minister, Deputy Brendan Howlin, set out in a document 140 proposals for genuinely radical change that would appeal to Members on all sides of the House. It took us a considerable period to analyse the problem and set out proposals which could be implemented.

Deputy Murphy is right to express frustration at how the House operates but change requires the unpicking of entrenched practices and the way business has been done for many years. Every time we look at a practice we can find a reason for its existence. Although we may want to get rid of it, we can see the rationale behind it so we have to unpick the practice in order to change it. We should do that, and every Member should be involved in the process. The necessity for reform should not be the subject of contentious debate, although some of the individual aspects may cause people to differ. Deputy Stagg is right when he states that the process is ongoing and the impression should not be given that the matter is purely within the remit of the Government. Opposition parties should be involved, and I hope they will be.

I was struck by some of the debate, particularly when Deputy Catherine Murphy spoke more broadly about civic morality. It was a good issue to bring to the heart of the debate. There is a great expectation amongst the people for this Dáil. This does not just relate to the economy and the principal issues that must be addressed, but how we do our business. People expect change and want to see it happening. That is a reason for us to proceed with the constitutional convention, although there is little detail yet as to how it will operate. That would be a genuine opportunity for us to examine the kind of republic we have and the sort of change we want to see in the republic.

I will comment on the committee system. There is general agreement that the committees should be vested with real powers. The committees should be given a genuinely enhanced status. It should not just be a question of rhetoric that the Government will take committees seriously – as I am sure it will – and provide additional resources; we must see that happen. As parliamentarians we should stand up for the Parliament and our independent role, separate from the Government, even if we support that Government. We have a crucial role to play on behalf of the people who sent us here. We are right to demand that the Government should take the committees seriously, attend them and resource them. They should have an enhanced status.

We also have a responsibility in regard to how we conduct our business in committees. They ought not to be opportunities for grandstanding and set pieces, and we need to learn discipline with regard, for example, to scrutinising witnesses and asking questions. Many people have forgotten how to ask questions. A question is not a statement. I say with all due respect to my colleagues that we should take the committee system seriously. Let us be seen to make it work rather than simply expect the Government to do all the work.

Alex on Prime Time

January 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Last night I appeared on the panel on Prime Time on RTE One to discuss the fallout from the Fianna Fail confidence vote.

Also on the panel were Leo Varadkar TD and political analyst Noel Whelan.

See it again by clicking here.

New Year, New Government, New Policies

January 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Happy New Year! 2011 brings with it renewed hope and an impending general election.  It may, with hard work, bring the first Labour-led government in the history of the State.

Labour has started the year by launching an ambitious plan to reform Irish democracy.  New Government, Better Government sets out 140 ways to improve how government works, how politics works and how to reform the public service. It is, I believe, the most radical reform document ever published by a political party in this country. You can take a look here.

Although a new government will faces challenges in the economy and elsewhere, Labour believes priority must be placed in restoring public confidence in our political system.

Recovery Plan is bill for economic failure

November 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Four Year Plan released yesterday afternoon will affect every man, woman and child in this country.  It is devastating – the price we must pay for political incompetence.  Within a matter of hours, I gave a speech to the Seanad.  You can read the whole debate by clicking here.

I welcome the opportunity to participate in this debate on the plan published by the Government this afternoon. This plan is in many ways the bill for economic failure. Regrettably, it is a bill that must be paid over a period of some years.

Having listened to Senator Boyle, I have a real sense that he is finding his voice on some issues and that he may be, in terms of some of the things he said, feeling a sense of political liberation. I agree with much of what he had to say. There is a sense that people have been codding politicians, and not perhaps only Government politicians, and that they may have been unwitting participants in the illusion that we can fund and have the type of public services to which we aspire and should have for our citizens and children, and that these can be sustained and managed at a particular level of taxation. A stark statement on page 91 of the plan, with which no one could disagree, states : “We have eroded the income tax base to an unsustainable level”. This is manifestly true. However, I do not believe income tax is the only element we need to examine in the context of from where we raise taxes. I agree with Senator MacSharry and others who said that it is necessary that we not confine ourselves to only looking at income tax. We do not wish to raise taxes for the hell of it but so that we can look towards having a sustainable economy and public service in respect of which there is certainty in terms of funding into the future. We must never again think we can pin everything on the type of transitional taxation we had during the so-called boom.

I recall sitting beside a politician on a radio programme prior to the last general election. She was a supporter of the then Government and is not now a Member of the Houses. I recall her seeking to sustain the argument over many minutes on that radio programme that it was possible to reduce taxes and improve public services. I do not understand how it would have been possible then or since to do this.

The extent to which any of us was party to such an illusion was a mistake but the principal responsibility must lie with the Government regarding these matters. Opposition politicians can from time to time be criticised for calling for this and that. It is sometimes legitimate to engage in such criticism but it is greatly dwarfed by the legitimate criticism that one can level at a government that has failed to carry out the policies it ought to have implemented.

The document, regrettably and sadly, is a bill and it is not particularly detailed. It has detailed aspects and although it purports to contain a growth strategy and a jobs strategy, it does not. There is nothing new in the narrative on these areas. There is a great deal of generalised, aspirational material, with which it would be impossible to disagree, but there is little relating to a jobs strategy. The IMF is constantly being invoked but its officials are in the House and, in an interim report published earlier this week, they rightly identified the urgent necessity for a growth strategy and to put in place serious measures to get people back to work. That is what we need. « Read the rest of this entry »

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