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WE NEVER HAD CONFIDENCE IN THIS GOVERNMENT

15 February 2017

Speech by Brendan Howlin TD
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland

Check against delivery - on Government Confidence motion.

Ceann Comhairle,

Since this Government was formed, I have had no confidence in it.

I didn’t vote for this Government, and I have been dismayed by its performance over the last few months.

When the Government was formed, I predicted it wouldn’t last a year – that prediction has yet to be fully tested.

At a time of great challenge for our nation, we have a Government that is intrinsically weak.

The responsibility of governing is too important to lie with a Government that has neither the authority nor the capacity to govern.

And when the very notion of collective cabinet responsibility appears to have been thrown out the window, we can truly begin to see through the crumbling edifice.

A Government that was delivering progress in Ireland would have much work to do.

We have a healthcare system that we have only recently been reminded is fundamentally incapable of treating people when they need treatment.

We have a housing crisis that seems unremitting, with rent increases that continue to spiral.

And of course we have Brexit – a shadow that looms large over our future prosperity.

On top of all of these issues, we have a range of issues that this do-nothing Government has not even considered tackling:

Water charges, the eighth amendment, funding of third-level education, the baptism barrier in our schools, and of course whistleblowing in the Gardaí – there is absolutely no issue that this Government seems to believe is sufficiently important to require clear action.

To someone like me – someone who believes in the power of the state as an enabling force for good – this is profoundly depressing.

But over the last week or so, it has gotten more serious.

From doing nothing, this Government has now begun to do actual harm.

Over the last week, we have heard a great deal about the anguish and agony imposed on the McCabe family.

We are beginning to hear similar stories from elsewhere, including from the Harrison family.

In truth, the fumbling of this issue by the Government has only added to this agony.

When faced with a crisis of this nature, you would expect a Government to gather together, to openly discuss the best way of tackling an issue of national importance, and to propose measures that could reassure the public, as well as the victims.

Instead we have seen senior Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil figures stop just short of calling each other liars.

And more worryingly, we have seen the Taoiseach and one of his senior Ministers do exactly the same.

Yesterday, this tawdry mess managed to get even worse.

Yesterday, the Taoiseach stood in this chamber, and gave two versions of the same event within a fifteen minute period.

And so, after a week of public disquiet, the debate we have this evening has become all about the Taoiseach.

Taoiseach – I worked closely with you for five full years and more.

That Government has been much maligned, but in time, I strongly believe it will be recognised for many achievements.

During our time in Government, we disagreed on many points. 

We come from different traditions, and we weren’t afraid to thrash out our disagreements.

I have had, since the last election, cause to reflect on our failings and our mistakes, as well as our achievements.

On balance, I still believe we did a lot of things well.

Some of them were in this territory – the whistleblower legislation we implemented is world-class, the creation of the Garda Authority a ground-breaking move.

Despite our many disagreements, we got a lot done together.

And so, in participating in this debate tonight, it gives me no joy to see the position you have now found yourself in.

There are many in this chamber, on your side of the house as well as mine, who have waited for your time as Taoiseach to come to an end.

Some of them share that front row with you.

If this debate proves to be a tipping point that brings that end closer, know that you have made a significant contribution to this state.

But know too, that the events of the last week are not an acceptable way for a country to be governed.

I want to finish by emphasising an important point that has had too little airing in the debate over recent days.

Article 28.4.2 of Bunreacht nah Éireann defines how collective cabinet responsibility shall operate in Ireland.

There are many other clauses in our constitution that lawyers and academics dispute – which can be debated in different contexts.

This is not one of those.

To remind the House, article 28.4.2 reads: “The Government shall meet and act as a collective authority, and shall be collectively responsible for the Departments of State administered by the members of the Government.”

This is not optional.

You cannot decide that some issues are decided collectively, while others are not.

You cannot decide that you don’t want to hear any more about an issue when one of your own Ministers mentions it.

This is not acceptable.

Too many people over recent days have suggested that the notion of collective cabinet responsibility is a historical nicety.

It’s not – it is the highest law of this land, and is being flagrantly ignored by the current members of our Government.

I was genuinely shocked to hear yesterday and today how this Government goes about its business.

It is one thing to bring a sensitive memo in to Government under the Minister’s elbow. I’ve done that.

It is quite another thing when that sensitive memo proposes a Government order for a commission of investigation based on a judge’s report that has not been circulated.

How on earth is anyone in Government expected to know what they are agreeing to investigate?

Minister Zappone presumed her concerns were included in the terms of reference.

She was entitled to presume the Tusla affair was included in the protected disclosure, that is referenced in the terms of reference.

But she never got to see the protected disclosure.

So she never got to know that her presumption was incorrect.

Everyone in Government is now citing the law as justifying what they failed to tell their colleagues.

There is nothing in the law that prevents the Tánaiste from sharing those details from the protected disclosures that her colleagues in Government needed to know.

As the Minister who introduced the whistle-blowers act, I might remind the Government that section 16 of that act allows for information to be disclosed where the disclosure is considered necessary in the public interest.

Neither does the law prevent Minister Zappone from demanding information from Tusla and sharing that information with Cabinet also.

That is the only way collective government can work.

But the Taoiseach was still insisting today that he is by law restricted in asking any questions about the protected disclosures.

There is no such law.

It has as much basis in reality as the Taoiseach’s advice to Minister Zappone to take a good note.

Taoiseach, as I said at the outset – I have had no confidence in your Government since you formed it.

After the events of the last week, I cannot in any conscience support you now.

The Labour Party will oppose your motion.