Government's Priorities for the Year Ahead: Statements (Resumed)

I propose to share time with Deputy Patrick O'Donovan. I thank the Government Chief Whip's office for sharing Government time to allow me to participate in this debate. I affirm my support for the Government's priorities for the forthcoming year, which were outlined in the House over recent days. Contained among the priorities are a number of ambitious targets that will represent the parameters of progress as we map our continued recovery in the years ahead. The Government is right to be ambitious. The substantial progress made in a relatively short time since it came to office - three years - warrants such ambition. The Ireland that was flat on its back in 2011 has been helped to its feet and has taken sustainable steps in the direction of recovery, and the Government now plans to put pace in its stride.

Many of the economic millstones that weighed heavily around our necks have already been removed. The disastrous bank guarantee has ended, the promissory note payments are gone and the troika has departed our shores. The economy is growing and we have returned to international bond markets. We have all become experts on bond markets and bond yields in recent years. Bond yields that were in excess of 14% when the Government assumed office three years ago have fallen to just over 3%. Bond yields are a reflection of the risk international investors associate with Ireland. It is a clear signal that our international reputation has been restored.

While unemployment is still far too high, it has stabilised, and in the past 12 months more than 1,000 jobs a week have been created. That said, many people have yet to see appreciable difference in their daily lives as a result of this progress. The challenge for the Government will be not only to foster further growth but to ensure that its benefits are distributed equitably among people who have made considerable sacrifices over six years. Government priorities include many significant measures aimed at boosting the domestic economy. The Government has form here. What it did in respect of the tourism industry, a reduction in the VAT rate, was a stimulus measure introduced shortly after entering office and has been accepted as an effective tool that increased activity in the sector. The Gathering was very successful, targeting not just the areas typically associated with tourists coming to Ireland but all counties. The economic benefit that accrued was shared across the country. The abolition of travel tax in the recent budget is another example of a measure that will boost tourist numbers. In fairness, the airlines, and Ryanair in particular, have reciprocated and have embraced the opportunities presented. In Galway, we are happy to see additional routes managed by Ryanair in and out of Shannon and Knock airports.

One of the most effective instruments the Government has at its disposal to stimulate domestic demand is to reduce taxation. I welcome recent comments by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance, who have indicated that if prevailing conditions allow they will examine the feasibility of reducing the tax burden on hard-pressed middle-income earners in future budgets. This would increase domestic spending and demand and help boost the domestic economy. It would not only boost the economy but would boost morale and provide hope to people that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It would be an acknowledgement that the sacrifices people have made over the past six years have not been in vain.

At a time when each day heralds new changes and challenges on the political agenda, such as GSOC and Irish Water in recent weeks, it is easy to forget how far we have come since we hung on the edge of the cliff of economic catastrophe just three years ago. Against this catastrophic situation and a backdrop of crisis and calamity, the people went to the ballot box in 2011 and voted in their droves for candidates standing for Fine Gael and the Labour Party. These were the parties that promised to lead the country from ruination to recovery. I was one such candidate, although, due to events that transpired since, I have found myself outside the parliamentary party under whose banner I was originally elected. This situation arose last July when, regrettably, I was unable to consolidate my stance on legislation with that of the Government. This was a single issue on which our positions could not be aligned and I have voted to support the Government on every item on the legislative agenda since then. I endorsed the difficult decisions that this Administration has taken in the course of its efforts to repair the broken economy it inherited. Any changes that have since occurred regarding my relationship with the party do not alter the mandate I received from the electorate as a Fine Gael candidate in 2011. When I lost the party Whip last July, I could have chosen another path. I could have become bitter, as others have done, and I could have borne a grudge. I could have spent the next two years sniping at the Government benches and touting populist policies in the interest of self-promotion rather than the common good. However, that would not be in the public interest. The public has no interest in tokenistic factionalism and intra-party politicking that does nothing to improve people's lives. The people are not exercised by party political infighting, the reopening of old wounds of leadership battles, or the petty score-settling that is perpetrated in the guise of reform.

They are more concerned with retaining jobs, having a decent income with which to provide for their families, a good education for their children, a reliable health service for when they are sick, and compassionate, dignified care for when they are old. They gave all of us who were elected as Fine Gael and Labour Deputies a mandate to take the hard decisions and rebuild an economy so their aspirations could be realised. I would be reneging on my mandate were I suddenly to start opposing difficult Government decisions taken in the national interest just because I had a disagreement with the Government over one Bill. It never ceases to amaze me how politicians in general can so easily shift and change their positions depending on prevailing circumstances. How can Members spend two years consistently supporting the Government in all the difficult and unpalatable choices it must make and then suddenly assume chameleon-like status and regularly oppose the very same Government policies and start engaging in the politics of populism? This is precisely the reason the public has become cynical about politics and politicians.

Despite being criticised and sneered at by some for the stance I have taken, I intend to honour the mandate I received and will be supporting the priorities the Government has outlined this week for the year ahead, which priorities I am confident will make a real and appreciable difference to people's lives.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Government's priorities for the forthcoming two years. Before I do so, I must compliment my colleague from Galway West on his honesty and frankness regarding the new political rainbow that has formed in this Dáil. I refer to a new troika of negativity that involves people who were once great advocates of everything the Government was doing but who, for one reason or another, fell out of favour with the Government. The previous speaker has really summed up in a very succinct and honest way the stances taken by some Members.

This is an important debate but some of the media coverage that has been devoted to it has been regrettable. On my way to the House this morning I was listening to RTE's "Morning Ireland". The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources was being interviewed. He gave a speech in the House yesterday on his priorities for the years ahead. Rather than homing in on the Minister's legislative and policy priorities, the interviewers did what they do best in many cases, that is, they homed in on a few soundbites from some of the far-flung benches of a very disparate bunch in respect of what we are doing here this week. One cannot have one's cake and eat it. This is a very old but true adage. On the one hand, members of the Opposition complain that the Government's priorities and series of legislative initiatives are being driven by the Government itself and that the House does not have ownership while, on the other hand, we have been having in the House for the past few days a debate in which Members can bring forward their own ideas and suggestions on where the Government should now focus to rebuild the country that was so devastatingly wrecked by the previous Administration. Rather than taking up the challenge of making suggestions, Opposition Members outlined a catalogue of negativity. We are delighted that the Opposition benches are graced with the presence of two Members today considering that there is normally no one in them on occasions such as this. It is no wonder that the Opposition is as it is when it uses the opportunity to make suggestions that might hold the Government to account in a constructive manner to do nothing other than whinge. Thus, the Opposition is seen as a bunch of whingers with nothing to offer and nothing concrete to suggest. It comes in and criticises for the sake of criticising. People have had enough of that.

This week should be used as an opportunity to provide a blueprint to allow the programme for Government to be honoured in its entirety and for Members to identify their priorities. I have a number of issues that could be built upon that I would like the Government to note.

My first point concerns the Department of Finance and a man who was instrumental in redirecting the course of this country, namely the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, a colleague of mine from Limerick. Everybody would agree he has done sterling work. This view is contrary to what Deputy Healy was saying yesterday; he was trying to grab at any old straw of publicity by suggesting in a totally daft way that the Taoiseach should sack the Minister for Finance. As we know, the Minister for Finance has overseen the evacuation of the troika from Ireland and restored sovereignty.

The Minister for Finance should consider the use of personal pensions as a method by which people might be able to clear personal debt. Although changes were made in the Finance Bill two years ago regarding people with AVCs, many people who have pensions or who have stopped paying into pension funds are locked in and are subject to a penalty if they use their funds to clear debt, be it personal debt or mortgage debt. The Minister might consider this.

Another issue I wish to raise regarding finance concerns use of the credit union movement in a partnership model involving local authorities. I advocate an arrangement almost akin to what the European Investment Bank is allowed to do on a national basis. Our credit union movement is fantastic and has been one of the mainstays in maintaining local economies. If the Department of Finance and Government considered initiatives whereby credit unions could have strategic relationships with local authorities to bring forward infrastructural projects that currently cannot be carried out because they would go onto the State's balance sheet, they could serve as a means of stimulating the local economy.

The Government is very keen on focusing on agriculture and driving employment in the agriculture sector. As we gear up for Food Harvest 2020 and abolish milk quotas, there is undoubtedly a move towards encouraging more young farmers into the sector. While tax incentives have been introduced by the Government to maintain the number of young farmers, more could be done. In addition, work could be done on agricultural education. In my constituency there is the Salesian college in Pallaskenry, a long-established agricultural college. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, along with Teagasc, needs to ensure that agricultural colleges are adequately staffed to reflect the demand placed on them. There is an agriculture college in the constituency of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

Country-of-origin labelling presents a huge problem. In my area, the poultry issue was a case in point. The manner in which imported poultry was labelled had an impact on the processing of poultry. The farming organisations have been raising this for a number of years. This week the farming organisations have focused on the price of beef. Again, I encourage the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to get all the stakeholders around the table to ensure this is properly addressed. He will know from his constituency that input costs are not decreasing. The prices of diesel, feedstuffs, etc., are increasing but the price of the finished product of the farmer seems to be decreasing. However, the reduction does not seem to be passed on to the consumer. There is an anomaly that needs to be addressed.

With regard to the overall development of rural areas, I welcome the fact that the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas was established under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in the past 12 months. I look forward to the publication of its report because it could play a very important role in the development of rural areas.

Let me proceed to the Department of Social Protection. Great steps have been made in the detection of social welfare fraud but, by the same token, much more could be done. The introduction of the identity card is work in progress. More could be done in this regard also.

We are often inclined to forget about the self-employed. Over the remaining two years of the Government's term, I would like to see initiatives introduced whereby the self-employed would have a fund from which they could draw on a rainy day. This will involve PRSI changes. If self-employed people were allowed to make additional voluntary PRSI contributions such that they would have something to turn to during hard times, it would be beneficial. At present, they have nothing.

As Minister of State Deputy Dinny McGinley will know, I spent some time teaching before I became a Member. I raised with the Minister for Education and Skills certain issues time and again. I acknowledge he is trying to do his best. In primary education especially, it is crucial that children be allowed to participate actively in the use of information technology. Information technology in classrooms must not be about the teacher standing in front of an interactive whiteboard with the children as passive agents. The children must be actively involved. The best way to achieve this is by ensuring they are not told to put their iPads or laptops into their schoolbags on arriving at school but, rather, actively encouraged to use these devices on arriving. The environment in which children are being taught, especially in primary school, needs to be examined. The inspection regime that is currently in place for primary schools needs to reflect the environment in which children are taught.

Currently, the inspection in a whole-school evaluation examines the teaching and learning. One cannot look at the teaching and learning of children in primary schools without looking at the environment. I can give an example. If a child is in a classroom with 30 or 40 children and six or seven of the children must be moved to allow a child to leave to go to the bathroom, something that is not factored into a whole-school evaluation, how can that environment produce an adequate result in terms of the teaching and learning for that child?

The Minister has introduced junior certificate reform, but I do not believe that will work unless it is carried out in tandem with leaving certificate reform. Across all spheres in education there is a move away from learning by rote. The leaving certificate is the ultimate test of learning by rote. Basically, it is an intensive test, over approximately two hours, of how much a young person can regurgitate onto a sheet of paper, without really assessing their overall knowledge of the subject. Learning by rote has been decreasing at primary level, junior certificate level and even at tertiary level, but it is still grudgingly retained at leaving certificate level. That must be addressed.

An issue I have raised on many occasions in the House is the labour market. The courses at third level, be they in institutes of technology, post-leaving certificate courses or degree, masters or doctorate level courses, must reflect the economic circumstances in the country. I have a problem with young people receiving career guidance without finding out whether they will be employable in Ireland after finishing a third level course. They do not get that information at present. They do not get the statistics on how many people will end up with a job in a particular area. That must change and I urge the Department to do it.

With regard to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, an issue I have raised umpteen times on the Order of Business is foreshore licensing and development. Our ports have the potential to generate a great deal more economic activity, particularly given the location of this country relative to the rest of the Continent. The port of Foynes in my constituency, for example, is the deepest and most sheltered port on the west coast of Ireland. We must have a proper foreshore licensing regime that reflects a modern economy and under which planning applications can be made and dealt with in a realistic timeframe. The Victorian legislation in that regard must be removed from the Statute Book.

Housing aid for older people is another labour activation method. Huge numbers of people across the country benefit from it, including in my constituency. With little support from Government it makes a big difference in terms of labour activation. Over the next two years, as the country goes into recovery mode, there should be a further enhancement of that scheme. I mentioned the development I would like to see of a relationship with the credit unions. Credit unions are located in every town and village in the country. In the same towns and villages there are many people in the retail sector who are in dire straits due to commercial rates. This problem did not arise today nor yesterday. The sooner the valuation changes are implemented, the better. I support a method of self-valuation, at least on a voluntary basis. If a person can value their house for private property tax, there should be an element of individual input into the valuations for commercial properties as well.

In the justice area, I welcome the announcement regarding Garda recruitment. The Minister for Justice and Equality has provided leadership on Garda recruitment and the renewal of the Garda fleet. However, a number of gardaí are due to retire this year and the Government and Garda authorities must plan adequately for that and ensure Garda strength is maintained after the next round of recruitment is completed.

I have raised the accessibility of the courts on many occasions in the Dáil and in the committee of which I am a member. The courts should not be the preserve of the rich, as they are at present in many cases. When the Oireachtas communications committee did its cyberbullying report it found that one must have money to vindicate one's good name in this country. I welcome the introduction of a new court of appeal. The Minister is due to bring forward legislation in that regard this year. However, the completion of the legal services Bill is important because accessibility to justice should not be dictated by virtue of the amount of money one has in one's bank account, regardless of one's address.

With regard to the Office of Public Works, OPW, as recently as last week I raised the issue of land drainage. It affects every rural constituency in the country. We now have a situation where a multitude of agencies must examine a river before a shovel can be put into it to take out a bucket of gravel. I note the presence of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in the House. There is a multiplicity of agencies responsible for land drainage, but nobody does the work on it. We cannot expect the OPW, alone, to do it. I have proposed many times in the House, in the context of the proposed rural development programme, that a scheme similar to the agri-environment options scheme, AEOS, the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, or GLAS should be developed, in partnership with Inland Fisheries Ireland, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the OPW, to allow farmers and land owners who have drains, streams and the like running through their land to clean and maintain them in such a way as to ensure there will not be a recurrence of the flooding we have seen throughout the country, which is due in no small way to the lack of any type of such maintenance. There are over 50 different publicly-funded agencies in charge of the Shannon, from Cavan to its mouth at Ballylongford. Is it any wonder it bursts its banks every year?

In the health area, one of the commitments in the programme for Government on which I believe progress should be made is the introduction of minimum standards and inspections for services, both public and private, provided to elderly people in their homes. Elderly people and vulnerable adults are in receipt of private and public home care and it is essential that minimum standards are implemented before there is another "Prime Time" investigation that will inevitably unearth huge problems in that area.

I have raised the issue of orthodontic services with the Minister, Deputy Reilly, and progress has been made on it. Young children and young adults all over the country are on waiting lists for years. Under the system in the UK and other countries orthodontic services are rolled out on an orthodontic therapy basis. The officials in the Department are examining this, but there must be a sense of urgency because these are things that can be fixed in a very short amount of time.

Type 2 diabetes is at epidemic proportions due to the fact that there is an obesity crisis in this country. There must be a greater level of public awareness and more resources so we can try to come to terms with it. It will be the single biggest public health issue for this country not only in the next generation but also in the current one, in terms of heart disease, hypertension, stroke and so forth, if it is not properly addressed.

I am a member of the transport committee and I acknowledge the work of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport on transport. As an island economy, Ireland is hugely dependent on the haulage industry, but as recently as this week we have seen hauliers being blackguarded in respect of interpretations of capitage and the introduction of a new tax proposed by the Northern Ireland Executive. I welcome the fact that a Sinn Féin Member is present. Perhaps the Northern Ireland Executive will be able to stop this move, as we should not have partitionist economics in this country whereby lorry drivers from the Republic will be faced with a charge of up to €1,000 being imposed by the Northern Ireland Executive for the simple pleasure of crossing the Border. We have moved on from that type of partitionist mentality under the Good Friday Agreement and I urge Sinn Féin, one of the parties in government in Northern Ireland, not to introduce it.

The development of the motorway from Galway to Limerick is hugely important for the west of Ireland. It is important to provide a counterbalance on the west coast in terms of a critical mass of population that can be linked, in less than an hour and a half, to Dublin. Also in the transport area, there have been huge improvements at Shannon Airport with the introduction by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, of the 0% travel tax and the lower rate of VAT in the hospitality sector. The Opposition Members opposed it when the jobs initiative was introduced but they then became great proponents of it, so much so that they thought it was their idea and we should all row in behind them, as with everything else.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, has worked on the local improvement scheme and the community involvement scheme, but we should re-introduce the separate funding heading for the local improvement scheme. Many people in rural areas who pay road tax and are living on isolated culs-de-sac have watched their roads deteriorate over a number of years. They need support. They tell us that if they are paying road tax, they should occasionally be given the option of having their road tarred.

With regard to sport, perhaps the Minister would consider the possibility of extending the Gateway initiative with the local authorities for front-line services to the sports partnerships. The sports partnerships are now an integral part of local authorities.

They might be an opportunity for people with a detailed knowledge of sport to provide their skills and knowledge to younger people and to those who are unemployed looking to get out in their communities.

The issues of energy and natural resources and the Shannon LNG project are very close to the heart of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. It is also close to my heart as the project is in a neighbouring townland to my constituency. We need to see a commitment on a change in policy on how the project can be delivered. It has the potential to create massive employment and investment in the Shannon estuary region, which the mid-west region from Tralee to Ennis has sought in recent years.

In recent days in a jocose way I suggested it might be time to move a motion of no confidence in the Opposition given the behaviour of some of its members. This debate is an opportunity for them to bring forward their ideas. If only they used these three days to give us a break from the whingeing and change the record and bring forward suggestions, because I am sure they meet some of the same people as I do, who ask me questions about small business, roads, heritage and agriculture. The Opposition should use these three days to bring forward suggestions on how we can make the next two years of the programme for Government two years of recovery, considering the first three years were years of clean-up.

I commend the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and Ministers from Fine Gael and the Labour Party for taking on the challenge of recovering the country's sovereignty and rebuilding it from the ashes of the economic collapse of the previous Administration. I wish them well in the next two years. I hope some of the suggestions I have made will be taken on board.

The next speaking slot is shared by Deputies Barry Cowen, Sandra McLellan and Seamus Healy.

As a democratic and republican party, we are obliged, and acknowledge, that our people are sovereign and we will always accept their will. We did so graciously after the last general election. We respected the people's decision and we wished the present Government well; yes with a heavy heart, but in the circumstances one had to hope it would live up to the expectations and trust placed in it by the Irish people.

In the election campaign we levelled with the people. We had agreed the broad parameters of a four year plan. We had acknowledged financial targets had to met, and there had to be debt reduction and a reduction in capital expenditure. Against this, despite the other parties having been made aware of and allowed full access to the State's financial affairs, the public at large was offered an alternative to this unfortunate reality. They were offered a five point plan and the NewERA document and the 100,000 jobs associated with it. People were offered a democratic revolution. More importantly they were offered a softer and easier way. The plans and agreements entered into by the previous Administration would be torn up and it would be Labour's way rather than Frankfurt's way. It was the contention of members of Fine Gael, in particular the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, that not another red cent would be given to banks. Red line issues would dominate Fine Gael and the Labour Party in government, including child benefit, no hike in education fees and bondholders would be burned. The only thing to be burned apart from turf were credit union bondholders who lost out in the IBRC debacle.

Despite this the Government will remind us at every opportunity it has met the financial targets laid down. It took approximately 30% of the funds that needed to be taken out of the economy, compared with the 70% removed by the previous Administration. The choices made associated with this 30% have inflicted much more pain than the removal of the previous 70% and this is borne out by independent assessment. The Government's budgets have been judged by independent assessment to be regressive rather than the progressive budgets of the previous Administration. It has inflicted more pain, whether it likes it or acknowledges it, on the less well-off, the underprivileged, the elderly, the sick and disabled, students and on rural Ireland, where my constituency is based.

The Government tells us it has not touched core social welfare rates. Will it tell this to pensioners who have lost their phone allowance, fuel allowance and home benefit packages or to home helps and their clients? Will it tell carers it has not touched core social welfare benefits? Will it tell those in the greatest need who have had their medical cards removed or their prescription charges trebled? Will it tell students whose fees have increased and who find it increasingly difficult to access grants from "Susi Quinn"? Will it tell rural communities which have lost gardaí and Garda stations and where post offices are under threat as we saw last week? Will it tell rural communities which have lost rural transport schemes, community welfare offices and access to community welfare? Will it tell those who have had their REPS schemes decimated? Will it tell those students and their parents who do not now have access to career guidance counsellors in their school?

Will it tell communities with small rural schools with two, three or four teachers that it has reconfigured the pupil-teacher ratio in these circumstances to allow teachers to be lost and parents to begin to wonder whether the school can thrive? Will these parents have to consider moving their children to schools with greater commitments from the Government? This will mean the schools will not be closed directly by the Government, but they will be left in a position whereby they must amalgamate or close. When this is done to schools it inflicts huge pain and damage to the heart of rural communities. In many instances the school is the centre of rural communities. It gives them and their inhabitants a sense of place and identity, and to take this away is a grave injustice.

At the start of this debate we explained we felt it was a backslapping exercise on the part of the Government. Earlier this week I heard the Taoiseach state there would be a question and answer session but there was not. It offered an opportunity for many of us to respond directly to our counterparts who have the privilege of high office and governing the country, but this privilege has not been afforded to me.

Moreover, it was not afforded to Deputy Bily Kelleher in respect of the health portfolio. Despite this, I wish to highlight inefficiencies that exist in the structure of local government. In the area of local governance and funding to local authorities, for example, can the Government acknowledge the obvious decimation of rates income? Will it acknowledge the reduction in local authorities' housing rental income? As the Government is responsible for setting up the quango that is Irish Water, it obviously can acknowledge that the income from that sector is gone. Will the Government acknowledge that planning income is as good as gone? Moreover, income from car tax and development charges has fallen, the allocation from central government has been reduced and the grants from the National Roads Authority to local authorities have fallen in value. In addition, allocations in respect of rural water scheme allocations have been reduced.

I will turn to the biggest sin and the biggest infliction on local authorities, whereby the Government gave a commitment that based on property tax, income would be ring-fenced for local authorities. However, in the first full year in which that income has been raised, none of it - not one red cent as the Government itself states - is being allocated to local authorities. Fianna Fáil will remind the public of this when we campaign in the coming weeks for the local and European elections. We will categorise and prioritise for people in order that they can discern precisely how much was collected in their own community, their own county and their own constituency. We will tell them in clear and definite terms that not a single red cent was allocated to local authorities. We will tell them that not a single red cent of what they have paid is going towards the provision of services and facilities in their local authority area.

If anything, everything is being taken from them. As I stated, provision of water services has been centralised away from them. Even local democracy itself has been centralised with the abolition of town councillors and town councils. I believe this step will be perceived to have been retrograde when the time comes that people cannot access local authority members who can work on their behalf. It now is obvious that in the absence of funding being made available to the local authorities, why should one have available local authority members to do anything with what they do not have?

In the Government's statement of common purpose, the Taoiseach claimed: "On the 25th February a democratic revolution took place in Ireland. Old beliefs, traditions and expectations were blown away." Far from being a revolution, one now sees the continuation of Fianna Fáil politics. The current programme for Government, with its water charges, home tax and cuts to public services is cut from the same cloth as was Fianna Fáil's programme for national recovery published in the dying days of the previous Government in December 2010. While Fine Gael can claim it is doing what it promised to do, the Labour Party has been a total disappointment to those who voted for it in the hope of receiving solidarity and support but who have got nothing but cuts and austerity heaped upon their shoulders.

As for tourism, the programme for Government states "international access is vital to tourism recovery". A ten-year review of the tourism industry in 2003 anticipated that 10 million visitors would visit Ireland on an annual basis by last year. The big attractions are our heritage and the links the international Irish diaspora has with the country. On 11 September 2013, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport launched a wide-ranging review of Ireland's tourism policy on which views were requested by Friday, 1 November 2013 and regarding which some meetings have taken place with the various stakeholders. However, the industry needs to have sight of that report as soon as possible before the advent of another tourist season. If the Government still believes the 10 million figure can be achieved within five years, there is a need for a supportive policy environment, a clear business strategy and appropriate investment. The Government must ensure there will be a clear focus on, investment in and upgrade of, national heritage sites to make them attractive to the domestic and international tourism markets.

I take the opportunity to welcome the commitment of the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, to the sports capital grant. The €40 million allocated this year will be greatly welcomed by sports clubs, athletics clubs and local authorities throughout the State. However, I ask the Minister of State to try to ensure this funding continues on an annual basis. In continuing with the spirit of being constructive and welcoming positive developments, I record my support for two initiatives taken by the Minister, Jimmy Deputy Deenihan. First, the historic towns pilot scheme was very welcome and I saw at first hand the major benefits of this scheme in my home town of Youghal. This initiative was imaginative and highly effective. As I believe this pilot was very successful, the Minister should continue to expand and develop this programme. I also wish to mention the allocation of funding to the Irish walled towns. Again, my home town of Youghal has benefited greatly from these allocations and I note that Youghal has the second most extensive town walls on the island of Ireland after Derry.

In respect of Moore Street, the programme for Government states: "We will develop a cultural plan for future commemorative events such as the Centenary of the Easter Rising in 2016." The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht claimed the families and relatives of those involved in 1916 would be "central" to commemorative events. Sinn Féin has requested to meet the Minister to discuss serious and genuine concerns, particularly about the status of No. 18 Moore Street, the revised planning application and the agreed inspection of the national monument. Moore Street, which is central to the events of 1916, remains in a decaying state. In any other country, Moore Street and the surrounding streets would be celebrated and remembered in an honourable fashion but here, the Government views it as a piece of real estate to be sold to the highest bidder. The original planned assault on Moore Street by developers would have seen the complete destruction of the historic terrace between Nos. 10 to 25, inclusive. The designation of Nos. 14 to 17 as a national monument was the first major setback for the developer's plans. I take the opportunity to congratulate the relatives of the signatories of the 1916 Proclamation, who have done more to preserve Moore Street than any city council official or Minister and who continue to work tirelessly to ensure the preservation of Moore Street remains on the political agenda.

I can confirm Moore Street remains a political priority for my party. It is of key importance that the entire terrace, that is, Nos.10 to 25 Moore Street, be protected, preserved and restored. The terrace must be seen as a unit, that is, a block of buildings occupied by republican forces at the end of the 1916 Rising and the site, in No. 16, of the last meeting of the Provisional Government. While the preservation of Nos. 14 to 17 Moore Street alone would be welcome, they would be robbed of all of their historic architectural context and much of their attraction, were the remainder of the terrace to be destroyed. Ironically, if Chartered Land has its way, its development could do more damage than Britain's artillery bombardment of 1916. The Dublin City Council Moore Street advisory committee report states the Chartered Land plan would have "a severely negative impact on the setting and integrity of the National Monument". The preservation of the national monument and the surrounding streetscape would allow for the development of an historic 1916 quarter. This would encompass Moore Street, O'Connell Street and the GPO area. It would have ample scope for commercial and retail development, thereby helping to rejuvenate this neglected part of the capital and this development could link up with the plan to develop a Parnell Square cultural quarter.

In his last letter before his execution in Kilmainham Gaol on 8 May 1916, Éamonn Ceannt wrote, "In the years to come Ireland will honour those who risked all for her honour at Easter in 1916." Members should live up to those words and ensure Moore Street is properly preserved.

One cut I wish to highlight in particular is that of the withdrawal by the Arts Council of all funding from the Arts and Disability Awards Ireland scheme. The Arts and Disability Awards Ireland scheme is a unique all-Ireland project that is supporting and developing disabled and deaf people's involvement in the arts. It received funding from both arts councils on the island. The scheme has allocated a total of €640,565.45 to 216 projects on the island since its inception in 2000. The scheme had been valuable in promoting the careers of disabled and deaf artists.

The future is now uncertain for disabled and deaf artists, as the cut in funding signals the end of the Arts and Disability Awards Ireland scheme. I appeal to the Minister to use whatever influence he can, both financial and political, to ensure that funding is restored to this worthwhile project.

In regard to children, the Fine Gael-Labour Party programme for Government states: "A new approach is needed to break the cycle of child poverty where it is most deeply entrenched. We will adopt a new area based approach to child poverty", yet the level of child poverty continues to grow. One of the major contributing factors is the Government's policy of cutting child benefit. Linked with this is the €400,000 cut to the national children's strategy, the €800,000 cut to the early intervention programme, the proposed €2 million cut to youth programmes in 2014 and the cut of €1.7 million to the school completion programme. These will adversely affect young people and their communities the most. The Life Centres, an out-of-school programme, provides education up to senior certificate standard. These will all be closed by September this year. This is short-sighted and vindictive.

By any measure of progress, the programme for Government has failed those who are most in need. Sinn Féin has continued to show that there is an alternative route out of the current economic recession and we will continue to do that in an effective and measured way.

This Government is selling off Ireland to foreign vulture capitalists. The Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, accused the former Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government of economic treason, but that economic treason continues under the Labour Party-Fine Gael Government as the country is sold off to foreign vulture capitalists with Deputy Eamon Gilmore as Tánaiste. Mortgages on homes, shopping centres, business premises and indebted farms are being flogged off at a discount by the Government. The policies of Michael Davitt and James Connolly must be revisited to stop this.

When the crash came and the banks failed, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party borrowed billions of euro and paid off, in full, the big international gamblers who had lent to the banks. The Irish people were burdened with huge debt repayments for generations. The Tánaiste called it economic treason. In addition, when the neoliberal or extreme capitalist tax base they had put in place collapsed, they borrowed more money abroad instead of increasing income tax and imposing wealth tax on the super rich, most of whom made a fortune out of the boom and have continued to do so. For every developer who lost a million euro, another wealthy person has a million euro or more in cash. Savage cuts and austerity were put in place.

The new Government was going to do the devil and all, including burning bondholders, and it said it would be Labour's way, not Frankfurt's way. However, there were no significant tax impositions on the rich. Instead, regressive home taxes were imposed and water taxes are planned for householders. The burning of bondholders, of course, was out. Savage cuts were continued to services, the welfare system and pay and pensions to service the increased foreign debt. More money was borrowed abroad and put into banks by the new Government, which had said they would not get one more red cent.

National debt rose to 120% of all national production, the highest in the developed world. Now €9 billion a year, or €750 million a month, is being paid out by the Exchequer to service the national debt. Frankfurt's way has prevailed. Frankfurt then decided that not only would the national debt have to be serviced, but reducing the budgetary deficit to 3% of GDP would not be enough, and the structural deficit would have to be eliminated. Again, the Labour Party-Fine Gael Government capitulated to the fiscal treaty, although it is grossly unfair to Ireland.

At current meagre growth rates, more than €4 billion a year will have to be paid back, mainly to foreign investors, in addition to the €9 billion debt servicing I mentioned earlier. Yesterday's EU report on Ireland states that to eliminate the structural deficit by 2018, as required by the treaty, we must change from a deficit of 4.8% of GDP this year to a surplus of 4.9% in 2018, involving the extraction of a further €14.5 billion out of the economy. Given the Government's capitulation to the fiscal treaty, there will be at least another four years of particularly savage austerity and the continuation of misery, austerity budgets, low growth and emigration into the indefinite future.

The sell-off has continued and, as part of that, in July 2011, that financial wizard, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, sold €1.12 billion of Government shares in Bank of Ireland to Wilbur Ross and a North American consortium. Now the shares are worth €3.8 billion and Wilbur Ross thinks the Minister and Richie Boucher are marvellous. Why would he not think that? Without any risk, he has made a huge profit of €2.7 billion. The reason the shares rose is that investors had been assured by the Minister that Bank of Ireland was a pillar bank, supported by the Government. The Minister saved Wilbur Ross and his vulture capitalist friends a further €325 million at the expense of the State when he voluntarily sold €1.3 billion in preference shares, which the bank could not redeem, to a third party.

Yesterday during Leaders' Questions, the Taoiseach told me that Mr. Ross's investment in Bank of Ireland meant there was less of a capitalisation requirement for the taxpayer. That is totally untrue. The sale of €1.12 billion in State shares had no effect on capitalisation. It merely meant that those shares were replaced by €1.12 billion of shares held by this North American consortium. I call on the Taoiseach to correct the record of the House. It is a disservice to democracy if a Taoiseach can tell a blatant untruth to the House to cover up the fact that Wilbur Ross and his vulture capitalist associates walked away with €2.7 billion of the people's money because of the ideological position of the Government on private banking.

However, there is more to come. Next week, the liquidators of IBRC are to sell the roofs from over the heads of 13,500 Irish people to foreign vulture capitalists at a huge discount. The Government has refused to give the home owners the protections available to customers of the Irish banks. The Minister, Deputy Noonan, who met the Lone Star cowboys in Davos, thinks it might reduce the selling price if they were given that protection. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, told me during Leaders' Questions that because the vultures were getting a discount, they would be expected to go easier on distressed mortgage holders. Does she think we are all fools?

The State owns 90% of AIB and Permanent TSB. As the Labour Party-Fine Gael Government is ideologically committed to privatising banks, the Minister will sell off these banks before the next election. Given the Government approach, all those holding mortgages with these State banks are in danger of being sold off as part of the privatisation.

The recently screened television documentary, "Who's Buying Ireland?" featured vulture capitalist funds which are buying up assets all over the country. NAMA is now in on the game also. NAMA has acquired €74 billion in bank loans and its CEO said it is now moving into the phases of managed disposal of property and loan assets. Its strategy is to sell them off to foreign capital. NAMA currently has 1,000 Irish properties for sale. In short, mortgages on homes, shopping centres, business premises and indebted farms are being flogged off at a discount by this Government to these foreign vulture capitalist firms.

However, that is not all. The neoliberal Labour Party, through its Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resource, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, has sold off Bord Gáis to foreign capitalists and is committed to further sales. As a result of the continuation of this economic treason, the amount of money lost to the economy - money generated by the work of Irish people who are going abroad now and in future years - will be catastrophic.

This will include mortgage and loan repayments by Irish residents and an increase from €9 billion to €13 billion in Government debt servicing costs as soon as the fiscal treaty kicks in. This money will not be circulating in Ireland, generating jobs and sales here. It will be doing so in other parts of the world or sitting in the bulging bank accounts of foreign companies. Worse still, these companies will be able to increase repayment demands on these loans in order to suck more money from Irish people. They will be able to impose increased mortgage repayments and upward-only rent reviews. They will be able to repossess Irish homes and businesses. In other words, the equivalent of the old rack-renting absentee landlord will be able to deploy the modern equivalent of the battering ram. This is further economic treason. This Government needs to be reminded of the words of James Connolly and Michael Davitt. Furthermore, Connolly's social and economic policies must be implemented. We need a new reconquest of Ireland by its people - a new leadership of the labour movement and the people.

Fáiltím roimh an deis chun labhairt sa Dáil maidir leis an athbhreithniú ar chlár an Rialtais mar a bhaineann sé leis na cúraimí atá orm mar Aire Stáit sa Roinn Ealaíon, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta. Tugadh gealltanais shonracha i gclár an Rialtais maidir le cur i bhfeidhm na straitéise 20 bliain don Ghaeilge, cruthú fostaíochta sa Ghaeltacht, athbhreithniú a dhéanamh ar Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla 2003 agus athbhreithniú a dhéanamh ar na cláir maoinithe a chuirtear ar fáil d'eagraíochtaí Gaeilge. Tá sé i gceist agam labhairt leis an Teach inniu faoin méid atá déanta maidir le cur i bhfeidhm na ngealltanas sin, ceann ar cheann.

Tá sé ráite i gclár an Rialtais go dtabharfaidh an Rialtas tacaíocht don straitéis 20 bliain don Ghaeilge agus go ndéanfaidh sé na spriocanna indéanta atá luaite inti a sheachadadh. Tá an Rialtas thar a bheith tiomanta do chur chun cinn na Gaeilge. Tá cur i bhfeidhm na mbeart éagsúil faoin straitéis mar bhunchloch dár bpolasaí chuige sin. Tá dul chun cinn á dhéanamh maidir le raon leathan gníomhaíochtaí faoin straitéis a chur i bhfeidhm de réir a chéile ar bhealach córasach laistigh de na hacmhainní teoranta atá ar fáil. Léiríonn an tuarascáil ar an dul chun cinn atá déanta le trí bliana anuas, a foilsíodh anuraidh, agus na pleananna forfheidhmithe a d'fhoilsigh na Ranna Rialtais ábhartha ag an am céanna, 11 acu san iomlán, go bhfuil cur chuige soiléir ann maidir le cur i bhfeidhm na straitéise.

Ní miste a lua go bhfuil allúntas ar leith de €500,000 curtha ar fáil don straitéis don chéad uair riamh i mbliana mar chuid de Mheastacháin Athbhreithnithe mo Roinne. Is léiriú follasach é seo ar chur i bhfeidhm an ghealltanais i gclár an Rialtais. Cuirfidh an maoiniú seo ar chumas mo Roinne tabhairt faoi ghníomhaíochtaí éagsúla a thacóidh leis an phróiseas pleanála teanga ar an talamh. Airítear anseo tacaíocht d'eagraíochtaí pobail chun cabhrú leo tabhairt faoi phleananna teanga a ullmhú agus a fheidhmiú faoi Acht na Gaeltachta 2012. Tá an próiseas pleanála teanga faoi Acht na Gaeltachta 2012 á chur i bhfeidhm ag mo Roinn i gcomhar le hUdarás na Gaeltachta agus le Foras na Gaeilge. Táthar ag tabhairt tús áite do na limistéir pleanála teanga Ghaeltachta atá aitheanta chun críche an Achta. Foilsíodh na chéad fhógraí faoin Acht i mí na Nollag 2013 i gcás Chiarraí thiar; Chois Fharraige; agus Ghaoth Dobhair, Rann na Feirste, Anagaire agus Loch an Iúir. Táim ag súil go mbeidh deich bhfógra eile foilsithe i mbliana agus go ndéanfar na fógraí eile ina dhiaidh sin. Ar ndóigh, tá an t-údarás freagrach faoin Acht as tacaíocht a thabhairt d'eagraíochtaí maidir le hullmhú agus cur i bhfeidhm pleananna teanga sna limistéir pleanála teanga Ghaeltachta.

Maidir leis na bailte seirbhíse Gaeltachta, tá sé i gceist ag mo Roinn próiseas comhairliúcháin a reáchtáil maidir le roghnú na mbailte is oiriúnaí le bheith aitheanta faoin Acht mar bhailte seirbhíse Gaeltachta. I gcás na líonraí Gaeilge, tuigtear dom go bhfuil sé i gceist ag Foras na Gaeilge scéim na líonraí Gaeilge a fhógairt ag tús na bliana seo chugainn. Mar is eol don Teach, cuireann Acht na Gaeltachta 2012 an creatlach reachtúil ar fáil chun tabhairt faoin bpróiseas pleanála teanga ar bhonn comhordaithe. Táthar ag súil go mbeidh an pobal, an earnáil dheonach, an earnáil phoiblí agus an earnáil phríobháideach ag obair as lámha a chéile chun tacaíocht a thabhairt don Ghaeilge sna ceantair éagsúla a bheidh aitheanta faoin Acht. Is trí phleananna teanga a ullmhú agus a fheidhmiú ag leibhéal an phobail a thabharfar tacaíocht don Ghaeilge mar theanga phobail agus teaghlaigh i gceantair Ghaeltachta agus i gceantair eile taobh amuigh den Ghaeltacht.

Mar is eol don Teach, tá cruthú fostaíochta ar an gcéad chloch ar phaidrín an Rialtais. Chomh fada is a bhaineann sé le cruthú fostaíochta sa Ghaeltacht, níl dabht ar bith ach go bhfuil obair den scoth déanta ag Údarás na Gaeltachta ón uair gur bunaíodh é sa bhliain 1980 agus freagracht air as forbairt eacnamaíochta, sóisialta agus cultúrtha na Gaeltachta. Creidim gur éirigh le hÚdarás na Gaeltachta infheistíocht shubstaintiúil a mhealladh chun na Gaeltachta thar na blianta. Tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach a chinntiú go leanfar leis an infheistíocht sin chun pobal labhartha na Gaeilge a choinneáil sa Ghaeltacht. Tá comharthaí le feiceáil ar fud na Gaeltachta mar thoradh ar an infheistíocht a dhéanann an t-údarás inti. Bhí an líon ba lú caillteanais post le 30 bliain anuas i gcliantchuideachtaí an údaráis le linn 2013, rud a léiríonn an obair fhiúntach atá ar siúl acu chun bonn seasmhach a choimeád faoin fhostaíocht sa Ghaeltacht. Is ábhar sásaimh é gur éirigh leis an údarás 616 post a chruthú anuraidh agus go raibh 7,650 post i gcliantchuideachtaí an údaráis ag deireadh na bliana, ag tógáil san áireamh an aeráid dúshlánach eacnamaíoch atá ann faoi láthair. Tá sé mar sprioc ag an údarás 520 post nua a chruthú i mbliana, mar atá ráite sa phlean gníomhaíochta um fhostaíocht 2014 a d'fhoilsigh an Rialtas an tseachtain seo caite.

Ina theannta sin, tá forbairt an ionaid do chuairteoirí ag Teach an Phiarsaigh san áireamh mar chuid den chomóradh ar 1916. Beidh an t-ionad seo tábhachtach do chruthú fostaíochta, go díreach agus go hindíreach, agus don turasóireacht chultúrtha i gceantar Ros Muc i nGaeltacht Chonamara. Mar thoradh ar an phacáiste spreagtha caipitil de chuid an Rialtais, tá allúntas ar leith de €500,000 curtha ar fáil i mbliana do Theach an Phiarsaigh ionas gur féidir ionad do chuairteoirí a thógáil i Ros Muc mar chuid de chlár cuimhneacháin 2016. Tá na céimeanna cuí idir lámha ag mo Roinn i gcomhar le hÚdarás na Gaeltachta, Comhairle Contae na Gaillimhe, Fáilte Éireann agus Oifig na nOibreacha Poiblí chun an togra seo a chur i gcrích in am do chomóradh 100 bliain Eirí Amach na Cásca. Tá mé fíorbhuíoch don Aire, an Teachta Deenihan, atá mar chathaoirleach ar an ngrúpa comhairle maidir leis na himeachtaí seo, as an tacaíocht atá sé ag tabhairt don tionscnamh.

Maidir leis an ngealltanas a tugadh i gclár an Rialtais faoi athbhreithniú a dhéanamh ar Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla 2003, is féidir liom a dhearbhú go bhfuil an t-athbhreithniú sin críochnaithe anois agus go gcuirfear dréacht-chinn an Bhille chun an tAcht a leasú faoi bhráid an Rialtais go luath. Ba iad aidhmeanna an athbhreithnithe a chinntiú gur meicníocht é an tAcht a thacaíonn le forbairt na Gaeilge ar bhealach atá éifeachtach agus éifeachtúil ó thaobh costais de agus go bhfuil na dualgais a eascraíonn ón Acht cuí chun soláthar sásúil seirbhísí trí Ghaeilge ag comhlachtaí poiblí a chinntiú, de réir an éilimh atá orthu ón bpobal. Fuarthas thart ar 1,400 freagra ar an suirbhé agus 262 aighneacht le linn an phróisis chomhairliúcháin a eagraíodh mar chuid den athbhreithniú. Tá sé i gceist na dréacht-chinn a chur faoi bhráid an Chomhchoiste um Chomhshaol, Iompar, Chultúr agus an Ghaeltacht agus iad a fhoilsiú ar shuíomh Idirlín mo Roinne, i dteannta thorthaí an phróisis chomhairliúcháin, chomh luath agus atá cead an Rialtais faighte chuige sin.

Chomh maith leis na leasuithe éagsúla atá beartaithe mar thoradh ar an athbhreithniú ar an Acht, beidh forálacha a bhaineann le cónascadh Oifig an Choimisinéara Teanga le hOifig an Ombudsman san áireamh i ndréacht-chinn an Bhille. Ba mhaith liom a threisiú anseo inniu nach gcuirfidh an cónascadh seo isteach ar neamhspleáchas an Choimisinéara Teanga i bhfeidhmiú a chuid cumhachtaí agus go bhfanfaidh an oifig sa Ghaeltacht. Tá na céimeanna cuí tógtha ag mo Roinn chun an coimisinéir nua a cheapadh i gcomhréir le halt 20(3) d'Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla 2003, a deir gurb é Uachtarán na hÉireann a dhéanann duine a cheapadh mar Choimisinéir Teanga ar chomhairle an Rialtais tar éis do Dháil Éireann agus do Sheanad Éireann rúin a rith ag moladh an duine a cheapadh. Ós rud é go bhfuil na rúin sin rite anois, tuigtear dom go ndéanfaidh an tUachtarán an tUasal Rónán Ó Domhnaill a cheapadh mar an dara Coimisinéir Teanga go han-luath.

Maidir leis an ghealltanas a tugadh i gclár an Rialtais faoi athbhreithniú a dhéanamh ar na cláir mhaoinithe a chuirtear ar fáil d'eagraíochtaí Gaeilge, tá an t-athbhreithniú sin tugtha chun críche ag Foras na Gaeilge. Mar thoradh air sin, rinne an Chomhairle Aireachta Thuaidh-Theas socruithe nua maoinithe a fhaomhadh, in ionad múnla reatha bunmhaoinithe Fhoras na Gaeilge, ag a chruinniú i mí Iúil 2013. Faoi na socruithe nua, beidh tosaíochtaí straitéiseacha ar leith á seachadadh ag sé eagraíocht cheannais a bheidh ag feidhmiú ar bhonn uile-oileáin agus atá roghnaithe ag an tráth seo ag Foras na Gaeilge. Is iad Gaelscoileanna, Conradh na Gaeilge, Gael Linn, Oireachtas na Gaeilge, Glór na nGael agus Cumann na bhFiann na heagraíochtaí ceannais atá i gceist.

Tiocfaidh na socruithe nua maoinithe i bhfeidhm ón 1 Iúil 2014. Cinnteoidh an cur chuige úr go mbeidh níos mó airgid ag dul i dtreo sheirbhísí túslíne a sheachadadh sa dá dhlínse seachas ar chostais riaracháin na n-eagraíochtaí.

Ina theannta sin, tá Foras na Gaeilge ag tabhairt faoi na fóraim chuí a chur ar bun le tacú leis an chur chuige úr seo, is iad sin, an fóram comhpháirtíochta uile-oileáin agus an fóram forbartha teanga uile-oileáin. Beidh an fóram comhpháirtíochta uile-oileáin comhdhéanta de cheannasaithe na n-eagraíochtaí ceannais agus Foras na Gaeilge. Bunófar an fóram seo chun cur chuige comhoibríoch ag na heagraíochtaí ceannais a chinntiú. Beidh an fóram forbartha teanga uile-oileáin ionadaíoch de shainleasa teanga áitiúla atá maoinithe ag Foras na Gaeilge ag leibhéal an phobail. Tabharfaidh an fóram seo aischothú don fhóram comhpháirtíochta ar fheidhmiú na dtosaíochtaí straitéiseacha ar an talamh. Mar fhocal scoir, tá súil agam go bhfuil léargas tugtha agam don Teach ar an obair atá ar siúl chun na gealltanais shonracha a bhaineann leis an Ghaeilge agus an Ghaeltacht i gclár an Rialtais a chur i gcrích. Mar a thuigfidh an Teach, is obair leanúnach atá i gceist. Tá mo Roinn ag tabhairt faoi ar bhealach córasach i gcomhar leis na páirtithe leasmhara ábhartha taobh istigh de na hacmhainní atá ar fáil dúinn ag an am seo.

Three years ago when Fine Gael and the Labour Party formed a Government, Ireland was a very different country, a fact conveniently forgotten by Deputy Barry Cowen earlier. During the term of the previous Government, Ireland had entered into a period of extraordinary turmoil, decline and instability. When we came into office, unemployment had ballooned, our finances were out of control and the State was being kept afloat by an international bailout. This was the first time in our history that we had ever needed this type of support to manage our affairs. Internationally, Ireland had gone from being an economic poster boy to an economic basket case. Our reputation had been severely tarnished. Clear and decisive actions were needed to make Ireland an attractive place to do business once again, to get our finances under control and to tackle the scourge of unemployment.

That work started on our first day of office and continues to this day. Top of our agenda has been, and remains, job creation. Up to 61,000 new jobs were created in 2013, more than 1,000 a week. The unemployment rate has dropped from a high of 15.1% to the current 11.9%. While this is still unacceptably high, it is very much moving in the right direction. Progress is being made on a range of programme for Government commitments in the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht which will continue for 2014. We will also support the focus on job creation which is such an important part of the work of every Department.

For example, the film sector, supported by the Department through the Irish Film Board, is one that supports significant employment and also has the scope to grow. Ireland's film and audiovisual sector has seen an expansion of 42% between 2011 and 2013. Only yesterday I visited Ardmore Studios, the venue for the filming of the €33 million series “Penny Dreadful”. This is one example of Ireland's recent success through the enhancements to the section 481 tax relief introduced in the past two budgets. With this, the Department will continue to support strongly film sector and jobs growth over the course of this year. When I visited Ardmore Studios yesterday, the producers of “Penny Dreadful”, Chris King and John Logan, along with its main star, Timothy Dalton, were complimentary of the studios and the Irish crews involved, such as set designers, costumers and make-up artists. I hope this will result in other film and television productions coming to Ireland for filming. It was believed that “Ripper Street” might not return, but last week it was announced it would. The series “Vikings”, a major success in America, will return next season. Recently, I saw “Calvary” at the Jameson Dublin Film Festival, which will be a big hit. “The Lobster”, which will soon be shot in County Kerry, involves big movie names such as Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz. It shows how vibrant the industry is. We have an objective to double employment in it to 10,000 over the next three years.

I have also prioritised supporting jobs in the heritage sector. Over 2014, the Department will be focusing on the roll-out of restoration and renovation projects at protected buildings in every county. For this year, €5 million will be invested in heritage buildings from the sale of the national lottery licence and through the built heritage jobs leverage fund. This is the most significant investment in built heritage since 2008, which I hope will also have a strong jobs dividend. It should be remembered that before we took office, funding for built heritage had been reduced from €15 million to €3 million, a major blow for the sector. I am delighted that we will be able to provide funding for this sector through the national lottery licence and fund. There has been a great response from local authorities and we will be assessing their applications.

The programme for Government committed us to expanding private support of the arts. To achieve this, the Department introduced a philanthropy scheme in 2012 and 2013, both of which have helped to encourage arts organisations to build partnerships with potential sponsors. In addition, on my recommendation, the Arts Council introduced the RAISE programme, which is working to enhance significantly fund-raising skills in ten arts organisations. It will be interesting to see how this affects the income of those organisations. The whole idea is to reduce the sector’s dependency on funding from the taxpayer and move it more towards the business sector. We are generous, giving €500 million a year in donations, but the arts sector only gets 0.6% of that. This is probably due to the fact that the arts sector was not good at looking for funds in the past. We will look to increase funding from the business sector. With the economy improving, I hope we can restore taxpayer funding to what it was before the crash too.

However, there is great potential in the private and business sectors to fund the arts which I hope this scheme will encourage.

A seed capital scheme to encourage philanthropy will also be introduced this year. An allocation of €300,000 will be provided for a small capital grants scheme. There will be a maximum allocation of €10,000 per project, with up to 70% of the cost of the project to be funded by the Department and the balance of 30% to be funded from the project's own resources or philanthropic sources or a mixture of both. The scheme will be launched shortly and it is a further indication of the ongoing work being done to support the development of a culture of philanthropy in the arts sector. In addition, as part of our commitment to ensure the broadest engagement with the arts, in 2013 a total of €8.3 million was allocated to fund 452 individuals and 872 organisations to tour Ireland. This gives people opportunities to take part in cultural activities, supports a network of venues, festivals and arts organisations and supports employment in the creative sector.

With regard to the decade of centenaries, a series of commemorative projects have been delivered, with the focus to date on milestone events, including the Home Rule Bill, the Ulster Covenant, the 1913 Lock-out and the foundation of the Irish Volunteers. The coming programme will include a range of keynote capital projects, seminal exhibitions and a multifaceted cultural programme engaging the public, community and private spheres. A dedicated website, www.decadeofcentenaries.com, has been launched with information on the commemorative events taking place. In addition, €6 million will be allocated in 2014 from the sale of the national lottery licence to help to fund a number of commemoration projects, including exhibition and interpretative facilities at the GPO.

I refer to a new agreement I have entered into with Bank of Ireland at College Green, Dublin. This will result in the development of a new cultural and heritage centre with Bank of Ireland making space available and covering costs and my Department managing, operating and animating the new centre. The bank will provide funding for the refurbishment and fit-out of the 600 sq. m space and the national cultural institutions will provide the curatorial expertise regarding which exhibitions will be held there in the next ten years. This is a major development and I thank the bank and its chief executive, Mr. Richie Boucher, in particular, for the interest he took to ensure this happened. It is a positive expression of support for the creative industries by the bank and a recognition of the importance of the decade of centenaries. There is more footfall on Westmoreland Street than in other parts of Dublin city centre and, therefore, it will be successful.

When open, the public will enter the new centre through the magnificent Gandon-designed portico on Westmoreland Street. More than 600 sq. m of exhibition and performance space is being made available, allowing cultural exhibitions and performances to take place. The programme will have a significant focus on the social, economic and political events of the decade of centenaries, as well as incorporating a strong artistic component. A number of Members have tabled parliamentary questions in the past three years about progress in the provision of a space by Bank of Ireland and I am sure last week's announcement by the bank and my Department will be greeted enthusiastically by all Members.

Work in the preparation of this space for use will continue this year, alongside planning for the delivery of a range of commemorative events, including the foundation of Cumann na mBan and the outbreak of the First World War. There will be a major event shortly to commemorate the establishment of Cumann na mBan. The Women's History Association of Ireland is very much involved. The President will lay a wreath in Glasnevin Cemetery and an academic seminar on the establishment of the organisation will be held in the National Museum, Collins Barracks. It is important to recognise the contribution the organisation made to the 1916 Rising and the War of Independence because it was significant. I would like Members to support these events as much as possible. The all-party committee will be involved, but this will be a significant event because these were extraordinary women who made a major contribution to the establishment of the State.

The programme for Government committed the Government parties to making progress on turf cutting, which has been an issue for some time. The State signed up to the habitats directive in 1992, prior to which all bogs had been surveyed going back as far as the 1980s. A total of 426 special areas of conservation, SACs, had to be designated under the directive, of which 53 were raised bogs. It was then decided to postpone the restriction of turf cutting on these bogs. When I was appointed to office, one of the first things I was told was that the European Commission was taking Ireland to court. The formal notice had been sent to the previous Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Micheál Martin, in January 2011. We had no option but to implement the law, as the State had agreed to do, otherwise we would have been taken to court and hit with huge fines. We have worked on this issue since and the vast majority of turf cutters on the 53 SAC raised bogs have complied. They have accepted the monetary compensation and we have spent €7.8 million in compensating them in the past three years. We promised in the programme for Government that we would review natural heritage areas, NHAs. This has been done and as a result of the review, 45 NHAs will be de-designated; 36 will be subject to compliance, with no turf cutting after three years, while 25 new areas will be designated to compensate for the active raised bog areas that will be lost. This has been well received generally in the turf cutting community. If we had proceeded with the proposal agreed to by the previous Cabinet in May 2010, approximately 3,000 turf cutters would have been affected. When the additional NHAs are taken into account, only 500 will be affected; therefore, this is a positive reconfiguration based on scientific surveys.

My Department has made a great deal of progress in a number of areas. We have committed to reforming a number of the national cultural institutions. I acknowledge the co-operation of staff with the introduction of shared services, which is important, and in accepting that there will be changes and amalgamation. However, they have been receptive to these changes.

I acknowledge the various sports involved and the various individuals, the chairpersons of those boards and the directors of the national cultural institutions. The numbers of people who have attended the national cultural institutions have been very positive.

The National Gallery of Ireland is being developed. Over €26 million will be spent on upgrading the Dargan and Milltown wings of the National Gallery. They have not been upgraded to any extent since 1864 when they were provided. This will ensure the National Gallery will be one of the best in the world and will have the proper climate, environment and security to bring in exhibitions from all over the world. We need to bring in very valuable paintings that we cannot bring in now. That is a very positive development. More than 300 people will be employed while the work is ongoing in the next two years. It is hoped that this will be one of the seminal projects for the commemoration of the 1916 Rising in 2016. Last Saturday I was in the National Gallery where there was a series of lectures and workshops on the poets and artists of the First World War and that period. I recognise the work of the National Gallery in that respect.

I welcome the opportunity to say a few words about the debate that has been before us for the last three days, which many would see as an extension of the recent Fine Gael and Labour Party Ard-Fheiseanna. It is totally unacceptable that the national Parliament would be used in such a way to promote the Labour Party and Fine Gael propaganda we have heard in the past three days. We have heard Minister after Minister competing with each other to give out what they perceive as the good news. The Ministers did not mention the fact that the prescription charge is being doubled and that medical cards and phone allowances have been withdrawn. The domiciliary care allowance is practically impossible to get approval for under the current Minister, home help hours have been cut and respite grants have been reduced. There have been savage cuts to services for people with disabilities and huge cuts to grants to county councils for housing aid for the elderly and other housing supports for people with disabilities. We have had reductions in the fair deal in my county. All these areas I mentioned affect the less well-off in our society. While the Government Ministers have claimed that they have managed to balance the books, it is very obvious that they have done so on the backs of the less well-off in our society.

Last Monday I attended a meeting in Wexford General Hospital regarding the help line to outline what was in store for us in Wexford. We were informed that the allocation to Wexford General Hospital will be reduced by €3 million and that home help hours available for Wexford in 2014 will remain as in 2013 despite the fact that the Minister for Health tells us we are an aging society. In Wexford, home help is available to people only if someone dies and the help that person had is passed on to a new applicant. That means people must remain in hospital much longer. It falls to economics, because it costs much more to keep a person in hospital than it would to make home help available for one or two hours per day or per week. I have had many representations from people with disabilities. They seem to be very severely hit, particularly in the lack of money for housing and upgrades to housing.

In Wexford, and I am sure it is the same in every other county, very few, if any, council houses are being built under the Government. In the past few weeks the Minister of State with responsibility for housing, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, and the Government have said they will kick start the building industry and allocate allowances to councils for social housing. I certainly hope that will happen because now, unless houses are handed up by residents, no houses are available for the ordinary consumer. In this area there are many false economies and wastage of money. The rental accommodation scheme, RAS, has cost millions of euro. There are other schemes, and at the same time people are not able to avail of a local authority house. This should be near and dear to the Labour Party and the Minister of State with responsibility for housing. I hope there will be an allocation of money sooner rather than later to local authorities to build or buy houses for the thousands of people on their housing lists. I also hope extra moneys will be available for housing aid for the elderly and other similar schemes.

Before he left, the Minister, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, mentioned the 1916 commemoration. I remind him that 1916 does not all revolve around Dublin. Enniscorthy was very much at the heart of the 1916 Rising. We had Captains Thomas Weafer and Séamus Rafter and the famous meeting when the leaders of the 1916 Rising came to Enniscorthy and addressed a gathering outside the Athanaeum there. If there is funding available for Dublin, I hope a relative amount would be available for towns such as Enniscorthy that played a significant role in the fight for freedom. Going back to 1798 and Vinegar Hill, Enniscorthy has a history of republicanism and of being at the vanguard of the fight for freedom in this country. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, to remind the Minister, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, of this. I have already written to the Minister to ensure funding is available for commemorations in Enniscorthy and other parts of the country.

Although the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, is at the forefront of this, I remind him of the importance of science, technology and research. We have had an excellent base from which to make further progress. Some two thirds of Ireland's research and development is in the private sector, creating new product and service innovations that will drive exports, growth and jobs. Productive, high-calibre research undertaken by highly skilled research teams working closely with industry partners must continue to be a priority. The research and development tax credit is a function of increases in expenditure using 2003 as the base year of comparison. The incremental approach needs to be reviewed in light of pressure on company budgets. To encourage investment in the sector all research and development in a two-year period should be eligible for tax credits subject to EU competition approval.

It is also important to encourage the widest possible uptake of the research and development tax credit. Revenue and Enterprise Ireland should actively target the Irish SME sector with a user-friendly information guide on how the relief works. That is important. Many major companies are availing of the research and development tax credit but I am not sure about some of the companies in the Irish SME sector. I support what the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, is doing in that area. Perhaps he could improve the terms and conditions available to companies.

The agrifood sector is one of the major success stories of the previous Government and this Government. The combination of thriving family farms and world-leading food production companies has the potential to be a key element in the economic recovery. We have seen that over the last two or three years. Food Harvest 2020, which was initiated by the last Fianna Fáil Government, has been taken on board by the current Government. It is a tremendous opportunity for the development of the agrifood, fisheries and forestry sector. Some of the experts say there is potential in a short period of time to create at least 4,000 jobs.

The abolition of the milk quotas in 2015 will be an ideal opportunity greatly to expand output from this sector. It will cost a lot for farmers who have not been in milk production to get into it.

They will probably need a substantial amount of grant aid and support in this area. I read recently comments from a Teagasc expert who maintained it would cost between €500,000 and €750,000 for a farmer to get into viable milk production when the quota is abolished. That is a significant amount of money that would not be available to younger farmers; perhaps, therefore, the Government should consider a low-interest scheme for farmers to get involved with milk production, as we could create jobs in the area. I ask the Minister of State to ensure the agricultural sector is adequately looked after.

Youth unemployment is another major problem in my county, and I am sure it is replicated in other counties. Many young people were in the building industry because the money was good and opportunities were plentiful. They left education at a very young age to enter that industry but now these people are 23, 24 or 25 and they have few skills. It is important that we look at training in order to reskill such people and make funding available for that. The old FÁS schemes and companies provided training, but in many cases this was done in areas where job opportunities were not available. It is important that future education and training should upskill people for viable industries such as farming, fishing, tourism and other areas where there are job opportunities.

We must tackle youth unemployment. People in Europe discuss how funds are available but they seem to be trickling down very slowly. People on both sides of the House should put their heads together to focus on tackling youth unemployment in this country, as the high numbers out of work are unacceptable.

I wish to share time with Deputy Dessie Ellis.

I am the Sinn Féin spokesperson for the environment and local government and there are a number of promises in the area which remain unfulfilled. Unfortunately, one of the commitments carried through was to continue with the Fianna Fáil and IMF plan to create a water utility and introduce domestic water charges. The programme for Government refers to the existing "inefficient" water system, but so far we have seen the costs of Uisce Éireann escalate way beyond what was initially forecast. All of the extra funding has been for consultants, water meters, salaries and setting up a glorified corporate structure for Uisce Éireann.

The local property tax was claimed to be earmarked for "parks, libraries and public lighting", as indicated by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, and other Ministers. It is what the newspaper and television propaganda told us last year. Now we find the money is being raided to the tune of €486 million to subvent Uisce Éireann. In effect, people will be paying for Uisce Éireann not only through water charges - which will come after the local elections - but through the local property tax and motor taxes, which, in turn, will have an impact on local services. There will be three new taxes in the form of the local property tax, water charges and a new health insurance policy to be paid every year. That is fine for those who can afford it, but there is a section of the population that cannot do so. It will come on top of income tax, the universal social charge and PRSI. Will the Government reduce income tax by €1,600 per person?

Is the Deputy being rhetorical? His colleague has reserved a position on universal health insurance.

Will the Government reduce taxation by €1,600? The programme for Government also promised greater devolution of powers to local authorities, but we have seen little evidence of this. There is also a change in the balance of power between county managers and democratically elected councillors. As we know, county managers hold most of the cards; in recent days we saw how the Dublin city manager was able to ignore the democratic decision of the city council in Dublin with regard to the continuing waste of millions of euro on the Poolbeg incinerator. The privatisation of social housing provision continues apace and instead of a local authority building programme, which is urgently needed, we have millions of euro being poured into the pockets of landlords and developers for rent supplements and leases. The promise to cede greater democratic control to local communities, including over local economic development, is totally undermined. Perhaps the Labour Party could address that issue in the next week or two. The privatisation of local community development projects will arise from their being put to private tender.

We have not yet seen a climate change Bill, which is urgently required. I brought forward a Bill to the House last year which was opposed by the Government, despite setting clear targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We also set out clear five-year benchmarks to this end, but we have not seen action in that regard. The environment committee put together a very detailed report last year with Professor John Sweeney and although it was submitted to the Minister, it has not returned from the Department. We need that Bill now.

The programme for Government pledged to introduce a waiver scheme for low-income households, pensioners, etc., but we have not seen that despite asking in the House repeatedly about it. The Government must also revisit the building regulations issue, as new regulations took effect on 1 March on foot of a statutory instrument issued by the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan. It will penalise people both in rural and urban areas who are trying to build house extensions. There must be regulations in place but the Government seems to be confused between multi-unit developments, which require strict regulations, and the people carrying out self-build projects, which have generally been to a very high standard.

Unfortunately, there is much to be done, as many promises have not been kept. As the Government has gone in the wrong direction with some of its decisions, I ask the Minister of State to relay to the Government that they should be revisited.

Just a week ago the Constitutional Convention voted overwhelmingly to enshrine the right to housing in Bunreacht na hÉireann. This has long been Sinn Féin's position and, while welcoming that decision wholeheartedly, we call on the Government to move forward on the issue. The Labour Party and Fine Gael are failing to protect and uphold the right to housing. There are almost 90,000 families on housing waiting lists around the country, which equates to almost 200,000 men, women and children in desperate need of housing and secure accommodation. There are also 5,000 homeless people. Despite this, only 29 homes were built for social housing purposes in Dublin last year. There are 16 newly homeless families in Dublin every week but the Government has nevertheless claimed it will end homelessness by 2016. It is either naive beyond belief or it is lying. NAMA, which has been proposed as a solution to housing shortages, has delivered fewer than 500 homes out of a promised 4,000.

Despite what some might say, it gives me no great pleasure to say these things. I would be very happy if I did not receive calls every day from new people at risk of losing their rented homes, languishing on huge waiting lists or living in crumbling housing in desperate need of refurbishment while local authority homes lie idle with no money for repairs. This is unfortunately the case. The Minister stood here this morning and quoted figures showing great boosts in spending, but we have heard such figures before and they never seem to really materialise. We know for certain that the housing budget has been cut by over €1 billion since 2008, and in 2013 the Government, in its wisdom, decided to cut a further €58 million from housing for 2014.

The effects of these cuts are much more tangible than the promises of the Minister.

This morning I dealt with a woman whose rent had been raised by nearly one third, way above rent supplement limits. She has lost that home and is now living in Cavan where she cannot afford the rent while she waits tenth in line to be housed in Finglas. She cannot obtain rent supplement in Cavan or she will lose her place and be stranded, away from her family. I recently dealt with a family who for four months had been living in a hotel, having been made homeless. They had been requested, at very short notice, to leave the hotel that day. As they lugged their possessions around town seeking a place to stay and awaiting a call from the homeless section of the council, I called everyone I could to ensure they had a roof over their heads that night.

This is the story of the Government's housing policy and its abject failure to address the housing crisis. No plan has been put in place with local authorities to boost social housing numbers significantly. Instead, the Government is talking about removing responsibility from developers to provide social housing, quoting imaginary job figures it has produced in the style of an Anglo Irish banker. It needs to build more social housing, using funds from the European Investment Bank, as we have often suggested. I am told it is applying for this only now, three years after taking office. We need to use social housing bonds and local authority trusts to allow councils to raise funds to build more stock, as and when it is needed. The Government has no problem with this policy. It states it will do nothing about it, despite a commitment in its programme. We need to allow councils to purchase houses in unfinished estates where this would release the bond, allowing an estate to be completed and providing much needed social and affordable housing.

The Labour Party has made much of its success in stopping the trend of cutting funds for the homeless by the Government, but funding is only part of the picture, as its programme recognises, stating "prevention is better than cure". The Labour Party has directly contributed to homelessness. The Government has increased rent supplement contributions, cut rent supplement, the dole for younger people, child benefit, payments to single mothers and other supports. The Labour Party has failed to protect rental accommodation scheme tenants who are being evicted by greedy landlords watching rents soar for just €50 or €100. These are the causes of homelessness. Water charges will also make it harder to keep one's home. Tackling these causes would help prevent homelessness. Sinn Féin agrees with the policy of housing-led and housing-first approaches, but they can only really work when the State is willing to provide adequate housing and no longer relies on the private market. The stagnation in the development of residential properties is, in part, due to the rental market being so incredibly profitable. It is also under-regulated, as there is no deposit retention scheme and the Private Residential Tenancies Board has been given more work for less pay, which appears to be the new Labour Party motto. There is still time for the Government to make a real difference, but it would require an about-turn, as we are in a real crisis. We need radical action, not massaged figures. Focus Ireland, Threshold and other groups tell us this is a human disaster in the making and it is on our doorstep.

We need to consider the details, implementation, major mistakes and false promises made in the programme for Government and the urgent need for reform and change. I mean radical, sensible change in order that all citizens will be treated in a respectful and equitable manner. The words "equality" and "respect" are often absent from this debate and Irish society. We need to be serious about these issues and give them top priority. All parties promised reform and change at the last general election. How far have they succeeded?

There has been a lot of talk about the consultants to Irish Water and the expenditure of €180 million and financial and business models, but why, three years on, is there a delay in the business model? Is there another scam before the local and European elections are held on 23 May? We need to tackle this issue. People are jumping up and down about consultants and other aspects of Irish Water, yet approximately 40% of water in Dublin is leaking from the pipes every day. I would like to see some Ministers jumping up and down about saving money and plugging these leaks. The questions of the free water allowance and the subvention must also be considered professionally. There is no point in doing laps of honour this week to celebrate the exit from the bailout when people want these problems solved immediately.

The abuse survivor, Louise O'Keeffe, had a major victory at the European Court of Human Rights, but why did the Government persevere in challenging her in that court? Why did it spend taxpayers' money on sending its top legal people to hound her? That was a scam and a scandal, yet there was no debate about this case. There are other victims of child sexual abuse. The Government should back off and stop using public money to pay legal people to torment these victims. Louise O'Keeffe showed great courage, having put up with horrific abuse by a local schoolteacher and in dealing with the trauma of fighting her case and practically going penniless to prove her point. The Government has some neck in sending people to challenge wonderful, brave individuals such as Louise O'Keeffe. That is another example of its use of public money. It should cop itself on and stop tormenting victims.

The Government promised to introduce universal health insurance by 2016. I strongly support this policy, but the targets are already in doubt and there are concerns about whether the Government has fully thought through its implementation. Help has been offered recently for home owners in mortgage distress. What about the long-term arrears of many of these families? The Government has stated it will reduce health care costs, but people are frightened about their health care. They are leaving the private health insurance market in droves because of the cost.

The Government argues regularly that it has protected base lines in social welfare, but it forgot to announce to the public - it knows this anyway - that the dole for people under the age of 26 years had been cut by €44. Senator Feargal Quinn introduced a magnificent Bill on upward-only rent reviews in the Seanad where it was passed, but when it comes back to the Dáil, the Government will vote it down. An example of another broken promise is the recent abandonment of the commitment to reach 0.7% of GNP in foreign aid.

Deputy Dessie Ellis spoke about the scandal of housing lists and the numbers of families affected, but the bigger issue is the homelessness crisis in Dublin city. A total of 4,613 people are using homeless services, of whom 1,958 are newly homeless. The Government has to up its game in that respect. I speak as a former full-time voluntary worker and soup runner with Simon in Dublin city.

I worked with Simon in a voluntary capacity before I ever got involved in politics and have direct experience of the problem. The soup runners and front-line workers can provide the solutions for many of these complex problems, if we listen to them.

The dirty dozen cuts have been written out of the story in the past 12 months. A full year payment of property tax is due in 2014. Child benefit has been cut by €10 for the fourth and subsequent children in a family. Prescription charges have risen to €2.50 per item. Stamp duty on pensions was increased to 0.75%. Over 35,000 people will lose their medical cards. The telephone allowance for the elderly has been abolished. Yesterday I was contacted by a senior citizen in my constituency who was very upset about losing the allowance because €9.50 was a lot of money to him. The jobseeker's allowance was cut to €100 a week for those aged between 18 and 24 years. The bereavement grant of €800 was abolished. College fees, the subject of another broken promise, will increase to €2,750 this year and €3,000 in 2015. Maternity benefit was cut to €230 a week, thereby costing new mothers €832 this year. The first-time buyer's mortgage interest supplement was closed off to new entrants. The threshold for the old age pension has increased to 66 years. These are the dirty dozen cuts, but there are many others.

When the Government introduced employment measures such as the employment investment incentive, the seed capital scheme and the Revenue job assist scheme, I applauded them as wonderful ideas, but I would like to see facts and figures for the numbers assisted and jobs created. We regularly hear people say the only game in town is "jobs, jobs, jobs," but then we see people like Wilbur Ross make a killing on Bank of Ireland shares, even as the crisis continues for those with mortgages. Mr. Ross and other billionaires appear to have fantastic financial advice when it comes to getting away with stunts.

Is that Deputy Shane Ross?

No, I refer to Wilbur Ross, the multi-billionaire.

He sold them the week before.

He was a big exponent of selling shares.

They have fantastic advice.

There is a little revisionism in the Technical Group.

I am speaking as an Independent Deputy. These guys have the top advisers when it comes to financial matters and I wish the Government would employ people who could similarly advise the 96,474 with mortgages in arrears for more than 90 days or the 1,014 who face repossessions. We need to do something about the 16.9% of mortgage accounts in arrears. The Government regularly rants about jobs, but when Independent Deputies brought forward proposals to develop and support the local post office network, it adopted a dismissive attitude. We are trying to protect 3,000 jobs in the post office service. The position is similar in the reform of medical and GP services. The Minister for Health needs to sit down with the IMO to negotiate. The main issues for me are job creation and the economy; health, disability and housing; education; developing the peace process on this island; and a common-sense foreign policy that protects Ireland's interests and is always independent.

This morning on radio I heard Deputy Joe Higgins describe this debate as narcissistic. However, I view it as an opportunity to explain to the House what I am doing in the area of research and innovation and what endeavours are under way in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. My aim is as much to inform the House on ongoing developments as to articulate - I will not use the word "celebrate" - the achievements of the Government to date, given that 250,000 jobs were destroyed during the three years prior to our taking office. It is only right and proper that we should come to the House to give an account to the tribunes of the people. I would not describe myself as a narcissist. These days when I pass a mirror, I tend to avoid looking at my reflection. My hair is receding and turning somewhat grey, while my waistline is expanding. Similarly, I think it is unfair to describe the Government as narcissistic.

The Government recognises that we must employ the best of our research and innovation infrastructure to create jobs. Its strategy is to accelerate the economic and societal return on our science, technology and innovation investment, to further strengthen enterprise engagement and take-up of public research and to drive commercialisation. In other words, we want to turn good ideas into jobs. In this way, implementation of research prioritisation which has been under way since March 2012 will see the majority of public research funding aligned with 14 priority areas. These are the areas in which we are most likely to get economic and societal returns, particularly in the form of jobs, as well as underpinning platform areas of science and technology and certain integrating infrastructure to support the priority areas. Instead of putting all of our eggs into the construction basket, we are investing taxpayers' money smartly in areas in which we know we will get a return not only for large urban areas but also in regional development. The report of the research prioritisation steering group identified the 14 areas of opportunity which should receive the majority of competitive public investment in science, technology and innovation in the coming five years. The areas were identified on the basis of existing strengths of the public research system, strengths of the indigenous and foreign direct investment enterprise base, opportunities in the global marketplace and the potential to deliver jobs. A key goal in the process of research prioritisation will be a significantly enhanced focus on collaborative research with enterprise by growing the number of researchers in enterprise and enhancing the flow of researchers between academia and enterprise.

The whole-of-government prioritisation action group which I chair is tasked with implementing research prioritisation and significant progress has been made since its inaugural meeting in the spring of 2012. The group operates under the broader authority of the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and jobs and meets on a regular basis. The priority areas encompass the areas of energy, food, health, ICT and innovation in business processes and services. Considerable activity has emerged from each of these core areas not only in Dublin, Cork and Limerick but also through the institutes of technology which have a wider regional constitution. Action plans have been developed for each of the priority areas to identify the actions required across research funding organisations. Engagement with relevant stakeholders on the draft action plans took place at the end of 2012 and the plans were approved by the Government in June 2013. Many of the actions focused on addressing specific needs of enterprise in the research community and ensuring appropriate funding was put in place to underpin these 14 areas.

Coupled with that, during the Presidency of the Council of the European Union which Ireland held, I was a party to the negotiation on Horizon 2020, an €80 billion fund which is one of the most significant pillars of EU funding. We have set a target for Ireland to draw down €1.8 billion during the lifetime of that programme. I chaired some of the negotiations on that pillar of funding. I am proud to say that the delivery of €1.25 billion to Irish academic institutions partnering with industry will allow us to create the types of job we need to disrupt that flow of emigration so that when graduates are coming out of the universities and institutes of technology there are potential pathways for them to map onto the areas of opportunity of which I spoke, such as ICT, food and medical devices, in a way that allows for them to gain the necessary accreditation from tertiary up to PhD level, but also encourages the creation of the intellectual property and new innovations that are so vital to industry in a way that creates jobs.

We have also, since 2012, put in place a new intellectual property protocol. This outlines new structures to encourage more businesses to commercialise research and development by ensuring that they can access the results of State-funded research with greater clarity and certainty. Any business that has an idea can take that idea to an academic institution to see whether it can innovate in a way that creates wealth, new intellectual property, new licensing and, ultimately, jobs, because this is what it is all about. The prioritisation action group, PAG, is also considering how application procedures for research funding can be adjusted to assess relevance to and impact on the priority areas. We have a core standard. It is an excellent standard that is monitored by Science Foundation Ireland, which is leading the way as the core funding agency in this regard.

Furthermore, in response to recommendations to align the supply and demand of trained researchers, the Irish Research Council has rolled out an employment-based PhD and master's degree programme in which awardees will be employees, with the majority of time spent in-company. Rather than having PhDs staying within academia - the vast majority of them move out into industry anyway - we are, through a structured PhD, encouraging an increasing number to spend time in companies during the course of their PhD work. This is vital to disrupting the pattern, in a positive sense, to create more companies, spin-outs and spin-ins to sustain the economy for the future.

We have created seven world-class Science Foundation Ireland research centres, which we will fund over six years. These centres support the key growth areas. The Higher Education Authority has undertaken a national inventory of all significant publicly funded infrastructure and equipment, and an online portal is being developed. In parallel with compiling this national inventory of all research equipment of large infrastructure, the HEA has developed guidelines for third level institutions on providing access to users from the institutions and enterprise. We are opening up the infrastructure to enterprises and to other institutions so that it is not kept within silos and individual institutions are not proprietorial about the pieces of infrastructure they have within their campuses. We are trying to open up the landscape and break down the silos in a way that allows for greater collaboration, not only in a politically expedient way between institutions, but in a deeper way. It is important that we do so because we are such a small country.

The Higher Education Authority, in co-operation with Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, is currently developing a consistent quality framework for postgraduate education and training, incorporating the structured PhD model.

Research prioritisation is about enhancing the relevance and impact of the public investment in research while maintaining the excellence of our research base, further strengthening enterprise engagement and take-up of public research, and driving commercialisation. This is an apolitical space. No one political philosophy in this House underpins what we are doing. I would give due credit to previous Governments that laid the foundations for where we are now through the programme for research in third-level institutions, which allowed us to build out the bricks and mortar. The current paradigm is to drive public investment in research and innovation that yields the maximum impact for society. With seven large-scale SFI centres, we believe that partnership between industry, Government and academia allows the creation of economies of scale in a way that allows us to leverage the opportunities of Horizon 2020, the EU funding stream of €80 billion, which was negotiated on the basis of our studying the great societal challenges of our time - aging, food, health, transport, smart grids, smart cities, etc. By working in parallel with those thematic areas in Ireland, we will achieve greater leveraging opportunities. We believe that by adopting this simple philosophy we will create an impact within a three- to five-year period. It is making an investment for the future. It goes beyond a typical five-year Government mandate. We are trying to lay down a foundation for the next phase of development from the point of view of research and innovation. Over the next six years, the total investment will be over €300 million. SFI, through its multi-annual programme, will provide €200 million and industry will come up with €100 million, in cash and in-kind contributions. By bringing industry to partner with the academic institutions through the creation of these centres, we will create an international impact.

The process is collaborative and, as I have said, it works across all institutions. Its purpose is also to map out new opportunities with other jurisdictions. We are strongly of the view that we can collaborate more with Northern Ireland and are aware of the opportunities that will exist between institutions on both sides of the Border. When we launched Horizon at national level, we were cognisant of the need to ensure that, by partnering with institutions in the North, we could create economies of scale that would allow greater leveraging for funding opportunities across each of the thematic areas of which I spoke earlier.

We have 156 distinct companies across seven research centres. There will be more research centres to come. Our creation of seven centres of a significant scale has been a success, but we must carefully monitor its impact. We have put in place a set of metrics - clear indicators. If it is taxpayers' money, we must ensure we achieve that impact and are monitoring the work of each of those seven centres. However, the seven centres involve all of the academic institutions in some way, shape or form, and as I stated, it is based along thematic lines. In the research centres, the areas on which we are focusing include big data, data analytics and marine renewable energy. We are looking outwards, towards the sea. People talk about our being a maritime nation. We are looking at the potential for marine renewable energy. We are bringing a lot of industry partners into that and a new maritime research centre is being created in Cork. We are also looking at pharmaceutical manufacturing - in which there are lots of activities throughout the country - as well as drug synthesis, connected health, neonatal care, photonics, and functional foods. We are looking not only at the production of core food products but also at the areas of gut health, in which one can add additional functionality to foods, for example, from the point of view of delivering medicines. We are looking at the next phase of food production.

We are also looking at nanotechnology. All of these areas are ones in which Ireland is a significant international leader. We are not starting afresh on the journey. These are areas of core competence in which Ireland has a significant international reputation. This allows us to bring in industry that has been long established and new companies to partner with us to try to create the necessary impact. These are multidisciplinary research teams which cut across enterprise, education, health, the public sector, energy and the environment.

In the jobs announcements in 2013 Science Foundation Ireland, SFI had links with 72% of IDA Ireland jobs announcements. The kernel of that is that more of the wins in the foreign direct investment sector are predicated on our strong research and innovation base. It is all about human capital, not just corporation tax. The investment created through IDA Ireland is also predicated on this strong research and development base. We must continue to focus on this and not take the foot off the pedal. The number of jobs associated with the 30 projects was 1,757, of which SFI had links with 1,265. SFI directly supports a cohort of approximately 3,000 researchers across Ireland's higher education institutes.

With regard to the policy area for which I have responsibility, science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, we are very much aware of the current Project Maths process. We are driving through the education system a need for greater conceptual understanding by all students of mathematical and scientific concepts. The bonus points for mathematics at post-primary level and Project Maths are having an impact. There will be challenges further down the line. As long as the universities and the higher education institutes control the CAO and CAS systems, there will be a challenge in respect of inflating points where demand increases. We are cognisant of this point. We have also set up a STEM educational review group chaired by Professor Brian McCraith of DCU. We are looking at introducing industry to partner the Department of Education and Skills to move beyond the disparate number of STEM-related projects happening throughout the country. We have many great STEM-related activities that encourage greater understanding by primary and post-primary students in the area of STEM, but we want a national co-ordinated approach. If we partner with industry in a more co-ordinated way, the hope is industry will begin to contribute upfront cash to replicate it in areas that do not have this kind of activity.

This is a very important debate, one that transcends each Department because it is all about the collective performance of the Government and the collective changes made. This brings us to the most important issue, employment. The key issue raised by Deputy Finian McGrath was job creation. Where the Government is working most of all is in creating new employment. This week some 62,000 more people are at work than at this time last year, which is a significant change. It brings hope to people and an income to a family. It also creates an incentive to go out to work. That is what reforms do for us.

In my position in the Department of Energy, Communications and Natural Resources I am working on the area of natural resources, a key wealth creator across mining and inland fisheries. It is a significant source of employment and makes a real contribution to our economic welfare and revenue base. The significance is that in 2012 Ireland was Europe's largest producer of zinc metal in concentrate, with 32% of all European zinc mine output, and the tenth largest producer in the world. Output in mining, as measured by sales turnover, amounted to €426 million that year, directly supporting almost 1,400 jobs and nearly 2,000 additional jobs across other sectors. A significant share of the revenue went directly into the economy, including over €100 million in wages and salaries and €56 million in taxes and rates.

We have worked hard to achieve these successes, actively promoting exploration and updating research data, with the result that there are now over 600 mineral prospecting licences in the country, the highest ever. The extent of our effort and success is recognised in the international benchmark report of the Canadian-based Frazier Institute. The most recent report, published this week, ranks Ireland fourth in the world among 112 jurisdictions for good mining policy. We are up there with countries and areas such as Sweden, Finland, Canada, western Australia, Nevada in the USA, Newfoundland and Labrador in Canada, and Norway. We have maintained our top ten placing in successive years and scored highly across key categories, including infrastructure, quality of the geological database, taxation, socioeconomic and community development conditions and security.

I also work in the area of offshore oil and exploration. Those with the resources and a willingness to invest in high cost and high risk offshore exploration have real choices in where they choose to invest dollars, pounds, euro or yen. In the final quarter of 2013 almost 20 countries had licensing rounds, including Libya, Egypt, Malaysia, Angola, Australia and New Zealand. Ireland competes for exploration dollars in a competitive world and we have worked hard to revise our regulatory regime and increase research support to the sector with the objective of increasing interest in the Irish offshore. Against the background of limited interest in Irish offshore exploration - there were only two applicants for the 2009 round and for the same block - the 2011 Atlantic round marked a fundamental new departure by offering acreage on Ireland's Atlantic margin and permitting entry at significantly lower cost without a drilling commitment. This approach proved to be successful and saw significantly increased interest. A total of ten of the 13 licence options have turned into full frontier exploration licences and we now have the highest ever level of offshore authorisations. We are about to embark on the next Atlantic margin licensing round. Building on this momentum is key and last November I announced at the annual Atlantic Ireland conference the parameters of Ireland's next licensing round which will include all of Ireland's major Atlantic basins, offer two year licensing options and close in September 2015. The formal launch of the opening of the round, complete with full details, is planned for later this year. Advance notice was important to industry in order that it could make timely decisions on devoting resources to planning for participation. It also provides sufficient clarity for seismic contractors considering new data acquisition in 2014 and will allow time for applications under the round to be informed by data from new surveys.

In recent years we have significantly adapted our licensing regime, building on regulatory changes with regard to planning consent and safety. We are taking two further initiatives, one of which is a review of our fiscal terms.

In the context of both public and parliamentary debate regarding the fiscal terms for oil and gas production, independent expert advice has been procured to examine the fitness for purpose of Ireland's fiscal terms. Wood Mackenzie is the company appointed to provide advice on the fiscal gain that is achievable for the State and its citizens, together with the mechanisms best suited to produce such a gain. This firm has been selected in accordance with EU tender procedures and is a global leader in commercial intelligence for the energy, metals and mining industries.

While there are many comments on our existing terms and their evolution, we should not overlook the fact that 2012 saw one well drilled in the Irish offshore area and three fields producing 0.4 billion cu. m of gas and no oil. By comparison, in Norway 172 wells were drilled and 77 fields produced 114.8 billion cu. m of gas and 694 million barrels of oil. We must really concentrate on these facts.

Ireland's regional seismic survey, which commenced in June last year, is by far the largest regional seismic survey ever of the Irish offshore area, and its aim is to address one of the most glaring data gaps. Full-fold seismic data on over 10,000 km were acquired in 2013 and the second-phase 2014 programme will seek to bring the total coverage to a figure as close as possible to 18,000 km. The processing of the raw data from 2013 is under way with the aim of having this available for release at the same time as the launch of the next licensing round.

The 18,000 km full-fold seismic survey is also designed to fill in data gaps that exist, particularly in the Southern Porcupine, Rockall and Hatton basins. Most important, the survey should go a long way towards revealing the true oil and gas potential of Ireland's frontier basins. The total cost will be of the order of €20 million and is being funded from leveraged industry contributions. When complete, this will provide a regional grid of high quality seismic data over Ireland's frontier basins and should allow resource potential to be predicted with much greater confidence and enable both the industry and the Government to evaluate adequately future licensing opportunities.

As Minister of State with responsibility for natural resources, my remit covers the Geological Survey of Ireland, GSI. Aside from its role in the provision of geological information and planning tools as the geoscience agency for Ireland, it is also involved in a number of specific initiatives. INFOMAR, for example, is a flagship national scale project. This long-term programme maps out all of our valuable marine territory, which is almost ten times our landmass. It is being undertaken in conjunction with the Marine Institute and is funded by my Department. Previous studies have shown that the return on investment is over four times the cost of data acquisition, and this return is spread across multiple sectors, public and private, multinationals, SMEs and research organisations. In 2013, the project was again reviewed externally and was deemed successful and on track, and the Government committed €15 million in the period to 2018 to support this world-class endeavour. As important as the data are, they are not simply being collected as an end in themselves as they are also being used to encourage the development of offshore energy, with the mapping being key to identifying suitable sites and cable routes for wind, wave and tidal generators; safer offshore navigation, with new charts recently produced for Dublin Bay and Kinsale; modelling of tides and currents, which is vital for the aquaculture and costal protection engineers; and production of maps on the nature of the seabed, be it mud, sand or gravel, to assist with environmental protection and more efficient fishing practices.

Jobs and job creation are at the heart of what we are doing. In the geoscience sector, we have worked with Enterprise Ireland to form a business cluster, Geoscience Ireland. There is an acknowledged need to internationalise the skills and services provided by the wider geological community, and that is what we are doing.

We spent €5 million on the Tellus Border project. With regard to counties Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan and my county, Louth, we now have scientific data on soils, water and rock content with detail almost specific to each farm. Every single farmer will have a formula allowing for the purchase of fertilizer specific to his land. The project also helps to identify mineral resources such as gold. There is a gold map that we should all have a good look at. I hope that it will result in the development of a mining industry in areas where there would not otherwise be employment.

I was to begin by discussing something different but given that the Minister of State referred to oil and gas exploration, I must refer to a conversation I had with Mr. Eddie Hobbs on the telephone this morning about his book "Own Our Oil". He seems quite convinced about what he is saying. He does not believe successive Governments have done a good job on this issue. Time will tell whether he or the Government is correct. In the past half-hour, I wrote to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources asking that the authors of the book be allowed to discuss this issue at an upcoming meeting. People can talk about conspiracy theories and whatever they want but I hope that the Minister of State would want the best deal for Ireland; I imagine that he does. Therefore, the best way to achieve this is to talk to everyone with a legitimate opinion on the matter. When we meet people on the doorsteps, we realise this is a topic that causes frustration. The Government always tells us the matter is not as simple as might be assumed and that we have not found anything yet. Although it says we are not losing hundreds of millions of euro, we need to nail the debate once and for all. Will the Minister of State ask that the people who wrote the book, including approximately 14 authors in addition to Eddie Hobbs, be invited to the committee to have the issue debated? If we can address it in a better way, it will be good for us all.

Many speakers have said the Government had cheek to close the doors for a week and a half in order to do a lap of honour. I would say it was very brave to come into the House to try to defend what it has done over the past three years. Bar cochlear implants, I cannot really think of anything positive.

In the area of health, midwifery really stands out as a problem. Midwives in some hospitals must work twice as hard as their international counterparts. The international average is 29.5 deliveries per midwife but our average in some hospitals is 55. No matter what anyone says to try to defend that, it will not come up to the mark.

When I heard the current Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, state years ago he was thinking of getting involved in politics, I was very hopeful. Given that he had a medical background and knew what he was on about, I believed we might see some positive changes. However, the fact is that it is now too late to be blaming Fianna Fáil. The current Government has been in power for three years. How can the health service be as safe as it should be if midwives have to work twice as hard as the international standard would suggest?

In advance of the election, Deputy Frank Feighan, Senator John Kelly and I participated in a radio interview. I said I agreed with quite a few of Fine Gael's policies and that my only concern was that it did not believe in them itself. As it turned out, that is true. With regard to Roscommon Hospital's accident and emergency unit, I agreed with Fine Gael's policy. Deputy Kenny, now the Taoiseach, stood up on a soapbox in the square in Roscommon town and told us he would keep our unit open. Subsequently, when the cock had barely crowed, he had it closed. His argument was that he was sorry for the confusion and perhaps did not explain himself well enough. He explained himself well enough all right. Mr. Martin Kenny from Sinn Féin would be a Deputy now if the Taoiseach had told people in Roscommon town on the day on which he made his promise what he is saying to us now. I am not saying Mr. Martin Kenny's election would have been a good or bad thing. The Taoiseach, hiding behind supposed confusion, actually said HIQA recommended the closure.

This was not true; HIQA recommended no such thing. Then the Minister, Deputy Reilly, said it was due to the dire coronary care problems there and the higher mortality rates of people who went there with cardiac problems. He completely manipulated the statistics on that and was not comparing like with like. He was not allowing for the fact that there is an older population and older people going into Roscommon hospital. No; he hid behind it. How can people in Roscommon be happy with the performance of this Government?

There was another person who convinced me, so perhaps I am a little gullible. In their first few months as Members of the House the Technical Group tabled a Private Members' motion. To be honest, I did not know what a Private Members' motion was until I discovered I was going to be helping to put it together. Deputies Maureen O'Sullivan, Donnelly and I said our piece in the House. We made the point that we would not make a political football of mental health because it was too important for that. We said we would leave it to the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, give her a year, or perhaps two, and see what would happen.

I will outline what has happened. We now have a situation - these are not my words and let nobody accuse me of being irresponsible for telling the truth - where clinicians describe the psychiatric unit in Galway as "Dickensian" and what is happening there as "bedlam". These are the words of clinicians who work there. I hate having to say this because people will have to use that service and one does not wish to scare them away. However, one must deal with the facts. Three years into this Government's term of office there were patients lying in wet beds because water was leaking through the roof. Patients are shivering in corridors waiting to use one of the three showers. There are three showers for 31 people.

Last week, Deputy Frank Feighan suggested in the Dáil that I go and look at the hospitals and see the great work that is taking place. In fairness, he was referring to Roscommon hospital. I made an attempt to see the psychiatric hospital in Galway, along with Deputies Naughten and Keaveney and Senator Michael Mullins, but we were not allowed in. We were told it was because of patient confidentiality. That would have been legitimate if there had been anybody in the ward, but there was nobody in it. On the one hand we were told, to shut us up, to go in and see the great work that is being done, but when we went to try and see it, we were not let in. If we go back to the public and say we are not allowed to see if the conditions are as they were described by the clinicians, what will happen? People will not trust the service.

We were told, on being refused entry, that we were wrong and that there were actually five showers. It is similar to the way some people might treat a child when giving him or her money, telling the child it is more money than it really is. We are not stupid. We do not believe what we are being told because we are not allowed to see it. We were also told that the leak was only a minor one. In fact, there is the equivalent of a duck pond on the roof of that unit. The roof is held up by RSJs which are covered up with some type of material to hide them. We were told that is not the case, but it is. It is a fact. As somebody who suffered from mental health problems in the past, as many people have - and no doubt in the future the black dog will be back to visit - it terrifies me that this would be one's only option if one got sick. My biggest fear of mental illness in the past was that I would have to use the services. That fear has not been alleviated in the slightest.

There was a brilliant system in Ballinasloe. There were 22 beds in St. Brigid's Hospital and it was working well. It was a model for how A Vision for Change should work, but the Government dismantled it. When the local community tried to stop it from being dismantled, gardaí were called. Clients of that service and their parents were literally fighting with their hands to try to hold onto that service, but the answer was "No". There was a vote in the Seanad on it and Senator Lorraine Higgins, who is supposed to represent people in Ballinasloe, betrayed them and voted to close it. When I hit her about it on Twitter her comeback was to mention that I never got the swimming pool in Castlerea opened all year round. We are talking about people sleeping in wet beds and shivering in corridors, and the best response we can get from the Senator, who should not have that job anyway, is, "Nah, nah, neh, nah, nah, you didn't get your swimming pool". We are dealing with people who are talking about killing themselves and all we get is a lame political comeback. That is a complete and utter failure on the part of the Government. When it comes to health, it has been a miserable failure.

I am sure Members at this stage are sick of the phrase, "Labour's way or Frankfurt's way," but it must be said again when discussing our banking debt. In fact, it is not our banking debt but the banks' debt that we took on our shoulders. As a result of the Government's cowardice and inability to even ask, we have a debt of €70 billion for the future. It affects the future of my children and their children as it is leaching money out of their and their friends' prospects. Amazingly, I heard Mr. Jim Higgins, MEP, say on a local radio station, Shannonside FM, last week that there is good news on the way and that before the next general election there will be retrospective recapitalisation of the banks and we will get the money back. I thought I had missed something so I checked it out. Nobody else appeared to have this information or to be saying this. On the one hand we have a Government which claims it has a victory and that we are doing all right, but on the other hand there is an MEP who is trying to get re-elected and says on the radio that we need not worry because this money is coming back to us. The way the Government is going about it, it will never come back to us.

All we are seeking is fairness. We joined the European Union when it was a community. A community is supposed to look after its members. Regardless of people saying it will cut off our money supply and will do this or that to us if we demand a debt write-down, the core issue here is the principle of community. Does a community do that to somebody when he or she falls on hard times? Does it threaten to kick one when one is down? It should not, but it did. Whatever about the detail regarding the money, the facts are clear. It is no longer a community, it is a bully-boy club run by France and Germany under the guise that they will go to war if they do not have this community. It is not our fault that they went to war and we should not have to pay the price for it now.

The Government understands the concept of a write-down. If one has a bugle or a company such as Independent News & Media, INM, one gets a write-down of tens of millions of euro. We own 99.9% of AIB and we had to make a decision on whether to give the money to INM and the Denis O'Briens of the world or to give debt write-downs on mortgages for people who are struggling to live and being tortured by the banks. We decided to give it to the multimillionaire, and then we thank him for paying the Republic of Ireland soccer manager's salary. Actually, we are giving that man ten times more out of one of our banks alone than he is paying a manager who could not even win last night.

With regard to farming and the Common Agricultural Policy, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, did the rich farmers, as well as his own family members and many of the Government's families' members, proud. These are the farmers on single farm payments ranging from €40,000 to €80,000. The Common Agricultural Policy does not exist to pay back the loans undertaken by rich farmers for the houses they bought in Bulgaria and Spain during the boom. That money is there to keep small farms going, to keep families on farms, to create employment in farming and, most importantly, to guarantee food security for Europe. All it is guaranteeing now is rich farmers' houses in Bulgaria and Spain.

George Lee spoke about this at one stage but he has gone very quiet on it. I wonder why. I would love to hear him speak up on it again. Billions leaving the country which should stay in our local communities is, to use an overused word, a disgrace. The small farmer, no more than the rich farmer, only needs to sleep in one bed, only eats one dinner and only needs one pair of socks a day, but the poor farmer spends all of this money locally while the rich farmer spreads its around the world by the look of things. This money should have gone to local communities.

The IFA will defend this. It is time members of the IFA woke up and realised whose side the organisation is on. The next time they go to a mart they should refuse to pay the bloody levy because they are paying a levy to fund an organisation which is screwing them more than Alan Shatter would have some of the whistleblowers if he had his way. It is not on. The money was for farming communities but it is going to ranchers and the Larry Goodmans of the world and this is completely and utterly wrong.

Another policy of the incoming Government with which I agreed was that it would stand by turf cutters. Deputy John O'Mahony stated at a public meeting on 15 February 2011 in Mayo that under Fine Gael turf cutting would be allowed in 2011. Guess what happened? I went out and cut my turf, as did Michael Fitzmaurice and many other turf cutters, and we were attacked. We were accused of being bad citizens for doing what the incoming Government stated it would be all right with us doing. It changed its mind afterwards. It stated it never realised how difficult it was going to be to deal with Europe over turf cutting. It did not understand the hospital situation or how complicated the debt situation would be either. I suppose come the next general election when members of the Government put together their policies and make promises, we will only be able to conclude that, God love them, they do not understand what they are saying so we had better not vote for them.

At this stage turf cutters are being dragged through the courts and we are listening to rubbish from the Minister telling us the problem is solved. This morning it was quite clear from his contribution the problem is not solved. One does not solve the problem by dealing with 15% of the people and excluding the rest, and then pretending to the media, who are only delighted to gobble it up, the problem is solved. The problem is not solved and it will only be solved when the Government listens to the stakeholders and takes on board what they say. At present it is listening to them and then ignoring them. This problem will not go away until the Government starts working with the people.

We had a plan which was voted on here. Everyone agreed with it and I was carried out of the Dáil shoulder high. What a great day. All that was going through my head was how do I tell these people the Government will shaft them in a couple of months time. I tried to, but they kept cheering because they thought the problem was solved. It is not solved. We even had a situation where the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, in a phone call to the head of the turf cutters described him as a true patriot. He has gone from being a true patriot to being a criminal. It all depends on the audience; he is a true patriot if the Taoiseach is speaking to him but he is a criminal if the Taoiseach is speaking to another audience. There is a big distance between these two explanations of this human being. I agree with the first analysis of the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, that Michael Fitzmaurice is a true patriot, because who else would have travelled the country night after night paying for his own diesel and chips along the way and looking for funding from no one? He visited every bog necessary and put together a plan which we presented. All that has happened is betrayal, twisting the truth and trying to spin things to make them sound good, but the public knows the truth.

There is not much I can do about the Government closing our accident and emergency department as I cannot kick in the door and pretend I am a doctor and run it, and other than protest and disagree there is not a lot I can do in opposition about it closing down our local schools and post offices. The great thing about the turf issue is if the Government tries to close my bog, if it takes me going in there with my bare hands to pull it out, the Government will not be able to stop me and it will not be able to stop the thousands of others who will do so. This is why the issue is one which will nail the Government in the end.

We heard a lot about local government reform before the Government came into office, and documents were thrown around the place with loads of information about this and that. Yesterday I contacted the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and had an hour long chat with someone about how the system will work. I had a good understanding of how it will work as I debated the topic here, but I wanted to hear what would happen if someone contacted the Department and asked how it will work. As things stand the number of councillors in Roscommon has reduced from 26 to 18. Other than this change all that has happened is the three areas are being called municipalities.

I asked the Department what legal requirement there is to hold any meetings and whether there is an onus on the chairman to call these meetings. I was told strictly speaking if no meetings were held nothing could be done. It is a bit similar to when I was on the corporate policy group on Roscommon County Council and the mayor was looking for favours so only one meeting was held during the year. Guess what? There was nothing we could do about it. Are we facing a situation where local government reform will be a bit like Windscale changing its name to Sellafield; local area meetings and road meetings will be called municipality meetings and then we will all meet anyway in the main council meeting where we will have less influence than we used to because it has become more local? What has changed? We were told about a structure of three regions taking in various counties and this system would feed into it. This has not been readied or prepared so in reality we have not had local government reform.

There is an idea the Government is bringing local government closer to people. How is local government being brought closer to the people of Boyle when its town council has been closed? I know it did not have much power, and there was not much it could do with the minimal power it had, but the answer was not to get rid of it but to reform it and make it better. In response to the suggestion the meetings held in Roscommon are bringing local government closer, I suggest the Government watches the episode of "Sesame Street" where Grover explains to people what "near" and "far" mean. One will notice that when people are far away they are a little bit smaller and when they are closer they are bigger. I seriously think the Minister does not understand the difference between near and far if he can close down local councils and call it bringing local government closer.

The benefits of reforming local government and giving councillors real power is important, particularly when it comes to business and rates. Under the new system there will be nothing councillors can seriously do to reduce rates without cutting services. These will be the options presented to councillors. The job of rooting out where money is being wasted will not happen because councillors who do this gets punished, as I and several other members of Roscommon County Council, including Sinn Féin Councillor Michael Mulligan, did. One cannot be the person who watches the pennies and also the person who wants to get stuff done in the area. Until we reform this system to put the elected representative in the driving seat we will not see rates reduced without a reduction in services. When I was mayor, as I have stated in the House previously but it is definitely worth repeating, I was told by the director of finance that if I sought any more detail on the budget he would leave the room. Under the new system being introduced he will still be able to leave the room and there will be nothing one can do about it and rates will not be reduced.

Consequently, it is a shame the Government, which claims to care about creating jobs, did not change that because if it did care, it would have done something about it.

The major issue that is hitting the Government at present, and deservedly so, is that of the manner in which both Garda whistleblowers, Sergeant McCabe and former Garda Wilson, have been treated. In Mullingar at 6.30 p.m. today, the public will have an opportunity to come out and support these brave people who are trying to do a tough job but which is being made more difficult by the Minister and by their boss, Mr. Callinan, who described them as disgusting. This evening, at 6.30 p.m., people will have an opportunity to show how these people are in fact the opposite. They are wonderful and brave people but unfortunately, in this country when one blows the whistle, the authorities do not look up. Instead, they look for a way to ram it down one's throat and if it does not choke one, they pray it will poison one when it reaches one's stomach. This is precisely what we are dealing with. Moreover, this is not the only cover-up that is going on and so many cases are being presented to me and to my colleagues, Deputies Joan Collins, Wallace and Clare Daly, that we are under massive pressure in trying to deal with them. New and astonishing stories emerge every day that, when one looks into them, actually turn out to be true. In one of these cases, that is, the death of Shane Tuohey, his father contacted me today to tell me they had received a response from the Minister, Deputy Shatter, to the effect that nothing could be done for them. Anyone who would read the details of Shane Tuohey's death need not be Inspector Clouseau, Colombo or Jessica Fletcher to solve this one but the Minister still cannot see anything wrong. It is a case of "nothing to see here". When he was in opposition, the Minister was all gung-ho about doing something in this regard, particularly in the case of Fr. Niall Molloy. However, he has gone cold on it at this stage as it simply does not suit him any more and, consequently, these people must continue to suffer. I have a message for the Minister, Deputy Shatter. My colleagues and I will not give up and we will keep at this until finally we break through. The fact that this issue has been covered and dealt with in recent weeks gives us a glimmer of hope and we will keep at it until we win because otherwise, the children of this country will be obliged to work with a Garda Síochána that unfortunately they will be unable to trust, which would be really sad.

One issue I have brought up repeatedly in the Chamber over the past 18 months or so is that of Coillte and how people have approached me about alleged fraud against that company. When I brought it up initially, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, replied that he had not heard about it heretofore. He would have done, had he followed the question I had asked of the Minister, Deputy Shatter. However, when he did hear about it, his officials met the company that had approached me about the problem in the first place. The Minister himself could not meet us, as he was too busy. We met them again and again and they conducted what they called an investigation into the matter. We were not given a copy of or allowed to see the results of that investigation. Moreover, the Department could not get access to the information it sought from Coillte, because it was commercially sensitive. The Minister is Coillte's boss and if he wishes to carry out an investigation, through the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, into alleged fraud against a company the public owns, how can he hide behind the excuse that it is commercially sensitive? He could have got that information and then judged what was happening on the basis of that information. However, he refused to so do. The Government was correct to remind everyone numerous times about the money that was wasted on the e-voting machines, that is, of the €50 million or €60 million or whatever figure came to mind. The figure I am talking about in respect of the alleged fraud against Coillte, which is in public ownership, is in the region of €85 million. I will pretend to be Deputy Martin for a second and perhaps the media might listen. A total of €85 million is being robbed from us and nothing is being done. It is making the forestry industry less competitive and is in danger of putting many saw-millers on their knees and out of work. The Government should do something about it. It should try to do something right.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Government's priorities for the year ahead. In this short summary, I propose to outline my own priorities as Minister of State in the Department of Health with special responsibility for the primary care sector strategy. As Members are aware, legislation currently is being drafted to extend eligibility for general practitioner, GP, services without fees to all children under six as the first step in implementing universal access to GP care without fees and I will address this aspect of my work presently. I also have responsibility for the national drugs strategy and the Government's alcohol policy and I will address these also.

However, before so doing, I wish to take this opportunity to refer briefly to amendments I propose to make to the misuse of drugs regulations. Some of these amendments arise from serious concerns regarding the increased availability of benzodiazepines and so-called z-drugs. A wide-ranging consultation process in respect of proposed amendments to the misuse of drugs regulations was held in July 2012 with key stakeholders on the various aspects proposed regarding the amendments the Government had in mind. Draft regulations then were prepared and placed on the Department's website, inviting further comment by early September 2013. More than 90 submissions, some of which were very extensive and detailed, have been received from a wide range of organisations and individuals representing the medical, nursing and pharmacy sectors, as well as private and public hospitals, nursing homes, addiction clinics, drug treatment centres and others. The proposed amendments to the regulations include measures to place additional controls on benzodiazepines and z-drugs with regard to the licensing in respect of importation and export and to introduce an offence of unauthorised possession of benzodiazepines and z-drugs. In addition, stricter prescribing and dispensing rules also are contained in the proposed changes. It also is proposed to require all community pharmacists to notify all controlled drug prescriptions to the primary care reimbursement service, PCRS, and to expand the list of controlled drugs and the clinical settings in which these drugs may be prescribed by a nurse and midwife prescribers. I believe Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan recently tabled a parliamentary question in respect of Sativex and another proposal is to allow for the prescribing of the cannabis-based medicinal product, Sativex. Others are to exempt methadone and suboxone prescriptions from prescription handwriting requirements and to control new psychoactive substances.

As Members will gather from that lengthy list and the complexity of some of the proposed changes, it has taken a longer time to prepare and bring forward these regulations than the Government originally had hoped. In fact, the Department still is engaging in the process of collating and analysing the various submissions it has received. However, in order to avoid delaying any longer on those aspects of the changes that can be brought forward now without much further analysis or review, I now propose to progress this matter in two separate phases. I have approved the following three matters to be carried out immediately or in early course, namely, to expand the list of controlled drugs and the clinical settings in which they may be prescribed by nurse and midwife prescribers, to allow for the prescribing of the cannabis-based medicinal product Sativex and to exempt methadone and suboxone prescriptions from prescription handwriting requirements applicable to Schedule 2 controlled drugs. Just as soon as these matters are settled by drafting counsel, I can sign these regulations. There is no legislative requirement to go to Government, as no additional substances are to be subject to control. The remaining matters on the list I have just read out will be progressed and I will bring forward those amended regulations as soon as possible. However, Members will appreciate it is better to proceed now with the changes that can be made without any further delay and then take some further time to deal with those that require further analysis and consideration.

In respect of the national drugs strategy, the Government remains fully committed to the implementation of a series of actions set out in the National Drugs Strategy 2009-2016. Towards the end of 2013, I completed a series of bilateral meetings with Ministers and participating agencies, as well as representatives of the community and voluntary sectors. These meetings dealt with the specific actions for which the various different bodies have specific responsibility, thus improving the overall level of co-operation and collaboration that is essential in this area. Following a review of the local and regional drugs task forces, a number of decisions were made to improve the operation and efficiency of the drug task forces.

These included the setting up of a national co-ordinating committee to guide the work of the drug and alcohol task forces, as they are now to be named and to ensure the ongoing implementation of the national drugs strategy, clearer terms of reference and corporate governance guidelines for drug and alcohol task forces, measures to encourage more public representative involvement in the work of drug and alcohol task forces and a review of the number and boundaries of drugs task forces, mainly in Dublin.

As I indicated, it was decided to rename the drugs task forces as the drugs and alcohol task forces, reflecting their current role in tackling substance misuse, including alcohol.

In January I hosted a conference in Dublin Castle at which we took the opportunity to review the overall effectiveness of the national drugs strategy and, in particular, restate the Government's strong commitment to its cross-agency and cross-departmental dimension. There was wide participation at the conference from the community and voluntary sectors and all of the statutory agencies involved in the strategy and Departments. We took the opportunity to explore the potential to extend the work of the drugs task forces to the problem of alcohol misuse. A number of presentations were made and ideas canvassed which can be followed up by the new national co-ordinating committee. There is wide agreement that the success of the task forces in leading the community response to the drugs problem can be drawn on in a new focus on alcohol. I very much look forward to working on some innovative strategies for establishing community and cross-agency responses to the alcohol issue this year.

In regard to the Government's alcohol strategy, the House is aware that approval was given late last year for the drafting of the public health alcohol Bill. This legislation will include provisions in respect of minimum unit pricing for alcohol products, the regulation of advertising and marketing of alcohol, structural separation of alcohol products from other products in mixed trading outlets, the regulation of sports sponsorship and a working group to be chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach which will report later this year on the issue of alcohol sponsorship of sport and the health labelling of alcohol products. That work is continuing and the legislation is being drafted. I very much hope to be able to bring it to the House and also the Joint Committee on Health and Children for pre-legislative scrutiny because there is enormous interest in it and I would very much welcome the input of Members. I express my thanks to Members, in particular Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan who has been very supportive of some of the measures we have proposed in respect of alcohol. Other Members, including Deputies Michelle Mulherin, Joe O'Reilly and Pat Breen, who are in the House, have expressed an interest in this important issue, which I appreciate.

It may not be, but we cannot just operate on the basis of what is popular. We have to press ahead all of the time. Sometimes what we have to do in politics is make small incremental changes and that is certainly what I am dedicated to doing.

I refer to my responsibility for primary care services. The House will appreciate that, in common with health systems throughout the world, the Government is addressing new serious challenges such as ageing populations and the creeping epidemic of chronic illness. Health care must become the concern of the whole society, not just those who are ill or those who care for them, important and all as that is. It must literally be about health, not just about illness. It must be about staying healthy, not becoming sick. Health policy must be about nutrition, fitness, exercise, addressing lifestyle factors such as smoking and the excessive consumption of alcohol, what we eat and how we live our lives, taking control of and managing our own health. It is in that context that the Government is bringing forward our policy of universal access to primary care, an absolutely essential component of what we are doing in the area of health. The budget announcement is being brought forward in the form of legislation to extend access to GP care to children under six years of age. I am happy to be able to indicate that I expect that legislation to be ready for introduction in the House within one month.

The Government is providing additional funding of €37 million to meet the cost of this measure. A draft contract for the provision of services for children aged under six years was opened up to public consultation last month. I am very keen to hear the views of general practitioners, in particular, and their representative bodies on the content and scope of this draft contract and have communicated this to them. I emphasise, as I have done in correspondence with the representative bodies, that the Department and the HSE are fully prepared to engage meaningfully with GP stakeholders. I am prepared to negotiate with the representatives bodies on all aspects of the scope and content of the proposed contract. While the ultimate setting of fees must remain a matter for the Minister for Health, there will be a real opportunity for GP input on this aspect and the fee structure which it is proposed will be addressed in a separate consultation process.

The extension of free GP care to all children under six years of age is the first phase in the introduction of free GP care to the entire population, as committed to in the programme for Government. A range of options for a universal GP service is under consideration with a view to bringing developed proposals by way of a memorandum to the Government within a short period.

The House will be aware that the Government has embarked on a major reform programme for the health system, the aim of which is to deliver a single tier health service supported by UHI where there is fair access to services based on need rather than ability to pay. This is a hugely important area of public policy in which all Members should involve themselves. I would like to see us agitating as much for improvements in primary care as some of us did in regard to hospitals or particular facilities in the past. Hospitals are important, whether in the community or at national level, but most important of all is primary care. To the extent that the politics of health care have just been about saving hospitals, I urge colleagues - I am not seeking to engage in an argument with any Member or on any issue in various parts of the country - to turn their faces towards genuine reform of the health service. This has a lot to do with enhancing and resourcing primary care services. We must fight for these resources. That is the objective of the Government; certainly it is my objective and preoccupation at this time. I look forward to engaging with the House again on the issue.

The country is a very different place today compared to three years ago when the Government took office. We are no longer beholden to the troika and have successfully exited the bailout. We are back borrowing on the markets again and the economy has been returned to growth. However, there is no doubt that we still face a huge challenge, but substantial progress has been made.

One of the biggest achievements has been the work done to fix the finances and restore our international reputation. The naming of Ireland as the best country in the world in which to do business by the US financial magazine, Forbes, is a ringing endorsement of the economic policies pursued by the Government. As a small island nation with a limited domestic market, openness to trade and investment is central to Ireland's economic strategy.

The programme for Government placed the focus very much on trade promotion in assigning the portfolio to the Department of Foreign Affairs but also in the leadership and commitment of the Taoiseach and various Ministers to the programme of trade missions. Linking with the global Irish network and taking a more focused approach to the activities which take place on St. Patrick's Day have allowed us to promote our message about Ireland and our interests abroad. Since coming into office, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have been at pains to point to the meaningful contribution of the Diaspora to our economic recovery. It was very important for Ireland at one of the most challenging times ever faced that we had a network which would provide an effective mechanism to engage with Irish people abroad. Establishing the global Irish network was critical in getting the message out about the work we were doing to transform the economy. It was important in defending our 12.5% corporation tax rate and ensuring our position was understood internationally. It was also important in encouraging foreign direct investment and promoting The Gathering, one of the country's greatest tourism initiatives which delivered 250,000 people to the country last year.

Our network of embassies abroad has been critical in maximising our overseas trade potential. This is an issue I have pursued through the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade and I am pleased that the Government has responded by reopening the Vatican embassy and opening embassies and consulates in the emerging economies, including China, Hong Kong, Jakarta and Thailand, as well as expanding our network in South America and the United States, including Austin. The expansion of the embassy network will help the Government to continue to attract foreign direct investment and drive export-led economic recovery. I would like to see the Government continue to prioritise trade missions this year, as they are achieving significant returns. Irish food and drinks industry exports were valued at €10 billion last year and the value of our beef exports continues to grow. Agricultural exports are playing a huge role in our economic recovery due, in no small measure, to the reopening of markets, in particular Japan and Lebanon. Irish exporters are hopeful the US and Chinese markets will be opened in the near future.

While Ireland's economic outlook is a lot brighter than it was three years ago, we all know the impact of the recession is still being felt by many families and businesses as they continue to struggle. The main challenge is to ease the burden on these families and businesses and create jobs. When we took office, 7,000 private sector jobs a month were being lost, but we are now creating 5,000 jobs a month.

While our unemployment rate has stabilised, the long-term unemployed are finding it very difficult to get work. Quite a number of new jobs are being advertised but most are located in the main urban centres such as Dublin and Cork. The fact that our economy was so reliant on the property bubble has resulted in the number of persons employed in the construction sector falling from a peak of 380,000 during the boom to 150,000 today. Significant numbers of construction workers have emigrated and there is very little construction activity going on. In that context, I am pleased that the Taoiseach said recently that the Government would bring forward specific measures this year to support job creation in the construction industry. However, we must never go back to the level of reliance on the construction industry that we saw in the past. We must look at new ways of supporting job creation in this country.

I would like to see a renewed focus on delivering FDI projects for the mid-west region, which has a very positive business environment, given the presence of more than 100 overseas companies there. We have a well-educated workforce and top-class infrastructure, and this renewed focus would be important for job creation and providing people with the opportunity to live and work in the region. As I mentioned earlier, the success of our international promotion of The Gathering, the retention of the 9% VAT rate for the hospitality sector and the abolition of the air travel tax have all made a contribution to a revival of our tourism industry. Building on this, we have the Wild Atlantic Way, which has the potential to bring many more people to this country, and I commend the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, and the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, on this initiative.

Small and medium-sized enterprises are the lifeblood of local communities as they have the capacity to create one, two or three jobs in local areas, which is very important. In many rural areas, particularly in my own county of Clare, small businesses are very reliant on tourism. However, the growth of such small businesses is hampered by the fact that many cannot get access to credit. This morning, three businesses in my own town of Ennis closed, including a long-established shoe shop and a very high-profile pub. I would like to see legislation fast-tracked to deal with below-cost selling, which would help to level the playing field for publicans. Significant progress has been made to date in supporting SMEs in the context of lending, including the seed and venture capital schemes and the credit guarantee scheme. I propose that the Government focuses on identifying more supports that could be put into place for small businesses.

Shannon Airport has played a very important role in the revival of the mid-west region. The turnaround at the airport has been dramatic. Last year was a very positive year for the airport, when it broke even for the first time in five years and its passenger figures grew. The fact that the airport is now standing on its own and is allowed to manage its own affairs is clearly paying off. There are expansion plans for the airport as we move forward. I recently launched the Aer Lingus daily service to Boston, and a daily service to New York is due to commence shortly. These services are extremely important for the region, particularly in the context of industrial development. The airlines have responded positively to the abolition of the travel tax, with Aer Lingus, Ryanair and United Airlines all expanding their services here. The Minister's decision to introduce an accelerated capital allowance for the construction of hangars at the airport is very welcome. Plans are under way to build a new hangar, and I suspect that this is just the beginning of the resurgence of aviation-related industry in the region, which is extremely important. I understand that the State airports Bill is due to come before the House shortly. That legislation is very important in the context of copperfastening what is happening at Shannon Airport, and I look forward to contributing to the debate on it.

The last three years have been important for the future development of our economy. Our unemployment rate has fallen from a high of 15.1% to just under 12% today. If that continues, we will be in a prime position by 2020 to have full employment, or 4% unemployment. There is no doubt that the last three years have been very difficult for people, but we have gone a long way towards restoring our finances. This year the focus is very much on job creation. We must work relentlessly to ensure we create more jobs in the SME sector. I urge the Opposition to contribute to this and to bring constructive proposals to the Government.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today and I do so with considerable happiness, given the way we are performing. Since taking office in 2011, we have restored Ireland's international reputation and successfully exited the bailout, and our economy is experiencing growth for the third consecutive year. Approximately 61,000 new jobs were created in the last year, at a rate of approximately 1,200 per week, and the number of people on the live register has dropped for the twentieth consecutive month and now stands at 11.9% - a little below the European average - having reached a high of 15.1%. I am also very pleased to say that in Cavan, the numbers on the live register have dropped by 5% in the last 12 months. Our public finances are on course to reach a 3% debt-to-GDP ratio by 2015. While there were many doubting Thomases at the time, we also secured the almost-forgotten promissory note deal, which effectively meant a €3.1 billion per annum saving to the economy.

This year we will focus specifically on growth and jobs in the domestic economy, which is how it should be. The Government is mindful of the fact that many sacrifices were made by many people. It is important to acknowledge the awful sacrifices made by people but even more important to make sure those sacrifices were not made in vain. We must honour those sacrifices by getting results. The Taoiseach made reference to the fact that there is the potential to create 25,000 new jobs in the agrifood sector in the next seven years and I believe that is very achievable. The agrifood sector is very strong nationally and particularly so in Cavan, where twenty large food and drink employers in the county provide 1,860 people with jobs. We have 5,279 farms in Cavan with approximately 15,000 people employed directly from them, giving us an income from farming of €74 million a year. This is something that we should be very proud of and do everything we can to support, protect and encourage.

Several schemes under Pillar 2 of the CAP will provide a major new injection of funding into the rural economy and the small towns of rural Ireland. Young farmers will receive top-up payments of up to 25%, which equates to €3,000 per annum over five years. A new agri-environment scheme, GLAS, will give farmers a minimum payment of €5,000, with a potential for a further €2,500 in some instances for additional works. A new €52 million beef data and genomics programme will translate into approximately €80 per calf and the dairy sector will enjoy a number of targeted measures. All of that will result in additional money in the local economies of those parts of rural Ireland that do not readily attract inward investment. The measures outlined in the rural development programme are all designed to help our agricultural sector to grow in a sustainable and environmentally conscious way while at the same time meeting our Food Harvest 2020 objectives of smart, green growth, innovation and competitiveness.

I am happy to see that there is continued support for the vulnerable sectors of our farming community and further protection for the incomes of family farms. Late last year the EU Parliament approved proposals for a new round of structural funds which will see Ireland's share increase to just over €1 billion. These funds will be used to support a range of projects to promote jobs and growth. I was particularly pleased to hear the announcement by the Minister of State, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, that during our Presidency of the Council of the European Union, the Council decided to include a special allocation of €150 million for a new PEACE programme, which has huge implications for Cavan and Monaghan.

I was particularly happy to learn that there will be a special allocation of €100 million for the border, midland and western, BMW, region. The importance of adequate funding for this region, of which my constituency is part, cannot be overestimated. So far, more than €340 million was spent on cross-Border PEACE and INTERREG projects and we have seen the development of several valuable cross-community projects as a result. The Castle Saunderson international scouting centre is one of many projects of which I am proud. For every job that is created resulting in someone leaving the live register, the Exchequer saves €20,000.

Investors are free to go where they want but inland areas do not have the same pull for job creation as the densely populated east coast centres do. I regularly discuss this at meetings with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, to ensure Cavan and Monaghan are included on IDA Ireland itineraries. Cavan, Monaghan and the wider BMW region has the excellent College of Further Studies in Cavan, the M3 motorway to Dublin and the new education campus in Monaghan, as well as good industrial relations.

We transitioned from the old, failed economy based solely on property, banking and debt to a new, sustainable economy based on enterprise, exports and tourism. The Government can be trusted to do what is right, not what is popular. We have a moral duty to do that. While we can never return to the reliance on construction, I note the Government has a strategy to create between 40,000 and 60,000 jobs in the sector with many in it who want to get back to work, as well as a housing shortage in Dublin.

We are undaunted by this task and will continue to work to create 100,000 new jobs by 2016. We are stemming the tide of unemployment while we are all working hard to get the country and our constituencies back to work. All the strategies are designed to arrive at one outcome, that people can work in Ireland and that if someone emigrates, it is by choice only. We are en route to have full employment by 2020 if we maintain our strategies and keep our focus. I am proud that this year’s priorities of the Government are so designed.

I thank Deputies Pat Breen and Joe O’Reilly for sharing time with me.

Without a shadow of a doubt, job creation and retention is at the heart of the priorities of this Government each and every day of its term of office. However, as I speak 700 jobs, 180 in County Mayo, are at risk owing to the sale of Elverys Sports by NAMA, the National Asset Management Agency. Unfortunately, by all accounts the way the matter is being handled by NAMA is putting these jobs in further jeopardy while leaving many questions to be answered. I have had numerous Elverys Sports employees in contact with my office who are very fearful for their jobs.

Will the Minister for Finance explain why the management buy-out of Elverys Sports from NAMA did not proceed? This would have been an acceptable solution. Why has NAMA not honoured a notice of decision it signed up to and issued to management confirming the buy-out was acceptable? Since NAMA did not go ahead, it has placed the staff in a precarious position and, arguably, plunged the company into free fall, putting its future as well as its ability to trade at further risk.

I am led to believe that at the last minute an outside bidder offering 25% more than the highest bidder came on the scene, scuppering the management buy-out. What sort of bid is that? Surely this is no way to bid. Why was Elverys Sports put into examinership? What is going on? Will the taxpayer end up having to carry the can paying redundancies? Are shops going to close? Are creditors going to be paid? Will there be 25% more staff, by some chance?

NAMA was set up to take bad loans out of banks and a crucial part of its remit is to protect jobs. What has been done here to protect jobs? If jobs are a priority then why has the management buy-out not been allowed to proceed? This is a home-grown company with an online business that is growing every day which can rival any international sports retail company. The management and staff have built up the business. With its Mayo roots and it being the main sponsor of the Mayo senior football team, we are particularly proud of Elverys. We cannot give way to a situation where the company would be sold off to vultures who will asset-strip it and not give a damn about employees. Today, I am requesting action from the Government to protect these 700 jobs. It is crucial and NAMA has to be questioned on how it has handled it before it is too late.

One hundred and sixty six elected representatives have spent a week on the so-called review of the programme for Government. To my mind, it is a waste of time and a pre-election stunt by the Government to put its wares out in the run-up to local and European elections on 23 May. It reminds me of a pantomime with one side shouting, “Oh yes we did” while the other shouts, “Oh no you did not.” Meanwhile in the real world, people up and down the country are struggling with the effects of the crisis and have switched off this debate. If this week had been put aside to introduce legislation for the 13,266 IBRC mortgage holders, then people would be listening. If this week had been put aside to discuss the important issue of the housing crisis and 90,000 families - that is 170,000 individuals - on local authority housing lists, then people would listening. If we were discussing introducing protection against job losses at Elverys, the people would be listening. They have switched off, along with every Member on this side of the House, however.

The Government’s record is either a resounding success or a disaster depending on one’s position in society. If one is a member of the wealthy elite, or part of the establishment like Wilbur Ross, the Government is a tremendous success which has stood over a massive transfer of wealth to the already wealthy while putting the burden of paying for the economic crisis on those who can least afford to take it. It has ensured the financial system is intact with business as usual with nothing changing for the wealthy elite. The tragedy is that nothing will change.

The responsibility of that rests with the Labour Party. It entered government pledging to protect working people and the poor. It was a worthless pledge as the poorest and most vulnerable in society have been deliberately targeted with Labour Ministers at the forefront of such attacks. The real betrayal by Labour is that once again for the establishment it has failed to provide an alternative. This is, unfortunately, within the tradition of the Labour Party. It stood aside in 1918 and has done so ever since. What sort of society goes from a property bubble where ten years ago more residential units were being built than in the whole of the UK to a few years later where it has the biggest housing crisis in its history? This is an even bigger scandal than the banks’ bailout with the real danger that nothing will change. It is all down to the complete failure of Labour, supposed to protect the working people and the poor, to put forward an alternative vision of how society could be organised differently. Without a vision of an alternative society, what is the point of the Labour Party?

Who needs a political party whose sole function is to alternate between supporting Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil in government and providing ministerial positions and pensions for its leading members? Working people and the poor need an alternative and it is clear that will not be provided by the Labour Party. It could and should have remained out of government in 2011 and committed itself to creating the basis for a left wing government in the future. This task has fallen to others and any political movement or party committed to change must begin with a basic commitment never to support Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil in government. On the contrary, its policy should be to destroy both these parties as a dominant force in politics, otherwise we will be condemned to this endless, farcical pantomime of Tweedledum and Tweedledee politics.

The thousands of people who face losing the roof over their heads is the important issue that needs to be discussed now. This situation will worsen. As Focus Ireland has pointed out, the number of families on the streets has increased from eight to 16 per month while five children a week are going homeless. The Government has allowed this to happen over the past three years. Five years ago I tabled a motion before Dublin City Council calling for NAMA properties to be taken over by local authorities. We knew the crisis was beginning at the time and now we are witnessing the naked face of homelessness.

We will be condemned to Tweedledum and Tweedledee politics if there is no change and if people do not organise themselves to organise that change and get rid of the shenanigans we have seen in the House this week.

I wish to share time with Deputies Maloney and Nolan.

I am proud to be a member of the Labour Party and of the sacrifices the party has been made in the history of the State by facilitating democracy and the birth of the nation. In 1918, the party stepped aside to allow a new nation to be born in Europe. I am about change and I do not put protest before people. I am very much about putting people first and not constantly moving from one protest to another and achieving little.

When this Government came to power, many people said what we set out to do could not be done. People openly spoke of how we would need a second bailout and laughed at the notion of 100,000 jobs being created. It has been a tough three years but major achievements have been secured: we have left the bailout, the troika has gone home, 60,000 jobs have been created over the past 18 months, and the live register has dropped below 400,000 but we need to do more. The action plan on jobs - often mocked - has worked each year, delivering slow and steady progress on a range of targets. This is paying dividends as the employment figures show but there is no big bang solution to unemployment. It is a step by step process as we claw back jobs into Ireland. We have stabilised the national debt and from next year it will begin to decrease as a percentage of GDP. The interest rate on our debt has fallen and the promissory notes are gone. We sorted out the Banks and are now in a position to make a profit on Bank of Ireland. The Government wound up Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide Building Society, which has cost our citizens dearly but we inherited a dysfunctional economy.

It is important that we mark three years in government because when the parties came to power, Ireland was face down in the ditch. Now we are back on our knees and in the next two years we will be back on our feet. I am dissatisfied with the structure of this debate, which has taken place over three days this week and which will continue next week. While it should have been opened by the Taoiseach, it should have been focused on Departments with Ministers and Ministers of State outlining what has happened in their Departments and what will happen, with responses from Opposition spokespeople and interested backbenchers. We should have had an opportunity to debate new ideas and policies rather than engage in navel gazing and sniping.

My priorities over the next two years are twofold: the creation of jobs and tackling the housing crisis in the same manner as we have stabilised the economy. These have to be our two priorities. Deputy Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil left many problems behind for us. One of the worst relates to housing. The housing crisis was caused by that party, which failed to invest in social housing during the boom and permitted developers do as they pleased. The only criterion was that they had to show up in the tent. The speculative building boom, financed by reckless lending led to the wholesale collapse our economy while little or no activity in construction over the past six years has led to the current housing crisis. We need a sustainable construction industry. We need to examine new models to deliver private housing and social housing by working with builders and voluntary housing bodies. New investment in social housing was announced in the budget but an allocation of €100 million, while welcome, is but a drop in the ocean in the context of the crisis. The strategic investment fund and NAMA have a critical role to play in providing the finance needed to get building started. We need a fresh start for social housing and Part V has an important role to play in developing mixed communities.

I would not like a reduction in the use of Part V for social housing because it is important to have a mix of housing in our communities and to learn the lessons of the past. Fianna Fáil-led Governments built vast social housing estates in the suburbs or large flat complexes and we are dealing with the fallout now as social deprivation takes holds because there was little investment. I recently surveyed a flats complex in my constituency and the unemployment rate is 80%. Eight householders out of every ten is unemployed. They did not share in the boom because even during that period, the unemployment rate was 54%. As we get back on our feet, we must target how we spend scarce resources to make sure we build an inclusive society in order that when jobs are created and houses are provided, we can build sustainable communities. That did not happen in the past. People were pushed out of Dublin city to Clondalkin where there were no bus services, schools or community centres. It was as big a disaster as the financial crisis. In the 1980s I lived in Clondalkin. We celebrated when a new pub opened because there were no schools, churches or community centres. People were pushed out there first, mainly young families with young children, and they had to travel large distances to schools.

We have to concentrate on job creation over the next few months but we must also develop a mechanism to build much needed housing throughout the country. There is pent up demand in the Dublin region, according to the ESRI, of 80,000 units. If we began to build those units tomorrow, they would not be ready for two years following planning, building and delivery. We need to get a move on. We have come a long way in the context of the economy and job creation but we are still far behind in respect of social housing.