That Dáil Éireann reaffirms its confidence in the Government.
I welcome the opportunity to move the motion that Dáil Éireann has confidence in the Government and I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Government’s record and our plans for the rest of our mandate.
This is a good time to take stock of the past two years. More importantly, it is also a good time to start having an honest debate between two very different views about how we can serve the people and address their concerns. Fundamentally, this is a debate between those who believe in tackling problems and those who believe in exploiting them. It is between those who have an honest and ambitious programme based on what can be achieved and those who have taken cynical and populist politics to a new level in our country. It is a debate between those who understand and respect diversity in politics and those who have introduced legal threats and online abuse as weapons to silence other Members of the Oireachtas and the media.
Today we are being told the Government has supposedly failed because it has not implemented its full programme in just two years. In contrast, last week Deputy McDonald insisted that Sinn Féin should only be judged after ten years and two full terms of office. As always, double standards are the watchword of this cynical Opposition. Ireland is a modern, diverse and dynamic country. It has problems and challenges to overcome of course, but those who deny its successes are simply showing they have no interest in honest debate. They are proving that the progress of our country and the future of our people is not actually their core concern. Shouting "Not enough", "More" and "What about" represents an approach to politics that is, at its heart, deeply dishonest.
In my first speech after being nominated by this House for appointment as Taoiseach, I explained both how I intended to approach the task of holding this office and the priorities of the then new Government. The two most urgent crises we faced were an historic pandemic and the fastest moving recession ever recorded. It was a time of deep uncertainty and much fear. I promised then that I, as Taoiseach, and we, as a Government, would do everything possible to mitigate the terrible toll of the pandemic and to work to achieve as fast a recovery as possible.
By any fair judgement of our performance on these measures this Government has served the people well on these critical challenges. The truth is Ireland has been assessed as one of the top three in the world for the resilience of its Covid response. We have the second highest vaccination rate in Europe. Most importantly, the fact is this Government’s actions in responding to the greatest public health crisis of our times protected public health and saved lives. Of course, we did not get everything right, but we got more right than the great majority of governments. If Ireland had performed simply at the average level of the European Union, there would have been over 4,500 more deaths. If we had performed at the same level as the United Kingdom, there would have been 5,500 more deaths. How often did we have to read and listen to attacks on our vaccine roll-out as being supposedly a shambles? It was the largest public health mobilisation in Irish history and, frankly, the glitches it had were minor.
In attacking the Government, the Opposition likes to ignore or dismiss actions that dramatically reduced the impact of Covid here versus other countries, reinforcing the equally strong fact of its cynicism. So too, it will ignore the fact that sustained Government action has helped our country emerge from recession faster and more successfully than most countries. Within weeks of taking office, we published new policies to limit job losses, help companies and help families. Initiatives were designed, agreed and implemented at a record speed and with very clear success.
The hard yards of working to ensure high levels of employment and a strong economy is something which appears to bore the Opposition. These issues have basically disappeared from its daily agenda, and every time a journalist has the temerity to report good news, they get accused of being a hack. However, Ireland today has the lowest youth unemployment in Europe. The economy is strong and it is not just supporting employment; it is providing the resources to deliver essential social investments.
This Government understands the fact that a strong economy is needed to support social services and investment. We are proud of the fact that we have led Ireland so quickly out of recession and that this enables us to help people when world affairs are having such a direct impact. That gives us capacity. The economic recovery enables us to be in a position to help people going through the cost-of-living situation arising from the war in Ukraine.
Two years ago, I told the Dáil that the three parties that had agreed to form a Government understood that we had to work constructively together. The members of Fianna Fáil participated in the largest party vote ever recorded in Ireland and expressed clearly their desire to take on a daunting agenda. As a Government, we have disagreements but we work hard to overcome them and to honour the ambitious and achievable programme. We each have our priorities and remain separate parties. This is how successful coalition governments across Europe work. I thank members of each of the parties for their work and their constructive approach. While the Opposition acts as if the pandemic had no impact on the Government, it was in fact profound in placing great pressure on individuals.
Due to the limited time available, I cannot cover all of the areas of the Government's work but I want to address broadly what we have been working to achieve in the past two years and what we aim to achieve in the next two. I have been determined that we address the great unmet challenge of the Good Friday Agreement to build stronger links and understanding on this island. I immediately launched the first sustained effort to develop these links through the shared island initiative. This is supporting a wide agenda of investments, dialogues and essential studies. For the first time, we are preparing vital, rigorous and independent work on key services and policies on both sides of the Border. I thank the National Economic and Social Council and the Economic and Social Research Institute for the extensive systematic research they have undertaken in terms of the services economy on the island, education outcomes on the island and the climate opportunities on the island. That is very important work in underpinning, in an evidence-based way, our approach to the all-island economy and developing strong linkages, as manifested in the extraordinary research programmes that we have already funded and that are now under way between third level institutions in the Republic and in Northern Ireland. It is a striking fact that the party that is today telling us how our country is a basket case where everything has been wrong for 100 years is, at the same time, claiming that country is so successful that it should be irresistible to the North. As a Government, we continue to work to force all who have responsibility for the agreement to make it work and we have been resolute in demanding that both the text and the spirit of the agreement be honoured, and also that the outcome of the recent elections be fulfilled and realised.
The strength of our relations with other European countries and with the Commission has been a vital support for Ireland in opposing the legal and political vandalism directed against the Northern Ireland protocol and the progress it protects. In contrast to the Opposition's consistent anti-European Union stands, we see the European Union as a forum for enabling countries to prosper, protecting democracy from the extremes and solidarity such as the recovery funding which we negotiated. We took a clear leadership position in terms of advocating for that breakthrough fund to enable European recovery from Covid-19. There is a significant difference in terms of the Government's approach to the European Union and the approach of most of the Opposition to the European Union. I identified Deputy Paul Murphy earlier in this regard but Sinn Féin has a similar attitude of never-ending criticism and anti-European Union positions.
My party went into this Government eager to embrace the hardest challenges. We understood that they were never going to be areas which could be solved quickly but we were determined to deliver sustained action that would show real results over the full course of the mandate of the Dáil and the Government. Part of that, and part of the approach Fianna Fáil brings into Government, is a strong pro-European approach. We led Ireland into the European Union. We are proud of our record of support for democracy, particularly now in the context of the cause of Ukraine, something that we promoted actively with our government colleagues in Europe and at the United Nations Security Council.
The challenge of ensuring housing for a rapidly rising population is one of the most important facing Irish politics. Of all areas, this is one of those that is least open to overnight change. However, it can be done a lot faster than the target of 15 years set out in a proposed housing strategy for Northern Ireland published by Deputy McDonald’s hand-picked housing Minister in Belfast. There is now in place an ambitious, funded and comprehensive plan for expanding housing provision for the benefit of all sectors. Housing for All is still in its early stages but the facts show that planning applications are up, housing construction is up and housing completion is up, and this is in spite of the thousands of homes that one party has sought to block - more interested in talking about a crisis then allowing it to be addressed. Most important, however, this Government has in two years put in place the largest social housing programme in our history.
Home ownership matters as well. The new affordable housing scheme launched last week is an example of a plan directed at those most in need. In its first 24 hours, nearly 400 pre-applications were received and thousands more looked for information. The sustainable way of controlling prices and rents is to increase supply. The latest 12-monthly figures recorded 35,000 commencements, the highest figure since records began. Only the most cynical could claim that is a failure. There is no doubt that when our mandate finishes, we will have delivered a sustained and significant increase in housing of all types, especially social housing.
We will also deliver a sustained improvement in key health services and, in particular, those where the pressures are being felt the most. The pandemic was a dramatic challenge for health services and everyone who works within them. It led to many thousands of treatments being cancelled and lengthened nearly all waiting lists and waiting times. However, in spite of the pandemic and the recession, the past two years have seen vital improvements. Lessons will be learned from our experiences during the pandemic and we will embed some of those lessons in terms of the reform programme in respect of health. I pay tribute to all in our health services for the work they did throughout the pandemic and continue to do. The pandemic has not gone away and the aftershocks are still to be seen in our health service and other sectors of our economy in terms of isolation protocols, waiting times and so forth. That said, there are already an extra 850 permanent new hospital beds. New diagnostic facilities are being put in place. A major increase in staff and investment in the ambulance service is under way. Mental health services are expanding and a range of initiatives are under way to support wider mental health challenges. I pay tribute to the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, on her extraordinarily diligent and dedicated work in that area. New services are being rolled out. A comprehensive women’s health programme led by the Minister for Health and including the first national programmes on endometritis and menopause has been developed and funded and is now under way. Access and fairness are being extended with an extension of medical cards, the abolition of hospital charges for under-16s and other measures. Yes, there are many more issues to tackle. There are many who do not have access to the services they need when they need them, but one helps these people by delivering credible, sustained and secure services, not by the cynical politics of refusing to acknowledge any progress. This year, 469,000 people currently on waiting lists will benefit from this progress and many more will benefit during the rest of our term.
Education has been and remains a core priority for us. A new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is in place. That has been overseen by the Minister, Deputy Harris. That is a significant policy development that is already having an impact in terms of education policy. For our schools, I am proud that in the past two years we have begun an ambitious programme to increase resources, reform provision and develop facilities. As a result of this Government, Irish children are benefitting from smaller class sizes, with disadvantaged schools benefiting the most. Guidance provision is available in every school. There are 300 new school building projects on site and many more being advanced. The most significant reform of the senior cycle in 50 years has begun.
Having been the Minister who gave the first recognition to special needs as a national concern, supporting students with special needs has always been a deep priority for me and it is a priority for this Government. The number of special needs teachers and assistants is up 10% in only two years and action is being taken on a range of support issues. When we have finished our mandate, we will deliver a significant and sustained improvement in special needs education, and this will take a lot less time than the ten years Deputy McDonald has promised. We will do more in respect of disability in the coming period, particularly in the context of therapies and supports for special schools.
We have also ensured with our colleagues in government that the budgets we have implemented support an expansion of public services, have helped our country through a recession, underpin a new national development programme and have given the most help to those most in need. Every single analysis has confirmed that our budgets have been progressive and have given the greatest benefit to those on lowest and fixed incomes such as pensioners and families facing back to school costs. Over the past year we have faced a new international challenge, dramatic pressures on prices, and the impact of these pressures on people. It is fair to say that the Irish people have led in regard to our response to Ukraine and the Government has led in terms of the first major war on our Continent since the Second World War and the worst humanitarian crisis on the European Continent since 1942. We have led from the front on the humanitarian side of that but it has had an impact on the cost of living and on inflation.
We cannot start chasing our tails on inflation, making things ever worse with massive compensation for everyone. We can and we are prioritising those under the most pressure. We will prepare and implement a budget that does as much as possible to protect the economy, protect public services and above all reduce and relieve the cost-of-living pressures on working families and those on low incomes. We will also continue to focus on the existential challenge of climate change and the loss of our island’s biodiversity. We reject the posturing of those who claim they want to save the planet but oppose everything difficult required to achieve this objective. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, developed, published and has brought into law is both transformative and challenging and it has the support of the entire Government. Let there be no doubt that it will leave a lasting legacy. There is no going back from that legislation. It will govern future Governments as well.