Ar dtús báire, gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach agus leis na Seanadóirí as an gcuireadh labhairt leo tráthnóna inniu. Is mór an t-áthas orm agus an phribhléid dom a bheith sa Seanad chun labhairt leo. Ar ndóigh is ócáid thráthúil í mar go bhfuil muintir na hÉireann faoi láthair ag dul trí ré dhúshlánach chasta nach bhfacamar riamh i saol an lae inniu. Is ar an ábhar sin ba mhaith liom labhairt faoi ghnéithe éagsúla dár bpríomh pholasaíth atá lárnach d’Éirinn anois agus san am atá amach romhainn.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the Seanad for the first time as Taoiseach. The Seanad plays a critical role in our nation’s politics, scrutinising legislation and enhancing debate on the issues we face. I was proud to argue for the retention and reform of this House in 2013, and was very pleased that the Irish people shared our view of the importance of a second Chamber in our democracy. I am, above all else, a passionate believer in parliamentary democracy and the rich heritage we have inherited down through the decades and centuries in terms of the concept of parliamentary democracy. Indeed, as a Minister in previous Governments, I always found the non-adversarial tone and tenor of this House more conducive to the acceptance of amendments and ideas in respect of legislation and often allowed for a better type of debate than is held in the Lower House, which tends to be more partisan in the exchanges, for obvious reasons to some extent. There was a different atmosphere in this House, which facilitated reflection on legislation and the taking on of ideas. That has been my experience and it is one of the reasons I supported the retention of the House.
The other was, as the Cathaoirleach outlined, the rich heritage of this House, in particular as a forum for independent opinion and voices to come to the fore in the national debate. That has been the case since the inception of the House. It is an aspect of the Seanad that we must cultivate and nurture into the future. I do not have too much difficulty these days in the ranks of my party in terms of independent thought and so forth, as it comes forward fairly readily. Then again, I bring it on. It is very important in the context of our national debate to get different perspectives.
The importance of Seanad reform was a key part of the message in that campaign. Senator McDowell, in particular, was a leading advocate for that reforming agenda after the referendum. I know and welcome the detailed work the Seanad has put into an active role in the examination of European legislation. We met this morning. As a country, we are required under the treaties to examine EU legislation and directives. We have received the Seanad's proposals and we have engaged with the Attorney General, the team and with the Department of Foreign Affairs. I will give this my personal oversight, give the proposals serious detailed consideration and refer back to the House with regard to how we can bring forward that idea of scrutiny of EU legislation and do it more effectively. On the seventh amendment of the Constitution and its implementation, I realise that Senator Malcolm Byrne and other Members have brought forward proposals in that regard. Again, I am anxious to work with Senators to see if we can bring that forward because it has been there for a long time without resolution. It is about expanding the electorate and there are many obvious anomalies in that regard.
Today’s exchange is timely, living as we are through an era of unprecedented challenge, complexity and uncertainty. Two years ago, nobody could have foreseen the immense global disruption and huge loss of life caused by the coronavirus. Many difficult decisions have been made over the last 20 months, with unprecedented restrictions introduced to our daily lives and unprecedented financial intervention by the Government in the economy. However, a great national effort and the roll-out of a world leading vaccination programme have brought us to the point where virtually all our society and economy have reopened. Nevertheless, the current incidence rate of Covid-19 in Ireland and across Europe is very high. The Government has moved quickly to try to stabilise the situation, with the requirement to work from home if one is able to, the extension of the Covid passport requirement, a new closing time for the on-licence trade and greater use of antigen testing.
Of course, the vaccination and booster programmes remain at the core of our response to the disease. Building on the success of the national vaccination programme, we are now driving forward our booster programme. Booster shots are currently being administered to those aged over 60 years in the community, residents in long-term care facilities, the immunocompromised and healthcare workers. On the advice of the national immunisation advisory committee, NIAC, we are now making arrangements for the booster’s roll-out to everyone in the country with an underlying condition and to everyone else over the age of 50 years. However, even as we roll out boosters, it is clear that vaccination alone will not prevent transmission. As Members will have heard me say on Tuesday evening, everyone must get vaccinated. I make that appeal again - everybody should and must get vaccinated, and then take the booster when it is offered. The timely take-up of the booster is very important. It restores immunity and enhances it over and above the first two doses. Everyone who can work from home must do so and we all need to wear our masks, keep our distance and be aware of our environment. If we all contribute to this collective effort, we will keep our society and economy open, we will sustain and maintain our progress and we will keep healthy and safe.
The coming winter is anticipated to be particularly challenging for our emergency departments due to the growing prevalence of Covid and the expected return of flu, respiratory syncytial virus, RSV, and other transmissible diseases which were not an issue last winter. The need for a robust winter plan and action to limit virus spread is clear. Implementation of the winter plan has already commenced and the system is availing of hospital avoidance measures, increased diagnostic capacity and increased use of private hospital beds. We allocated an additional €1.2 billion, including winter funding, to support health services in the acute, community care and primary care sectors in 2021, and this is being maintained in 2022. It is going to be a challenging period, but every resource available is being deployed to meet the challenge.
The economic recovery plan was published in June. Through labour market activation, investment in education and skills and enterprise supports, it is helping to drive a jobs-rich recovery and to support our transition to a decarbonised and digital economy. The overarching strategy is ambitious, but achievable. We aim to have 2.5 million people in work by 2024.
Key progress since June includes the publication of the Government’s Pathways to Work, the overall framework for activation and employment support policy; the revised national development plan, a vital enabling mechanism for social and economic progress, and for housing and broader infrastructure ambitions; our Housing for All strategy; and the 2021 climate action plan, with rigorous implementation structures within each one of them. We have published a new well-being framework for Ireland and work is also progressing at pace on a new national strategy for research and innovation and a new national digital strategy.
Passion for education has been a constant throughout my political life. I believe it is the great enabler in life and is unquestionably the foundation stone for all the major progress we have made as a nation. Nothing about our national progress or our continued success was, or is, inevitable. We are the European home of many of the world’s great corporations. Some of the most cutting-edge technological processes and research anywhere is taking place today in our country. We got to this point because we were innovative as a country and because, as a people, we placed a very high premium on the importance of education. The substantial investment that we are making in education, the massive increase in the number of apprenticeship places and the establishment of the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, which is a key element of our programme for Government, are all about making sure that this commitment and the primacy of learning continues into the future. It is about making sure that just as we were ready and seized the potential of life sciences, IT and social media, we are ready and have the skills to seize the potential of all the new technological developments that are coming.
Right now, there is no more urgent or higher social priority than the housing crisis. In response to that crisis, we have published and provided huge resources to deliver the Housing for All strategy. It is an ambitious and far-reaching plan, opening up access to affordable, high-standard housing to purchase or rent. The State’s investment represents the largest multi-annual funding programme in the history of Irish housing, with in excess of €20 billion being made available through to 2026. A large-scale approach, bringing many strands of Government together to tackle issues across multiple areas, including homelessness, affordability, rent reform, planning, financing and the legal system is under way. Progress has already been made on a number of actions in the plan, including the progression of necessary legislation and I thank Senators for their role in that progress. In the spirit of what gets measured gets done, a focus on delivery and accountability across Government is stitched into every part of the plan. Increasing overall supply is central to addressing the housing crisis and while the pandemic had an obvious and unavoidable impact on construction over the past year and half, I am very encouraged by recent reports that point to a robust rebound in the volume of housing currently under construction.
Over the past 20 months, the Covid-19 pandemic has confronted the EU’s institutions with a crisis and challenge of immense scale. The EU, however, has played a pivotal role in our collective response to the pandemic, not least in vaccine development and procurement. It is a remarkable achievement that is perhaps too easily overlooked. The historic €2 trillion EU budgetary package agreed by the European Council last July also represents a new and important milestone in EU solidarity. Importantly, the recovery package sent a message that in the most telling of times, even when there are differing views as to the right approach and the best way forward, EU leaders can work together and find a compromise that delivers for our citizens.
As we look ahead, the Conference on the Future of Europe is enabling people from every corner of the Continent to share their ideas on shaping Europe's future. I welcome the conference as a practical way of boosting citizen engagement with the European Union and look forward to continued constructive and considered engagement by the Oireachtas with this important initiative.
In the meantime, since assuming our seat on 1 January, Ireland has also played an active role on the United Nations Security Council. During our presidency of the Security Council, I chaired an open debate on climate and security, calling for the effects of climate change to be taken into account in the Security Council’s analysis and response to situations of conflict and peace building. In September, I delivered Ireland’s national statement to the General Assembly urging it to heed the alarms sounding for conflict, Covid and climate. I called for commitments to immediate action and I confirmed Ireland’s contribution to global vaccine sharing. It is my clear conviction that engaging robustly and constructively with international multilateral organisations gives us the best chance to meet the big challenges of this age.
Closer to home, through the shared island initiative, the Government is working for the future of the entire island in a positive, practical and ambitious way, engaging with all communities and traditions. Through the shared island fund, we are bringing fresh impetus to all-island investment projects. With this resourcing, we are now finally moving ahead with the Ulster Canal and Narrow Water bridge projects, with sustainable tourism and active travel benefits for the central and east Border regions. We have commenced a major new North-South research programme, bringing institutions and researchers together across the island to conduct world-leading research. In October, as part of the revised national development plan, the Government committed to extending the shared island fund out to 2030, doubling the resource commitment to at least €1 billion. In total, there is now cross-Border funding for the decade ahead of more than €3.5 billion.
Through the revised national development plan, the Government set out new all-island investment priorities across virtually all sectors. We will work through all-island partnerships to create a more connected, sustainable and prosperous island for all. To support our agenda for deeper co-operation and connection on the island of Ireland, the shared island unit in my Department has commissioned a comprehensive programme of research. The Government has undertaken the shared island dialogue series this year, engaging with more than 1,000 groups and individuals from civil society, across all regions, communities and sectors to hear their views on how we can all do better on working for a shared future on the island. We will continue and develop our approach to all-island civic engagement, as part of the shared island initiative next year. This Government is ambitious, committed and working today with all communities and traditions on the island for a shared, reconciled future for all, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
We recognise the genuine concerns of some in Northern Ireland on the operation of aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol. Our consistent position has been to get the protocol working as smoothly as possible for people and businesses on the ground in Northern Ireland. It is also important to recognise the significant trade, business and employment opportunities the protocol offers for Northern Ireland, with access to the EU’s Single Market.
The ongoing talks between the EU and UK should be given every chance to succeed. The Commission has engaged deeply with the issues affecting people and businesses in Northern Ireland. The Commission package reflects that engagement and is a serious response to the challenges and concerns that have arisen. Progressing this work in a spirit of partnership and working at EU-UK level for agreed solutions is the optimal way forward. Any potential triggering of Article 16 is a matter of deep concern and the Government has conveyed this clearly to the British Government, given the risks this poses for political stability and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
Climate change is a threat to all of us and our way of life. Having recently attended COP26 in Glasgow, it is clear to me that the need to urgently take action is recognised around the world. Climate change requires a fundamental examination of how we live and work to reverse the environmental damage that has been done, restore biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Climate action is a central tenet of the programme for Government which commits to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 51% by 2030 and our new national climate objective requires the State to pursue and achieve, by no later than the end of 2050, the transition to a climate resilient, biodiversity rich, environmentally sustainable and climate neutral economy.
These commitments have now been enshrined in law by the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021. The Government recently published the new climate action plan 2021, which is the latest in a suite of measures introduced to fundamentally alter Ireland’s approach to climate change. Our new climate legislation, carbon budget and annual climate action plans provide for clear targets, actions and accountability. The plan sets out indicative ranges of emissions reductions for all sectors of the economy by 2030 and the actions needed to deliver on our climate targets. We are determined to deliver the change that is needed and to ensure that we not only produce plans but deliver and implement them.
We have an ambitious and profoundly important programme of work ahead as a country, and the constructive support of this House will be welcome and essential in making the changes that need to be made. Senators have shown that constructive support throughout the challenging circumstances of the pandemic, and I look forward to continuing to work together in that spirit as we get to grips with making our country a safer, healthier, more sustainable home for all our citizens.
Senators have shown that constructive support throughout the challenging circumstances of the pandemic, and I look forward to continuing to work together in that spirit as we get to grips with making our country a safer, healthier and more sustainable home for all of our citizens. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir as an deis labhairt libh tráthnóna.