It is said that any fool can complain and most fools do. I have listened to the tone of this debate with a growing sense of wonder. Ireland is a liberal democracy undergoing a major economic boom. We have virtually full employment for the first time in living memory. As a result we are making major inroads into overcoming inequality and social exclusion.
At a political level, a major programme of investigation is fearlessly unmasking the wrong-doing of the past with the result that the standard of integrity in public life has probably never been higher. However, listening to the situation as described by Opposition Deputies, one might imagine we were living under conditions similar to Haiti under the regime of Papa Doc Duvalier.
As it comes to the end of its third year in office, the Government has a record of achievement. Ireland has enjoyed a sustained period of economic growth, the curse of emigration is at an end, the Exchequer is in surplus and we have undertaken a major process of tax reform. To secure our economic future, an unprecedented programme of investment in our infrastructure is under way. In Northern Ireland, after so many false starts and disappointments, there are growing hopes that the peace process will lead to a lasting settlement.
I freely acknowledge that at various stages members of all parties have been instrumental in our national success. However, I do not believe in false modesty. Fianna Fáil has been in Government, either alone or as the senior partner, for most of the period since our national economic recovery began in 1987. Fianna Fáil in Government has a solid record of delivering the results.
We entered Government on the basis of an Action Programme for the Millennium. I am particularly proud of the diligence which the current Government has shown in implementing the agreed programme. No other Government in recent times has been as meticulous or as focused in pursuing policies to deliver what has been promised. The problems we face today are for the most part the problems of success. I do not wish to diminish the importance of developing policy responses to these very real issues. However, given our national economic revival, we have a sound basis on which to look with confidence to the future.
There is a reason I find it necessary to begin by labouring these very obvious points. The success or otherwise of a Government can be measured only by its record in delivering on its agreed programme. On this basis, we are perfectly happy to be judged by the results achieved by this Government. We have delivered over a wide range of issues, and the facts speak for themselves.
Regarding my Department, I am proud that targets have been met and in some instances exceeded. The first ever White Paper on Defence was approved by Government on 29 February 2000. The White Paper sets out a very positive, developmental approach to defence in Ireland for the next ten years. It involves the reshaping of the Defence organisation based on a revised total manpower level of 10,500 for the Permanent Defence Force, with the option of an additional 250 recruits in training to free up the necessary resources for equipment and infrastructure investment. This will result in a £250 million investment programme in addition to existing equipment programmes. There will also be a development of the Reserve Defence Force involving better equipment and training. This plan will include a continuation of the policy of regular recruitment which is now in place in order to achieve an improved age profile in the Permanent Defence Force. A campaign to recruit an additional 750 personnel has begun.
The £250 million investment programme includes about £55 million over three years on the purchase of new aircraft for the Air Corps with procurement of new helicopters being given a special priority; more than £20 million for a second new state of the art offshore patrol vessel for the Naval Service, similar to the LE Róisín which was delivered last year; about £25 million over three years for investment in light infantry tactical vehicles, modern effective anti-armour weapons, night vision equipment, engineer equipment and medical field equipment.
All of that is in addition to almost £40 million for a new fleet of armoured personnel carriers for the Army, the first of which will be produced by the end of the year with deliveries completed by early 2002; more than £20 million for a new state of the art offshore patrol vessel, LE Róisín, which was delivered last year; and more than £10.5 million for new tactical VHF radios; more than £6.5 million this year on specialist transport cargo vehicles deployed to KFOR, and on new troop carrying vehicles.
I am perplexed, therefore, that in recent weeks, the tone of public debate in Ireland would lead one to conclude that we are in the middle of some sort of national crisis. However, I search and search in vain for the evidence that we are in crisis. This Government took office on the basis of an agreed programme. We have successfully implemented that programme and all of the welter of hysterical and defamatory comment should be seen in that context. In factual terms, the Government's record leaves little scope for censure. However, the facts apparently have little influence over the demeanour of the Deputies on the opposite benches. We in Government are going to be lectured and patronised no matter what. Confounded by the facts and prevented by our successes from berating us on our record, we are treated instead to a condescending exposition on the subject of integrity.
There are many different approaches to politics. However, at the end of the day there are only two really distinctive styles of opposition – issue based politics attempting to show that the policies of the Government are flawed, or personality based politics attempting to show that the people in Government are in some way flawed. I regret that some of my parliamentary colleagues on the other side of the House, frustrated at the very limited scope afforded by our successes for criticism of our policies, have chosen instead to mount an assault on the character of the Government.
There is an audacious assumption at the heart of the sermon being preached at us from the other side of the House that the parties opposite have a monopoly of virtue. It is an assumption which evaporates on contact with reality.
A reasonable measure of forbearance surely forms an integral part of any real ethos of integrity in public life. There is a world of difference between maintaining a high standard of integrity and conducting a witch hunt, a difference which, sadly, seems lost on the Opposition. Moreover, in the daily life of the Government, as in daily life everywhere else, mistakes are commonplace. All mature political cultures recognise this. Perfection is an ideal to which we aspire. It is not a standard by which we judge the conduct of others.
However, nothing is impossible for the man who does not have to do it himself. The present leader of Fine Gael is untroubled by the complexities of the real world; he seems genuinely unable to distinguish between real integrity on the one hand and a narrow-minded and vindictive demand for a scapegoat at very turn in the road. In practical terms, if we applied this impossibly high standard of perfection to every action, we could empty the House in six months. However, in this instance, only the Government benches would be emptied. Like true puritans, the rigid and unyielding standard of perfection is employed solely for the purpose of judging others. An entirely different and less demanding set of standards is applied at home.
This approach to politics cannot produce any winners. On the contrary, there is a danger in forever setting out to undermine the integrity of others. Often, the only lasting result achieved is a rise in general cynicism which casts its shadow equally on all of us in public life. Why then engage in a policy of undermining the honesty and integrity of others?
I have been particularly repelled by the feeding frenzy stirred up against the Tánaiste. Every day, politicians from all sides of the House are required to answer questions, to speak in public, to constantly tread a tightrope where a wrong word or a particular turn of phrase taken out of context can have unforeseeable consequences. Like other mortals, Ministers, Deputies, Taoisigh and Tánaistí can sometimes fall short of perfection.
In a perfect world, there would not be any mistakes. The Tánaiste has laboured long and hard to ensure that allegations of wrongdoing are investigated in a comprehensive and impartial manner. Is she now to be sent to the stake because of one chance remark? There is an important distinction to be drawn between integrity and the sort of sanctimonious humbug which demands a scapegoat every time we encounter a reverse. Let nobody labour under the delusion that standards in public life can be raised through the dismissal from office of manifestly honest people.
One could become angry at the hypocrisy of those who fail to live up to the standard of integrity which they demand from the rest of us. However, when one thinks about it, one realises they have no choice. They are compelled to operate a double standard. No ordinary mortal could reach the standards of perfection being demanded of Fianna Fáil by Deputy Bruton, certainly not the members of his own party, based on experiences in the past. To be fair to him, he has been haphazard and inconsistent rather than uniformly hypocritical in the application within his own party of his wondrous standards of virtue. Perhaps the leader of the Opposition really is so unreasonable that he would have dismissed the Tánaiste if he were Taoiseach, and perhaps that is the reason he is leader of the Opposition and not Taoiseach.