Micheál Martin: This is not the time for the Taoiseach’s games

With the country beset by crises in health and housing and by Brexit, it is reckless to question the confidence-and-supply deal and flirt with instability, says Micheál Martin

A lot of people have been shaking their heads about political stories over the last week which seem to be about everything but the major issues confronting our country.

I share the amazement that, with deep crises in vital areas and the historic threat of Brexit, the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, spent a week trying to create an aura of instability around his own government.

It is a political game, pure and simple.

And as Leo: Leo Varadkar – A Very Modern Politician, the new biography of the Taoiseach, shows, at great length, playing the game of politics has been his primary focus through his entire career.

There’s no need to go over this ground again. It is enough to say that there is an agreed process for discussing the future of the Government, which Fianna Fáil will honour.

If Fine Gael wants to hold an election to get ahead of bad news in health and housing, then it should stop playing games and be honest about it.

A confidence and supply arrangement was not my party’s first choice after the last election, but we put the country first and the reason why the agreement was necessary remains valid.

In an election where there is no clear result, parties have an obligation to do as much as they can to facilitate the formation of a government and give it the opportunity to work.

We honoured our promise to our voters, about entering coalitions, but also stood as the only party willing to take a step to allow a government to be formed.

In accordance with the deal, we will review its operation after the budget and it will be a thorough review, focused on substance.

It seems that the Taoiseach believes that his ministers can’t be expected to do their jobs, unless they have a guarantee of two more years of security in office.

This may be just another of his usual attempts to blame everyone else for his government’s shortcomings. However, it is an arrogant demand for power without accountability.

For our part, the only priority in the coming months is to try to force action on a series of urgent issues, which are manifestly not being tackled by the Government.

In August, research by Fianna Fáil revealed that, for the first time ever, there are one million people on some form of waiting list in the health system.

Much of this was caused by clear failures of policy in the Reilly/Varadkar health ministry years, with immense time and resources wasted on now abandoned grand “reforms”.

We are proposing measures to tackle the worst blockages in the system. And we are also demanding a costed and time-linked implementation plan for the Sláintecare programme. So far, the Government has been slow-walking the entire process, scared to reach decisions or to give it priority.

It is very striking that the only major policy announcement that the Taoiseach did not attend in the past year was for his government’s health plan.

The emergency in housing simply cannot be allowed to continue. Homelessness is up nearly one third since the Taoiseach took up office. People looking for a place to rent or buy are squeezed by unaffordable prices and unreasonable commutes.

The coordinated effort last week, by Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and the Taoiseach to shift the blame to local councils was as depressing as it was cynical.

They are the ones who have toured the country, claiming “the plan’s working”, but now they expect us to believe “the plan’s working, and if it isn’t, it’s someone else’s fault”.

Throughout this Dáil and the last one, Fianna Fáil has proposed a series of new programmes and legislation, which could have prevented the worst of the housing emergency and could still help overcome it.

On housing, and on vital public services, we are looking not just for a priority in spending, but a new competence and commitment, which can give some hope that promises will be implemented.

In particular, we will need to see tangible action on the provision of affordable housing.

In the next three months, the divorce element of Brexit will be finalised and there will be agreement on what, if anything, will follow.

Having held consultations with a range of senior officials involved on all sides of the negotiations, I believe that a backstop can be implemented, which will protect progress in Northern Ireland.

However, for this to work, we need the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, to form constructive relations with those who may stand in the way of a workable backstop. These are manifestly missing.

Equally, they need to have the honesty to admit that they share responsibility for dramatising the backstop, which Michel Barnier now say needs to be urgently de-dramatised.

A type of special economic development zone, which gives Northern Ireland the benefits of access to both the EU and UK markets, could actually be a shot in the arm for peace and development in the North — breaking a destructive and escalating cycle of political division and economic stagnation.

Our immediate priority is the negotiation of a fair budget that delivers for the people.

A review of the arrangement will be held in accordance with the agreed process and not on the basis of unilateral political games.

- Micheál Martin is TD for Cork South-Central and leader of Fianna Fáil

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