Health, transport and childcare will dominate the agenda this weekend as 600 Progressive Democrats delegates gather in Cork for their annual conference.
Tonight’s opening session has been toned down as a mark of respect for the Rome funeral of Pope John Paul II, which Tanaiste Mary Harney attended.
Organisers have dropped music from the live entertainment schedule and Ms Harney’s traditional leader’s address will begin with a tribute to the late Pontiff.
She is then expected to reflect on the party’s achievements since its foundation in 1985 – the year her support for the Anglo-Irish Agreement got her expelled from Fianna Fail.
It is also understood she will make brief reference to recent developments in the current power-sharing impasse in Northern Ireland.
The usual party conference issues will be discussed on Saturday like health reform, justice, criminality, the economy, childcare, transport, and energy policy.
As Health Minister, Ms Harney is expected to use her keynote Leader’s Speech tomorrow night to refer specifically to A&E overcrowding, beds shortage and the illegal overcharging of patients in nursing homes.
Currently the longest-serving leader of an Irish political party, Ms Harney said the ‘Honest Politics. Real Results’ theme of her conference underscores the principles on which the party was founded.
“We built our reputation on having the courage to face up to the hard issues and by being willing to make difficult decisions.
“We opposed vested interests, we face down our detractors and we say judge us by what we achieve,” she said today.
Party president and Justice Minister Michael McDowell is likely to list his achievements in office when he address the conference on ’A Safer Ireland’ tomorrow.
He is also expected to defend his consistent hard-line stance on condemning republican criminality and paramilitarism in recent months.
In delegate motions on transport policy, the Dublin West constituency calls on the Government to raise additional finance for Aer Lingus by selling a majority stake.
The move comes amid media reports that the Government will use Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting to discuss selling off 51% of Aer Lingus to fund fleet expansion.
But there is no mention in the conference programme about the long-awaited second terminal at Dublin Airport, where views of the PDs and Fianna Fáil are at variance.
Transport Minster Martin Cullen favours it being owned and operated by Dublin Airport Authority while the PDs want it privately run, to boost competition.
Minister of State Tom Parlon will use his conference address to send out the call for “the brightest and the best” candidates to fight the next General Election with the current seven TDs and six senators.
The Government Minister in charge of the State’s decentralisation programme has recruited some 700 new party members in his Laois-Offaly constituency since he won election in 2002.
The party also increased its local authority seats in ’Parlon Country’
To tackle the childcare crisis, Senator John Minihan is to suggest a Canadian-style solution whereby children could be cared for in school buildings before and after normal school hours for as little as 7 euro per child per day.
Other conference motions want a revisit on e-voting, tax breaks for childcare and garda vetting for people working with children and voluntary groups.
Other issues up for party discussion include creating an on-line archive of national births, marriages and deaths and new amendments to electoral laws to ensure a minimum of four TDs per constituency.
Youth wing, Young Progressive Democrats are to hold a suicide awareness workshop and will table a motion calling for a national awareness campaign, helpline and information website to target young people.
Guest speakers at the three-day event include Europe Editor of the Economist, John Peet, Trinity College economics lecturer Dr Sean Barrett, Airtricity chief Dr Eddie O’Connor and Eddie Shaw of the National Safety Council.
It is the third time the annual conference has been held in Cork – 2005 European City of Culture.
Local PD Senator Minihan said today: “Cork has had a special resonance for the Progressive Democrats – I remember that historic night in 1986 when thousands of people thronged the city’s Metropole Hotel for our first public meeting in Munster.”