6 June 2002
First day of new Dáil, 6 June 2002
Text of speech delivered by Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin TD on nomination of Taoiseach
Ba mhaith liom ar dtús buíochas a ghabháil leis an pobal i gContae an Chabháin agus Contae Mhuineacháin, i gContae Lú, i gCiarraí Thuaidh agus i mBaile Átha Cliath a thogh cúigear Teachta Dála de chuid Sinn Fein. Is onóir dom seasamh anseo le mo chomrádaithe Seán Crowe, Martin Ferris, Arthur Morgan agus Aengus Ó Snodaigh.
Tá Sinn Fein anseo anois mar pháirtí níos láidre, páirtí atá ag fás ar fud na tíre, páirtí uile-Éireann. Tá sé mar cuspóir againn an t-ionadaíocht is fearr a thabhairt don bpobal agus clár polaitiúl Sinn Fein a chur chun cinn taobh istigh den Dáil agus sa tír. Ar bharr an chláir sin tá próiséas na síochána, athaontú ár dtíre agus cothromas dár bpobal uile.
I wish firstly to thank all those people who voted and worked for our party in the election. I especially want to thank the people of Counties Cavan and Monaghan, Louth, North Kerry and Dublin who elected five Sinn Fein TDs. After five years as the lone voice of Sinn Fein in this chamber I am joined here now by my colleagues Deputies Sean Crowe, Martin Ferris Arthur Morgan and Aengus Ó Snodaigh. I want to welcome and congratulate them and to welcome all new deputies. I regard it as a special honour and responsibility to have been selected by Sinn Fein to lead our group in the Oireachtas. I look forward to the challenge of working with my colleagues in effective and constructive opposition in this Dáil.
The Sinn Fein group represents the only all-Ireland party in this Dáil and in the country. Some 300,000 people now vote for our party throughout the 32 Counties. Just last night Councillor Alex Maskey became the first Sinn Fein Mayor of Belfast, Ireland's second city.
When I took my seat for the first time in 1997 my two colleague MPs Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness were here in Leinster House. Today our party of five Sinn Fein TDs are joined by our MPs - Gerry Adams of West Belfast, Pat Doherty of West Tyrone and Michelle Gildernew of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. Due to Executive commitments the Minister for Education in the Six Counties Martin McGuinness and Minister for Health Bairbre de Brún cannot be with us. I said in 1997 that I looked forward to the day when Sinn Fein MPs would take their place in a Dáil with full representation from the 32 Counties. I believe we are moving closer to that day and we in Sinn Fein are determined to make it happen.
Advancing the peace process and the cause of Irish unity and sovereignty will be a priority for us in the new Dáil. It should be the priority of other parties also. We look forward to working with others of all parties to create a new political dynamic on this island.
Four years ago the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed in referenda. The Agreement involved difficult compromises for all concerned but it provided the basis for political progress. It has yet to be fully implemented and TDs in the new Dáil should focus on this need. The Agreement and the Constitution as amended provide for the reunification of Ireland given "the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island". Common efforts are necessary to pro-actively seek and achieve this consent and to prepare for the future unity of our people and of our country. That task should begin now and a Green Paper on Irish Unity would be just one element of such a programme.
It has been truly said of the General Election that the people did not change the Government - they changed the Opposition. The Opposition benches in the Dáil have been transformed. Part of that transformation was the historic election of five Sinn Fein TDs. A new reality in a new Dáil must be recognized in the procedures of this House.
Dáil Standing Orders must be changed if the mandate of the electorate is to be respected. Current Standing Orders severely restrict the smaller parties and the independents in their ability to fully represent their voters. This is totally undemocratic and must not be allowed to continue. The government should take the lead in having Standing Orders amended. With a renewed mandate, Sinn Fein is determined that the rights of our electorate will be fully vindicated.
There needs to be an effective and constructive opposition in the Dáil. There should also be co-operation among all parties in advancing progressive legislation on which they can agree. In the heat of inter-party rivalry this is often forgotten. The Dáil as a whole is elected to legislate for the people as a whole. Government should be open to accepting legislation brought forward by opposition parties.
What shape will new opposition take in this new Dáil? The deputies of the Labour Party, the Green Party and Sinn Fein now outnumber the deputies of Fine Gael. There are also more independents elected on manifestos of equity and equality on a range of issues. The incoming government will be conservative and right-wing in character, especially given the increased representation of the Progressive Democrats. A real alternative of the left is therefore both necessary and possible. Fine Gael cannot provide such an alternative. While I congratulate Deputy Enda Kenny on his selection as leader of Fine Gael, it is my view that that party offers only a choice between shades of conservatism.
A new challenge for all deputies here, regardless of their party affiliation, is whether they will stand for equality for all our people or whether they will stand against equality. Sinn Fein's commitment is to equality and we are ready to work with others who share that commitment.
Of course each party must take its own counsel and pursue its own agenda. As an independent political party Sinn Fein is committed to both the social and the national principles of James Connolly; we are for political freedom as well as social and economic equality.
When I took my seat five years ago I recalled the pledge of the Democratic Programme of the First Dail Éireann to provide all citizens with an adequate share of the produce of the nation's labour. One of the themes of the past five years has been the demand to share the wealth, to ensure the equitable redistribution of the prosperity generated during that period.
The outgoing government had unprecedented resources at its disposal. It had opportunities never available to any previous government. Regrettably it failed to use those opportunities to create a more equal society. The government had five years to begin the transformation of the health service and to end the shameful two-tier system and it failed miserably. The government had five years to address the housing crisis and it failed even to recognise that there was a crisis while it presided over record local authority waiting lists. It failed to develop effective strategies for the regeneration of rural Ireland. The outgoing government brought this State into NATO's so-called Partnership for Peace without the referendum promised by the leader of Fianna Fáil and it has failed to implement the decision of the electorate on the Treaty of Nice. The outgoing government failed to ensure that the wealth was shared and it presided over a widening gap between the privileged and the poor. The Programme for Government is for the continuation of these policies. That is not acceptable.
For that reason I and my party will not be supporting the nomination of the leader of the Fianna Fáil party Deputy Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach.
I fully acknowledge the major contribution made by Deputy Bertie Ahern to the peace process and the achievement of the Good Friday Agreement. The implementation of that Agreement remains the single biggest task facing us all. There is still a lot of work to be done. Whether on policing, demilitarisation, equality, human rights, the all-Ireland institutions and the ongoing need to take all the guns out of Irish politics, the peace process must remain our single overall priority. I look forward to working with the new Taoiseach and his government, and with all parties, in advancing the peace process in what may be difficult days ahead.
In 1997 I pledged that I would speak and vote on each issue on its merits and on most key questions over the past five years I strongly opposed the course taken by the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats government. That government is returning in greater numbers and, as its programme for government shows, it is set to continue the legacy of inequality of the past five years. My role and that of my colleagues, therefore, is as a party of constructive opposition inside and outside this House.
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