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Village Interview: Micheál Martin, Leader, Fianna Fáil (from our election edition)

Micheál Martin is a non-ideological constitutional republican who derides equality of outcome and believes in equality of opportunity

How would you describe your political philosophy?

I’m a constitutional republican and believe strongly that economic growth and social progress are closely linked.  I believe the old left/right ideological divide has no real relevance for the 21st century.

Is that different from the traditional politics of Fianna Fail? Are there areas where FF has been weak that you intend to emphasise?

I think my political philosophy is very similar to that of the founding traditions of Fianna Fáil, which came from a revolutionary generation which understood the need for a radical change in both its programme and its approach to politics. In the General Election Manifesto I outlined a series of radical new proposals for political reform which will address the shortcomings in the present parliamentary system and are I believe vital for recovery. Fianna Fáil has always represented ordinary people. This is still the case.  The organisation is made up of ordinary people who work in their communities and take nothing from politics except a sense of making a contribution.

Is that appealing to potential coalition partners?

I am not concerned with appealing to potential coalition partners. We have proposed a series of costed proposals that I believe if implemented will return this country to growth. That is my only priority.

Do you believe in equality of outcome?  If not, what do you understand by equality and do you support it?

I don’t believe that there is a single example of a society which combines respect for human rights and high standards of living with enforced equality of outcomes.  I believe in equality of opportunity, part of which is the necessity for social supports which enable this.

Who are your political heroes?

My main hero is Seán Lemass.  He was a revolutionary and visionary who responded to the unique problems of the moment rather than being fixed to unchanging ideologies.

How do you rate Enda Kenny?

It’s not for me to rate Enda.  I don’t believe he is the best man to lead Ireland and the level of control which has allowed to those around him is of concern.

How do you see the very basic differences between FF and FG?

There are plenty of differences between us and Fine Gael. Their campaign is based on the worst type of cynical politics – lots of tough talk but a driving commitment to pandering to every group.  Their radical privatisation agenda for the health service and every part of state activity is actively dangerous.  Their budget figures don’t add up and their reform platform is all about gimmicks and not at all about real reform.  The plan to lay off 18,000 more public servants than any other party is ill-thought-out and will do immense damage to public services.

What are the biggest dangers of a FG government?

They have no credible plan to get Ireland through to recovery, they appear to be terrified of letting their leader have proper head-to-head debates with others and they are addicted to empty electoral gimmicks.

Do you think on balance Ireland has been well governed since 1997?

We have made mistakes and I fully acknowledge this and have apologised for them. However, I firmly believe that while we still face significant challenges Fianna Fáil in government has delivered real progress in many areas. Unemployment is unacceptably high but we must remember that there are still 1.86 million people working.  Due to our educated young workforce we are seen one of the best places in the world for foreign and direct investment which employs over 240,000 directly and indirectly in this country. We have put in place a world-class cancer-treatment and screening programme.  We now have a major new motorway network. We now have more Gardaí and more prison places.  Finally during our time in office we have overseen historic developments including the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the Hillsborough Agreement in February 2010 which led to the devolution of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast.

What would you do to stop boom/bust cycles?

Firstly, we must change politics. We also know now that the oversight mechanism in the banking sector were insufficient. We have reformed the banking and financial regulation and put in place two experts to do this: Professor Patrick Honohan in the central bank; and Financial regulator Mathew Elderfield. We are also committed to setting up a Fiscal Council made up of outside economic experts, independent of government to advise government on the budgetary situation and on the fiscal policies required to achieve fiscal sustainability.

As a government it is now apparent that we relied too heavily on temporary revenues raised from stamp duty to finance increases in public spending.

What is the difference between your solutions for unemployment and those of the other parties?

The best way to get people back to work is to get our house in order – we are doing this by fixing the banks, stabilising the public finances and improving our competitiveness. We believe that Sinn Féin and Labour would jeopardise our public finances and prolong the crisis by extending the time-frame for tackling the deficit to 2016. Our five-year integrated plan for trade, tourism and investment will generate 150,000 jobs, and boost exports by one third.  Over the next four years we will invest over €16 billion in our infrastructure. We have set up a €500 million innovation fund which will support enterprise  development  and  job  creation  by  drawing  top venture capitalists to Ireland. The main plank of Labour’s jobs policy is to set up yet another Bank, the Strategic Investment Bank. We already have two banks that are almost owned by the state AIB and BOI, setting up another bank would only threaten our existing banks survival. Fine Gael’s plan has been dismissed by Michael Noonan as a PR gimmick. We are already making major inroads in this area. It is not necessary to set up a number of new quangos, as envisaged by Fine Gael under this plan, to do this.

Do you think the unions have had too much influence on government policy?

I believe that as a result of social partnership we enjoyed a long period of industrial peace. However, given the scale of the economic challenges we had no option but to reform the public service. In fairness to the public sector they have seen a reduction in their pay and pensions over the last 18 months with minimal industrial unrest.

Will you implement the Croke Park agreement?

Yes – it is vital that the Croke Park agreement is fully implemented.  In 2010 €1.8bn was saved  from the public service pay bill with as I have already mentioned minimal industrial disruption. To date, public-sector numbers have fallen by 14,000 and will continue to fall due to the recruitment embargo. The reforms under the Croke Park Agreement are ever more essential to help meet the unprecedented challenges currently facing Ireland and its public services.

What are your major achievements as a minister?

In education I implemented the first national programme to support children with special needs in all schools and helped tens of thousands of adults to overcome literacy problems. Programmes of investment and reform were put in place in every part of the system. In health, I led into law the first national workplace smoking ban in the world. Today, it is emulated elsewhere, and is improving the health of thousands and saving lives. Under my leadership the record shows a health system which treated more people, faster and with better outcomes because of the changes I introduced. In enterprise, I implemented a series of policies which have been vital to the strong export performance which will lead to sustained economic recovery. In foreign affairs I refocused our diplomatic resources on the support of economic opportunities and ensured that we have robustly supported the peace settlement.

In a nutshell how would you like to change a) the health system and b) the education system?

I would like to see more people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to third level. This can be achieved through tackling literacy and more focus on maths in schools. We have already put in place a free pre-school year for every child in the country which I’m committed to retaining.

I would like to improve people’s experiences in our A & E departments. We need to deliver more responsive care to patients – expanding the working day to 8-8 is an example that will allow patients to access x-ray, physio, lab services and theatres outside traditional hours. Redeployment is key to this reform. This is part of the Croke Park Deal and we believe it must be implemented. Also we need reform to provide a greater range of services in community settings particularly through primary care teams and social care networks so that patients can get services in the evenings and at the weekends. Due to medical advances there are more and more procedures that can be carried out on a day case basis without patients ever needing to be treated in an acute hospital setting.

Do you think Ireland has a balanced policy on immigration?

Yes. We recently introduced Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2010 which unfortunately wasn’t enacted before the Dáil was dissolved. We believe that this Bill is necessary to provide the Government with the tools it needs for the job of managing modern migration. It provides, for the first time, a comprehensive framework on which there can be a wide variety of immigration policies designed to suit different people in different circumstances, as the need arises. It provides a single point of reference for immigration and protection legislation and will support a variety of detailed immigration policies relating to different circumstances and categories of migrant and visitor. While catering for the changing needs of the Irish economy, it will ensure that people are treated fairly and reasonably and will provide greater certainty in relation to the procedural aspects of the immigration process. These changes are necessary for the delivery of a more efficient immigration service.

Name five things FF would do to improve ethics in government?We are proposing that Members of Cabinet should not be members of the Oireachtas while they serve as ministers. This system would allow them to devote significantly more time to their ministerial duties.

  • We would allow people who are not members of the Dáil to be appointed to serve as ministers; this would allow the talented people with key skills to serve in government.
  • We would set up a citizens’ assembly to debate and recommend specific proposals.  In the first instance it would be focussed directly on reform of, the electoral system, The Oireachtas and Government membership.

·         We support significant changes to the system of appointing State          boards, including a review of the membership of all State boards.          Each appointment to a public body should be reviewed by an          independent board certifying the suitability of potential appointees.

·         We propose lower limits on political donations and to ban          corporate donations to political parties in line with the Bill which          should have been passed this month.

Is Climate Change the biggest issue of our time or must dealing with it take a back seat to dealing with the economy?

No I don’t believe so. The protection of our environment is a priority for Fianna Fáil. We are committed to an ambitious environmental programme which includes tackling climate change. We published the Climate Change Response Bill 2010 on the 23rd December  2010 which passed first stage in the Seanad before the Dáil was dissolved. We are committed to legislating for a process that allows us to plan for greenhouse-emissions reduction and adaptation to climate change, as the Bill makes clear. Fianna Fáil believes this must be done in a way that safeguards economic development and competitiveness.

Would you in retrospect have given the bank guarantee?

Yes absolutely. The Labour Party’s policy would have seen the banks run out of money within days. The banks would have had to close their doors. People would not have been to able to access their salaries or their savings.  This would have been disastrous for our people and our economy.

Do you think it is possible that Ireland is insolvent?

No I don’t believe that. We are facing enormous economic challenges but we have done the majority of the heavy lifting already in terms of fiscal adjustment. We have already made 20 billion in adjustments and have 9 million more to go to achieve the 3% target of GDP. It will not be easy but I believe that by working together we will overcome the challenges we face.

Do you think the deal with the IMF/EU is fair for Ireland?

We negotiated the best deal that was available to Ireland at the time. We must remember that the interest rate we are borrowing on the money from EU-IMF is lower than the rate we can borrow on international markets. There has been much debate about renegotiating, I have believe that to change the terms of the deal will be done through consensus with our European partners and not through conflict. However,  I believe we must still reach our target of reaching the deficit by 2014 , despite what the opposition would have you believe. The scale of the adjustment and the timeframe are I believe non negotiable.

Do you think the Greens played a constructive role in government and did you learn anything from them?

Yes. They along with Fianna Fáil made tough political choices because it was the right thing to do.

How many seats do you predict FF will get after the election?

I can’t predict that  but I can say that we will be fighting for every last seat right up until polling day.

Would you go into government with Sinn Fein?

No. Sinn Féin’s economic policies would be detrimental for this country. Sinn Féin want to introduce 4.5 billion in tax increases in 2011 alone including a new effective income tax rate of 62%  high taxes. They would also renege on the IMF EU Assistance upon which dependent to pay for essential public services and the salaries of nurses, Gardaí and teachers.

What are the notable failures of the media, including during this campaign?

I think the media could give greater consideration to the costs of the all political parties proposals.

What message would you like to get across that the media ignore?

Our plans are real and they are costed. We are not using gimmicks or popular sound bites to appeal to voters. Unlike the opposition we are not offering promises that in government we won’t be able to keep.

How are you feeling personally going into this election?

I’m feeling very positive. I am getting a good reception as I travel around the country. The party is energised and so am I.

Long car journey: Vincent Browne or PJ Mara?

Can I choose both?  With the amount of  electoral experience both men have under their belt, it would make for a very interesting journey.

Has Cork done more for world culture than Dublin?  How?

I see Cork’s contribution in absolute rather than relative terms.