Statement on Government Priorities Speech by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny March 4th 2014

4th March, 2014
Statements on Government Priorities Speech by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny March 4th 2014

A Cheann Comhairle,
I am happy for this opportunity to inform the House on the Government’s priorities for the year ahead. This comes on the same day the Government has published its third annual report.
Entitled “After the Bailout” it catalogues the substantial progress the Government has made since 2011.
When this Government of Fine Gael and Labour entered office we faced the toxic legacy of years of economic mismanagement.
Ireland faced an enormous economic, financial and social crisis.
Unemployment was reaching record highs. The public finances were out of control. Ireland’s international reputation was in tatters.
The nation had to endure the ignominy of a bailout from the EU and the IMF to keep the economy and the country afloat.
The first task facing the Government was to restore financial stability and return the economy to growth, in order for Ireland to successfully exit the EU/IMF bailout. 
Thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of the Irish people, that central national objective has now been achieved.  On December 15th 2013, Ireland left the bailout programme.
A clean exit of the bailout, without requiring a precautionary credit line or indeed a second bailout which was predicted by many, has improved Ireland’s standing and has allowed us to raise new funding for the State at very low rates.
Progress in 2013
2013 saw the Government achieve a number of key objectives that helped us to this point.
The past year has been a good year for jobs. 61,000 new jobs were created, over 1,000 a week, representing the fastest employment growth rate in Europe. The live register has dropped for 20 months in a row and the unemployment rate has dropped from a high of 15.1% to the current 12%.
Our Pathways to Work strategy has helped 27,000 long term unemployed people move back into work.
While we the country, moving in the right direction far too many people are still unemployed or are forced to work abroad.
Underpinning recent progress has been our continued responsible management of the public finances throughout 2013 which has seen our deficit continue to fall.
The Haddington Road Agreement was a key success in this regard and we would once again sound our appreciation to all public servants for their contribution to Ireland’s recovery.
2013 also saw Anglo Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide formally closed and the successful replacement of the onerous annual Promissory Note payment which has reduced the burden on Irish taxpayer further.  The Plan for Jobs & Growth However, exiting the bailout was not an end in itself – too many people are not yet feeling any improvement in their daily lives.
We must use this opportunity to create more jobs and a strong economic recovery.
Looking ahead, in the same manner we had a plan to exit the bailout we also have a plan to grow the economy and get Ireland working.
It has two top targets:
1.)        To create more jobs. We plan to reduce unemployment to below the eurozone average this year, below 10% by 2016, and to return to full employment by 2020. 2.)        To grow the economy to support new jobs. We are targeting growth of at least 2% in 2014; 2.5% next year and 3% in 2016.
There are three pillars in which we are focusing on these targets in the year ahead.
Pillar 1: Helping the Domestic Economy. Rapid job growth on the scale needed to return Ireland to full employment will mean a more intensive focus on the domestic economy. Our new Action Plan for Jobs for 2014 coordinated by Minister Bruton and published last week creates that focus.
Since we began this process, in 2012, we have implemented over 1,100 job-supporting measures. This represents an implementation rate of 95% and the brick-by-brick rebuilding of a competitive, successful, and sustainable economy to replace the ruins we inherited three years ago.
This is the first Action Plan since exiting the bailout and it contains 385 actions involving the entire public service.
The 2014 Action Plan has a strong focus on the domestic economy, improving competitiveness, and supporting our entrepreneurs and smaller firms.
By focusing on the domestic economy we must ensure that job creation reaches every part of the country. Agri-food The agri-food sector is one area where we can create 25,000 extra new jobs in the next seven years with the right supports.
This year we are working towards gaining access to the US, Canada and Chinese market for our beef.
Changes in EU policy will see the abolition of milk quotas next year which will also present new opportunities for Irish businesses to significantly increase output. We have already seen new investment decisions in the run up to 2015.
To help improve Irish agri-food exports there are major agri-food Trade and Investment missions in preparation for China, Africa and the United States.
This year Minister Coveney is also targeting new rural jobs by the further development of the aquaculture sector.
In January the Government welcomed the agreement of a new draft Rural Development Programme for Ireland as a part of the wider Common Agricultural Policy. 
It is a €12.5 billion injection into the agriculture sector, which includes nearly €4 billion for the Rural Development Programme in the years to 2020.
At a time of scarce resources this represents the Government’s strong commitment to job creation and investment in our rural communities.
Construction The construction sector is another part of the domestic economy that has a key role to play in our recovery and in creating new jobs.
This sector is too small for the needs of a growing economy.
This year will see many individual initiatives helping the sector.
Minister Quinn is progressing 70 major school projects in 2014.
Ministers Hogan and O’Sullivan are expanding the energy efficiency retrofit programme for social housing for 12,500 homes involving around 1,000 construction jobs. Minister Hogan will also be publishing the Maritime and Foreshore Bill this year which will help develop our maritime resources.
There is more we plan to do in 2014 and the Government is finalising a new strategy for construction which will be published shortly.
Tourism One sector that has shown encouraging signs of growth since the Government introduced new measures within 100 days of entering office has been tourism.
The measures we have already taken – like cutting the VAT rate on tourism services – have already helped create over 22,000 new jobs.
Last year, The Gathering was a huge success.
Minister Varadkar will publish a new tourism strategy shortly will build on this progress over the next decade.
Retail & Local Enterprise This year will also see a shake up in how Government, especially local government, will support local businesses. Under our plan, local authorities have a critical role to play in supporting job creation at local level, particularly in areas like the retail sector where commercial rates can be a huge burden. In May, the people will elect new members of the radically-reformed local government system.
Whoever the people elect to local councils will have new and real power to determine local charges.
Over the coming months Ministers Hogan and Bruton will over oversee 31 new Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs), with 170 dedicated staff.
They will be established throughout the country to provide advice and support to people starting businesses at local level.
The LEO roll-out will see additional funding of €3.5 million provided in 2014, including a new Entrepreneurship Fund aimed at start-ups by people under 25 years of age.
In combining expertise in local government and enterprise support, from waste management and rates to training and business planning, the LEOs will enable an integrated approach to the delivery of services for small and new companies.
In addition to providing supports and information directly, the LEOs will also work with Enterprise Ireland and the other State organisations to ensure the right supports are available to each company.
In a new departure for local government each LEO will also develop a plan to boost local enterprise and job creation. In short, each LEO will be the local hub for enterprise support, delivering a comprehensive ‘first stop shop’ service to local entrepreneurs and businesses.
To further help Irish retailers win new business in the 21st century Minister Rabbitte will deliver a new Trading Online Voucher Scheme to over 1,000 businesses this year. By helping small business trade online we expect 3,200 new jobs to be created in this area over the next two years.
Competitiveness In supporting the domestic economy in 2014 we must also maintain and improve on our recent competitiveness gains. We must be very careful about doing anything which would add to the cost of employing people and make it more difficult to create the jobs we so badly need.
Creating a competitive business environment that supports an increase in exports is essential in ensuring Ireland achieves growth and, crucially, gets more people back to work.
Pillar 2: The Public finances The second part of our plan for jobs and growth is the need to continue to manage our public spending prudently.
The effort of all Government Ministers, especially by Minister Noonan and Howlin, to tackle the huge gap between government spending and income has been crucial in exiting the bailout. It is essential for continued investment.
We must and will complete this job by cutting the budget deficit to 3% by 2015; and eliminating it entirely by 2018. We recognise high taxes on jobs and employment dampen job creation. That’s why we will continue to deliver on our promise not to increase income tax, and, when the public finances allow introduce new measures to encourage more job creation.
Pillar Three: Credit & a Sustainable Banking Sector The third part of the Government’s plan for jobs and growth is the need for new credit and the development of a sustainable banking sector.
The Irish banks have been stabilised, but much more needs to be done. Minister Noonan will continue to repair and restore trust in the banking system, which is vital to ensuring that businesses are confident to seek out credit to fund expansion opportunities.
This means banks provide credit at competitive interest rates and is being achieved through the Government’s ongoing SME credit policy.
We are also making new sources of funding available to support the creation of jobs.
In the coming weeks, legislation will be published to establish NewERA and the €6 billion Strategic Investment Fund.
We are also concluding an agreement with Germany to secure significant new funding for Irish businesses from the German state bank KfW.
The Department of Finance is also focused on the partnership with the Silicon Valley Bank and the Chinese Investment Corporation.
The banks must also do more to help people who are in mortgage arrears.
That’s why we will require the banks to make sustainable offers to every family in mortgage distress by the end of this year.
Engagement between consumers and lenders has already led to over 51,000 permanent mortgage restructures, an increase of over 6,000 accounts in the last quarter of 2013. The number of mortgage accounts in arrears of greater than 90 days has started to fall.
Other Priorities – Work Activation 2014 will also see important progress on a number of other fronts crucial for the development of the country. The Government will continue to prioritise its welfare reform and work activation agenda.
As new jobs are created in the economy we have to ensure that those who lost their jobs and suffered most are not left behind in the recovery.
Our Pathways to Work Strategy, led by Minister Burton, aims to move 75,000 long-term unemployed people into employment by end 2015.
With 22,500 long term unemployed already moved back into work we will update the strategy by mid-year and put a stronger emphasis on removing disincentives to returning to work facing some long-term job seekers.
By replacing Rent Supplement with a new Housing Assistance Payment that will continue to be available to unemployed people returning to work, we will make sure that an additional 34,000 families are better off in work.
We will also complete the first phase of welfare and work activation reforms with the roll out of all Intreo offices nationwide.
To increase the number of caseworkers available to those on the live register the Government will be contracting in additional capacity from the private and voluntary sector in 2014.
To help rebuild trust and confidence in the State’s employment services with businesses,  Minister Burton will be producing a new employer engagement strategy. It will represent a new beginning for Intreo services and local employers that will ultimately help jobseekers.
In addition, Minister Quinn will publish the first ever five-year strategy for the Further Education and Training system which will prioritise re-training the unemployed to take up the opportunities arising in the economic recovery.
Minister Hogan and Minister Burton will also roll out the Gateway work activation scheme during 2014 that will see 3,000 long term jobseekers working in local authorities on local projects.
Working in Europe & Abroad for Jobs & Growth As Ireland is a small open economy the Government will continue to positively and proactively engage with the EU and its member states to enhance the Single Market, reducing administrative burdens on business and facilitate new trade, including through EU external trade agreements

Progressing the EU-US trade agreement, started under the successful Irish Presidency, will open up new opportunities for Irish business and jobs.

The Government will continue to open doors for Irish entrepreneurs and businesses. The Tánaiste and the embassy network will be supporting 18 Ministerial trade missions this year in close cooperation with Enterprise Ireland.

The Government is focusing on new opportunities in the United States, China, India, Australia, Indonesia, Turkey and West Africa to name a few.

Preparations are also underway for the first ever State Visit to Britain this year following on from the visit of Queen Elizabeth to the Republic of Ireland in 2011.
Political & Public Service Reforms Finally, we will continue the political and public service reforms needed to ensure that the recovery is fair, inclusive and sustainable, and in doing so to continue to re-build trust in our institutions.
We will expand the powers of the Ombudsman to enhance scrutiny of public services.
Minister Shatter will take action to ensure that the Garda Ombudsman Commission will have the right structures to provide effective and independent oversight.
We are legislating to increase the scope and reach of Freedom of Information, to afford protections and clarity to whistleblowers and to consolidate the Ethics Acts following the publication of the Mahon and Moriarty Tribunals.
We have established Irish Water as a means of financing and providing for investment in clean, safe water. In order to end the current inefficient two-tier health system Ministers Reilly and White will take further steps towards the introduction of Universal Health Insurance.
We will prioritise the full establishment of Hospital Groups funded on a “money follows the patient” basis, the roll-out of free GP care to all children aged under 6 in the first half of this year and the publication of a White Paper on Universal Health Insurance.
Minister Deeihan, following on from his successful agreement with Bank of Ireland to turn part of the College Green Parliament into a cultural space, will lead on the commemorations programme. This includes major works on the GPO so that an interpretative centre can be in place for 2016.
The continued improvement of our education system is key to our long-term prosperity.
Minister Quinn will publish by June of this year, for the information of parents, a summary of the performance of all schools.
We will pass legislation to reform school admissions to make them fairer, more transparent and more inclusive. We will continue to roll out the area based programme to tackle the root causes of child poverty and exclusion.
Minister Rabbitte will also complete the roll out of next generation broadband to all secondary schools in the State by the end of the year.
An education system built on excellence is essential for the future of our children.
To further their interests Minister Fitzgerald will shortly launch the National Children and Young Peoples’ Policy Framework which will set out the key Government commitments to promote better outcomes for children and young people over the next seven years.
Conclusion A Cheann Comhairle, as you can see the Government has an ambitious plan of action for Ireland.
Exiting the bailout was only the first step in Ireland’s recovery.
I can assure the people of Ireland and the House that there is no complacency in Government on the scale of the challenges we must rise to meet. 
There are still an unacceptable number of people unemployed. There are still far too many working families struggling to make ends meet.
We are moving in the right direction but we are not there yet.
But we have a plan to get there.
And that plan is working. We exited the bailout. Jobs are being created. And the public finances are under control.
Working with the Tánaiste and the Labour Party we are wholly united in the crucial task of getting Ireland working.
There will be no let up in our efforts until we return the country to full employment, and until everyone has the opportunity to achieve their full potential for themselves, and for their families, at home in Ireland.