“AN extraordinary and unprecedented year” is how Taoiseach Micheál Martin views the 12 months since General Election 2020.
“We emerged from the election as the largest party, but we would have preferred additional seats.”
It’s the first time since 2011 Fianna Fáil has been in government, which Mr Martin said was the aim.
They entered into coalition with Fine Gael and the Green Party, and with the onset of Covid-19 negotiations were made more difficult.
However, once the government was formed, Mr Martin said they “hit the ground running” highlighting the July stimulus package as a “very significant intervention” in dealing with the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said July 2020 saw “an extraordinary output” in terms of the number of bills that passed through the Dáil, some of which were dealing with business supports, subsidy schemes and the pandemic unemployment payment being put on statutory footing.
“We managed to, fairly quickly, get the Shared Island unit up and running,” he explained.
The unit is examining the political, social, economic and cultural considerations for a shared future through dialogue and research.
“We secured €500m in ringfenced funding in the budget to underpin the Shared Island initiative, which will enable a lot of cross-border activities.”
Speaking on schools, Mr Martin said that reopening schools in September was a key objective for the government, which “demanded significant additional investment and also a lot of detailed planning”.
He added that the third wave of Covid-19 scuppered plans for a return to education after Christmas, but it will still happen in a phased way. Some children with special needs began returning to school yesterday, which he said will give the remainder of school classes confidence in returning.
Mr Martin also said “good robust options” were being looked at for this year’s Leaving Cert class which will provide clarity on the exams.
Overall, Mr Martin said reducing the numbers of Covid-19 cases is paramount to their plan for schools reopening, which is why the reopening was delayed initially. “We didn’t want a million people on the move at the one time because, in particular, of the UK variant which is much more transmissible, and which now accounts for about 70% of all cases in Ireland. “We have to be very conscious of that, so any mass movement of people can support the spread.”
The rollout of the vaccination programme, however, gives hope, the Taoiseach said.
“It pays to be cautious and conservative in terms of reopening society generally while we’re rolling out the vaccines,” he said.
Mr Martin highlighted other key-objectives the government is working towards.
“€3.1bn is going into housing this year. Significant health investment, particularly in the Cork area in terms of CUH and the Mercy Hospital, first of all through the Winter Health initiative but also in terms of bed capacity.
“Also, (funding) for higher numbers of step-down care facilities and home care packages.
“So, notwithstanding Covid there has been a lot of investment in health and we want to continue with that, so when we get to a post-Covid stage, we will have made... reforms in health as well,” Mr Martin said.