By David Young, PA
Micheál Martin has said halting construction work on new homes during lockdown is one of the main regrets of his tenure as Taoiseach so far.
The Fianna Fáil leader said the decision during the second lockdown was taken because the Government wanted to be “ruthless” in suppressing the Alpha wave of Covid-19.
He insisted that approach worked, and significantly reduced death rates in Ireland, but it came at the cost of stalling progress on much needed housing developments.
Asked about his regrets in his 18 months as Taoiseach, he said: “I think the only concern I would have is the locking down of housing in the second lockdown, it’s something that I do reflect on from time to time, because housing is the number one social crisis.
“We lost the guts of four months in terms of house building, we did it because we wanted to be ruthless in dealing with the Alpha wave.
“We succeeded in dealing with Alpha, we succeeded in rebuilding the economy. But it was at a cost in relation to the housing situation. So I do regret that.”
Mr Martin was challenged over Ireland’s status as the only country in Europe to take such a step.
“Yeah, I know, but then we’ve the lowest deaths,” he replied.
“If we were to go by the average European Union, I think there would have been 3,800 more people died in Ireland if we were the average of the European Union.
“That’s why I say that as we move into 2022 this is about managing things differently every time, that we don’t go back to the original model used on the first lockdown or the second lockdown, that we’ve got to learn from each phase and each wave.”
Asked if he would contemplate a similar construction shut down again, he said:
“That would be my desire not to.”
On other regrets, Mr Martin referred back to Fianna Fáil’s performance in the 2020 General Election.
“We could have done the election better,” he said.
While Mr Martin is set to be replaced as Taoiseach by Tánaiste and Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar next December, he insisted the focus of the coalition government will not shift.
“This is a government of three parties which has agreed there would be a transition halfway through government, but that doesn’t change the central direction of government in terms of the core policies and the key objectives of the programme for government.
“It is very important that that is understood, because that is the agenda, which is around housing, health and climate change – those were the three biggies.”
The Taoiseach said 2022 would see significant progress to enhance childcare provision in Ireland.
He again highlighted delivery on the housing agenda as another key priority for the year ahead.
Reform and investment in health care would be a central focus as well, the Taoiseach added.
Mr Martin said the Government’s legislative efforts to tackle climate change had also been “truly groundbreaking”.
“Given how we’ve performed to date, which hasn’t been great on climate change, I do believe this represents a fundamental shift in policy, the follow through was going to be very important, very challenging, controversial even,” he said.
“But I’m very determined as Taoiseach to follow this through.”
He added: “I would make the point that we are only a year and a half into government. This government, we want to go the full distance. So even though there may be changes between Taoiseach and Tanaiste that doesn’t mean the same level of interest isn’t maintained in terms of getting these policy issues delivered across the board.”
Mr Martin conceded that dealing with the pandemic would continue to divert much of the Government’s attention in 2022.
“Obviously Covid has dominated the last year and a half,” he said.
“It is likely to be a significant feature of 2022 though I think we will be moving into an even better position in 2022, that is my view, I might be wrong.
“As I said, there are many twists and turns, and we are developing more resources to deal with Covid-19.
“Getting the country through Covid is obviously my clear agenda as Taoiseach.
“As safely as we possibly can, in terms of lives, in terms of the economy, so far as regards to other countries we have done better than most.
“We’ve clearly made our mistakes too in relation to that, but I think in an overall perspective it’s fair to say Ireland has done relatively well in managing what has been a terrible pandemic.”