This article on my vision for Ireland was published in the Sunday Independent on September 17th.
Next month, for the first time in ten years, we will publish a budget that will balance the books and reduce the national debt. This provides a secure foundation that allows us to be ambitious about the future and begin planning for the next ten years. The Government has been working so far under the broad heading of building a Republic of Opportunity. It’s not a slogan, but a way of thinking about how to improve people’s lives, and there is much more to come.
Of course we are occupied with current issues and problems, but we also recognise that a longer perspective is needed if we are really to make progress as a country. We are thinking about the next ten years and also about the next 20, because we need to plan for an Ireland that in 2040 will be home to more than 5.5 million people. We share the ambitions of many of our citizens, who work hard, and we recognise that we must do more to ensure that they and their families can plan for the future with confidence.
In the space of this article I will list thirteen areas that I see as significant to give a good overview of what this means in practice. The first is Full Employment. We are almost already at the point where there is a job for everyone who wants one. So the focus will shift to the quality of employment with a greater recognition that good terms and conditions and promotional opportunities are essential in recruiting and retaining staff. So, we want to see much better family leave, more childcare and family friendly working, more home working and more opportunities to upskill in our work places.
Over the next ten years I want our universal health care project to be completed, creating not a perfect health service (as none exists) but one which bears comparison with the best in the world in terms of patient experience, clinical outcomes, waiting times, and charges. During this period our new, world-class National Children’s Hospital will be opened and I have no doubt we will all be wondering why anyone ever doubted it would be built.
I want us to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup and I believe it will be a perfect opportunity to showcase the beauty and resources of the entire island, and the benefits of genuine, cross-border partnership. During the next few years we will also consider putting together other joint projects like connecting our two capital cities of Dublin and Belfast by high-speed rail with journey times of little more than an hour.
In terms of infrastructure we are going to bring our ten-year capital plan forward alongside the national planning framework so there is coherence to our strategy. This approach is essential to ensure that all parts of our country share in the recovery and our growing prosperity. We will encourage balanced regional development so that cities like Cork, Waterford, Galway and Limerick can grow by 40-50% and that rural Ireland also benefits. We will work on Dublin Metro, the Cork-Limerick motorway, the Galway city bypass, and new roads to Derry, Sligo and Mayo to transform the way people can travel in this country. That’s faster than the capital in the decades ahead. In addition, we want DART trains to pick up passengers from places like Leixlip, Drogheda and Clonsilla.
Climate change is one of the greatest challenges we face. It is an issue for all countries and we need to work to ensure that electric vehicles become commonplace in Ireland, supporting cycling, producing more renewable energy such as wind and solar, and encouraging homes and businesses to invest in renewable heat.
The next area is redeveloping our cities. We are currently tackling a serious housing shortage, and I suspect that a large part of the solution lies in redeveloping our cities for high-rise quality apartment living not further urban sprawl. We want vibrant new neighbourhoods all across the country, such as in Waterford’s north quays, Galway’s inner harbour and Dublin’s Poolbeg.
In terms of education we have many issues to resolve, including the funding of higher education. The only chance we have of developing our position as a global hub for innovation and technology is by ensuring that our education system is enhanced not diminished. One ambition we will realise soon is the creation of the Technological Universities, which will have a major impact in many parts of Ireland, including crucially in the south-east.
In terms of broadband, this Government will not be satisfied until we become the first country to connect every home to high-speed broadband sparking a revival of living and working from home in our market towns and rural areas.
An absolute priority is to ensure that we rise to the challenge of Brexit. Over the next decade, with the right strategy, our farmers, tourism industry and exporters can benefit from more diversified markets, and Dublin can grow into an even bigger financial centre than it is now. In the same period we want Ireland to have doubled its global footprint with diplomatic, cultural and economic representation all over the world.
You can tell a lot about a society by how it treats its most vulnerable members. We will soon ratify the UN Convention on the rights of people with disabilities, but more than that we will live up to the spirit of it and should become a global leader in the range of services and opportunities available to people with disabilities.
So much progress has been made in Northern Ireland over the past two decades. The challenge of the next decade is to ensure that we continue to build bridges not borders, that we avoid a return to sectarianism or head counts and focus on bringing people together. Power-sharing is the way forward and the status of Northern Ireland should only change if there is cross-community support for doing so.
At the moment only about a third of people working in the private sector or self-employed contribute to a pension. Within the next ten years, the new universal pension system will guarantee that all workers have their own pension pot in addition to the state pension. This will be up and running by 2021. As a result, people will have more faith in their financial security in retirement, and will have greater choice about when they retire.
Finally, we have to prepare for the unexpected. Five years ago no one would have predicted that Brexit would be the challenge facing our generation, or some of the other political changes which have taken place in the world. As a government we have to plan for the future and be prepared for any contingencies or unforeseen events which might arise. We cannot future proof against everything, but we can ensure that responsible, strategic planning insulates us against the most serious external threats.
By dealing with these issues and more over the next ten years we can help to build a society which enables people to reach their potential, by encouraging a culture of aspiration for all.