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Housing, healthcare, cost-of-living and late-night pub opening on the agenda as Dáil returns

Varadkar looking for a ‘fresh start’ to his tenure as Taoiseach as he tries to shake up Govt priorities.

IT’S A NEW year, there’s a new Taoiseach and a new Dáil term will begin next week. 

Before heading back to Leinster House, there’s been a hiccup for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with the loss of one of his junior ministers, Damien English. 

The Meath West TD swiftly resigned his position after it emerged he failed to declare that he owned property on a planning permission form in 2008. He has since been replaced – equally swiftly – with Dublin TD Neale Richmond. 

Not a great start to Varadkar’s ‘fresh start’ attempt.

This week, ministers – including the the three coalition leaders – gathered in Farmleigh House in the Phoenix Park for a Cabinet away day before they return to normal business next week. 

Ministers were asked to make a presentation to their colleagues on what they plan to achieve in the next Dáil term and the coming year. 

Speaking afterwards, Varadkar told the media that he really wanted the focus over the next few months to be on the core priorities of government, which he listed as: the delivery of housing, making progress on health reform, making sure our economy is strong, the climate action plan, and dealing with the cost of living.  

The Fine Gael leader is very much trying to reframe the public’s view of his party, and attempting to paint the picture that they can can shake up some of the Government’s priorities as we head into the final two years of this coalition.  

One example of this is with housing.

To put it frankly, the whole area is still a mess – and with just over two years until the next general election, those in power know their heads are on the chopping block if progress on housing isn’t made. 

Housing for All 006 (1) Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien speaking to media during the week following their conference with stakeholders on housing. Sasko Lazarov Sasko Lazarov

Just after getting his feet back under the table, Varadkar was setting up meetings with housing stakeholders. A housing summit staged earlier this month – dismissed by some as a publicity stunt – was described by Government as a forum for new ideas on how to speed up delivery. 

When it was put to Micheál Martin that the narrative of a ‘fresh look’ at housing and a new level of urgency being put forward by Fine Gael could be taken as commentary from his coalition partner that maybe enough wasn’t done under his tenure, the Fianna Fáil leader said this was not the case.

Martin slapped down the suggestion at the post-Cabinet briefing this week, stating that there is not two governments – but one government – and they are working together to deliver on the Housing for All. ‘Nothing to see here’ was the message – we’re all singing off the same hymn sheet. 

But with Varadkar stating a couple of occasions before Christmas that housing needed a fresh look, including in an interview with The Journal, it is no secret that such a narrative isn’t going down too well among Fianna Fáil backbenchers who want their party image to be that of home ownership. 

Other than housing, what else will be dominating government priorities? 

The old chestnut of healthcare reform and waiting lists is likely to be a key focus in the winter months, but the key is whether Varadkar will put energy behind the delivery of Sláintecare.

Taming inflation is also going be a big focus. Varadkar mentioned on Wednesday that it looks like it might have peaked, but he doesn’t predict prices will fall alongside inflation, unfortunately – which he said is a worry.  

He told TheJournal that the cost-of-living crisis will also remain top of the agenda, with government supports not facing a cliff-edge come February when they are due to end.

In the months ahead, government will assess the challenges with the cost of energy, childcare, education, rent or healthcare. March will be a key month for government when judgement calls will have to be made on two issues involving housing – the eviction ban and landlord tax breaks. 

It has been suggested that these two issues will be linked, depending what calls are made – but either way, it is likely that big financial decisions, perhaps ones that are unusual to be made prior to Budget Day, could be on the cards. Definitely one to watch. 

Other priorities include the refugee accommodation crisis – another one that is likely to hit a pinch point come March when hotels take back their accommodation for tourists. 

leo-varadkar-visit-to-us-day-2 Taoiseach Leo Varadkar presents former US President Donald Trump with a bowl of Shamrock during a St Patrick's Day Celebration reception at the White House in 2019. Brian Lawless Brian Lawless

Another highlight for the new Taoiseach will be his return to the White House in the same month. The last time he was there – for a meeting with Donald Trump – he was announcing to the country that it was going into lockdown.

Whether he decides to invite Martin along – seeing as he missed out on meeting the US president on St Patrick’s Day last year due to testing positive for Covid-19 – remains to be seen. 

The new Government chief whip Hildegarde Naughten will publish the government’s priority legislation in the coming week, which will give more details of what laws will be progressed in the first half of this year. 

Allowing the pubs open into the wee hours of the morning is one such piece of legislation that will be prioritised for before the summer.

Not a pressing priority for many – but no doubt one of the big changes the country could see in 2023. 

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