“Thank you for your warm welcome and for the spirit that has made this such a successful ardfheis.
As we meet tonight, there are people throughout our country who are experiencing very hard times. They are struggling with finding a job, paying their mortgage or losing a loved one to emigration.
The problems facing people are too serious for tired, old political games. I believe that people in public life have a responsibility to chart a way forward and to work to find solutions to the challenges facing Ireland. This party is determined to play a constructive and central role in Irish public life. And our focus is very clear – we will do all we can to promote credible solutions to promote growth and job creation. This government of broken promises must be held to account for its bad decisions. But we will tackle them responsibly.
When something is right for Ireland, we will support it, when it is wrong we will oppose it. Let no one be in any doubt about where Fianna Fáil stands – we believe that politics must be about solving problems not exploiting them. We are a progressive party, which believes that the State can do a lot to help people, but it must also empower them to help themselves. We are a republican party which believes in listening to the people. We believe in showing them respect by not pretending that there are easy solutions to even the hardest of problems.
We are also a party which understands the need for profound change in both our organisation and throughout Irish politics. This is the first time I’ve spoken to an Árdfheis as leader. It’s a great honour and responsibility to hold this office.
I first got involved in Fianna Fáil because we were a party of community, of integrity and of decency. We stood for social solidarity and were on the side of people trying to make ends meet. When Europe was falling to fascism, our founding leader Eamon de Valera introduced a democratic republican constitution for this state. We created social support schemes to help the weakest in society, gave a priority to pensioners and opened up Irish education. We secured investment in new industries, built vital infrastructure and supported all regions. That is the great party we all joined and it is the party that Fianna Fáil must become once again. I am determined to get us there. But I need your help.
I am the first person in my family to hold elected office. My parents taught us to respect different political views but, for them, republicanism came first and at its core was a duty to serve the community. I chose to join Fianna Fáil because of the progressive patriotism of the great revolutionary generation who fought for our freedom and founded this party. Those leaders were true radicals because they were willing to learn from their own failures and to listen when the people demanded a fresh start.
Over the course of 86 years, our party has led progress for Ireland which has been sustained to this day. We have every right to defend our achievements. Equally, we have a clear duty to admit our mistakes. It’s not enough to point to the worst world recession in 80 years and the Euro zone crisis. Nor to point to the fact that other parties were demanding policies which would have made things worse – that’s for them to answer for.
We were in government and we should have acted differently. We made mistakes. We got things wrong and we are sorry for that. No equivocation. No half-apology, just the plain, unvarnished truth. Last year the people did what they were right to do, they held us to account. People were angry and they showed it, delivering a historic defeat for us. We fully acknowledge the scale of the defeat. That is why we must now work for a deep and real renewal of both our party and of politics as a whole.
This is a crisis which is just too serious to think it can be solved without a complete reform of our public life. For too long, this has been a political system which only discusses fundamental issues when they become a crisis. It concentrates nearly all power in the hands of 15 people sitting at the cabinet table.
Dáil Eireann is becoming more irrelevant and ineffective and it’s not just a national problem. In local government there are many examples. Just recently ‘Bin Collections.’ for half a million people in Dublin have been privatised with no consultation, inadequate tendering and disastrous results. The people of Dublin have consequently been treated disgracefully. If we are really to learn the lessons of the past, if we are to have a political system which can deliver long-term growth and stability, then reform isn’t an optional extra – it’s absolutely essential.
Since the election things have actually got worse. In the Dáil, the government’s control has increased and accountability has decreased. Laws and budgets are being rammed through with less scrutiny, committees are less effective and important questions are not being answered. We believe that the Constitutional Convention to be formed in the next few months must consider changes which touch on every aspect of the political system.
Every day we all deal with the impact of powerful bodies, like regulators, who set prices for basic things we need to run our homes and live our lives. It’s time for them to be subject to proper parliamentary and consumer oversight which is independent of government. If politics is ever to change, then political parties have to change the way they work. Today Fianna Fáil implemented the most radical series of changes to its organisation since our foundation. Our members have been empowered to take a leading role.
Fundraising has been changed so that nearly all money raised is now coming from small contributions and we have also implemented the toughest ethical rules of any Irish political party. The next stage is to give members a real say in developing policy and to rebuild the connection with communities which was always our greatest strength. With the energy and idealism I have heard from talking with thousands of members in the last few months, I know they are taking the lead in renewing this party.
I would like now to talk about our economy. First, I would like to acknowledge the courageous work our late colleague Brian Lenihan did in laying solid foundations for Ireland’s economic recovery. In fixing the economy the room for action is limited. I’m not going to pretend that there are easy options. We have always supported a strategy of bringing the deficit down to a sustainable level but let no one have any doubt there are still important choices to be made which will define Ireland’s future. We believe that the government has made many wrong ones. Some of these choices, such as the raid on personal pensions and the 2% VAT hike, are costing jobs and reducing budget revenue. It was also their choice to introduce the most unfair budget in recent years. This is not a political claim, it’s a simple fact. The ESRI and others have confirmed that this Labour/Fine Gael Budget fell hardest on ordinary families. There is a credible alternative. There are affordable policies which can make the recovery faster, fairer and more secure.
I am convinced that Ireland will come through this crisis, but to get there as quickly as possible we need to make the right strategic calls. You don’t need to sell off state assets at fire-sale rates in order to be able to afford to invest in the economy. We’ve published a detailed proposal that would generate €5.6bn for job-creating investments. This would involve a partnership between private pensions, the National Pension Reserve Fund and small investors, to provide the capital necessary for vital projects. This would give pension funds a good rate of return, securing both the future of pensions and creating jobs.
This is a practical solution which should be done and done now. After three years of recession, tonight at least 100,000 families are facing severe pressures in meeting their mortgage and household debt commitments. Many others feel trapped by mortgages which far outweigh the value of their home. Worst of all, the situation is not stabilising; it is getting worse month by month. Behind these figures is an enormous social and economic impact. It is being felt by many of you here tonight and watching at home. Every one of us has a friend or family member who is in despair about how to manage and provide for their loved ones.
If we want the economy to recover and to prevent a much deeper social crisis then the time has come for more radical action to help home owners in trouble. But what can we do?
Well, for a start, we have published a series of measures to protect family homes and prevent repossessions. The government, by contrast, has taken a much more timid approach. At the centre of our proposals is the creation of a statutory debt settlement office. It has to be genuinely independent, not controlled by the banks as Fine Gael and Labour are proposing. Our Debt Settlement Office would secure binding agreements between homeowners and banks, reducing the debts of those under most pressure, to sustainable levels. Of course some banks have warned against being forced to help homeowners in trouble. The answer to them is simple; the help you got from every citizen of this Republic already includes provision for the write-down of domestic debt. They must act and if they will not they must be forced to.
The cost of leaving things as they are is just too high. The Irish public has a right to demand action, and action now. The foundation of progress and growth in this country has always been education. I am part of the first generation in my family to have been given the chance to finish second level and go on to college. Throughout the working class community I grew up in, education provided real opportunities, which would otherwise have been impossible.
Fianna Fáil has been responsible for every significant expansion in access to education in the history of this state. I am proud of that. I want to be clear, supporting education is a core value for us and it always will be. We can’t be complacent. There are still weaknesses in our education system, but equally it has many great strengths. There is no justification for the decision by current Ministers to use one survey to spin the worst possible picture of Irish schools. Ireland is very lucky to have a high quality teaching force and they have achieved great things in often difficult circumstances. The choices this government has made on education are amongst its worst and they must be fought. Small rural schools are the heartbeat of their communities. They should be cherished not attacked. The cuts they are facing will impose the maximum damage for the sake of tiny savings. The targeting of cuts on the successful DEIS programme for disadvantaged communities are a disgrace. A half reversal is not enough. We will not stop campaigning until they have been completely reversed.
At this time of great uncertainty for young people, the ending of all dedicated support for guidance and counselling is also just plain wrong. These cuts defy all logic and are unnecessary given the other funding options available to government. There are many areas where reforms have to be implemented in our schools. Society keeps changing and so must they. The agenda should be one of common sense development, which is focused on the core skills of literacy and maths. For Ireland to recover it needs to value its education system and we will be second to no one in seeking to protect it.
Agus leanfaimid orainn ag tabhairt cosaint daingean don Ghaeilge. Don chéad uair ó bunaíodh an Stát, tá an Ghaeilge ar tí dul chun cinn suntasach, buan a dhéanamh. Anois, le dea-obair TG4 agus Raidió na Gaeltachta, tá cláracha le hard-chaighdeán Gaeilge ar fáil. Ní hamháin sin ach mar thoradh ar an obair chrua atá ar siúl inár scoileanna, go háirithe sna Gaelscoileanna, tá an Gaeilge anois á labhairt in áiteanna sa tír don chéad uair ó aimsir an Ghorta. Ní hé seo an t-am chun gearradh siar ar an tacaíocht atá ar fáil do scoileanna atá ag múineadh trí mheán na Gaeilge. Agus ní hé seo an t-am chun ceisteanna a chur maidir le stádas speisialta na Gaeilge ar an gcuraclam. Botún stairiúil a bheadh ann, agus leanfaimidne orainn ag troid go láidir ina n-aghaidh.
I know that education by itself is not enough to deliver the jobs Ireland needs. There are too many unemployed people with good qualifications for that to be the case. Government isn’t the whole answer, but it must do more. It has to help companies to compete. And in this age of rapid change, government has to help create new industries if it wants to create new jobs.
The right investment by the State can have a huge impact. Today, there are tens of thousands of jobs which are in industries that barely existed a few years ago. Ireland is a world leader in many areas like software, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and food. This is because of the right choices taken by Fianna Fáil a decade ago, to invest in research. There are a lot of people who think that research is something which concerns only a few people wearing laboratory coats. In reality, companies and colleges directly employ over 20,000 researchers, and many times that number in the wider community. Ireland’s research base has been transformed in a decade. It is now a great national resource which is only beginning to be exploited. Put simply, Ireland’s recovery needs the government to renew its commitment to research. Research and innovation can help every business and every single community in Ireland. Fianna Fáil believes this must be supported all the way from Blue Sky work to the factory floor.
The right way to start would be to reverse the decision to abolish grants which help students from modest backgrounds to study at post graduate level. It’s a socially regressive and economically foolish decision. The majority of jobs in this country are created by people running small companies. There are many of you here, and watching at home tonight. You don’t get on the evening news every time you create jobs, but you will be the engine of employment growth if you’re given the chance. The challenge today is to ensure that you get that chance.
Every day I talk to small business owners who say that their single biggest problem is access to credit. The banks have received enormous funding from the state and the ECB specifically to help business survive and grow. But they have been holding the funding back in order to sit on unnecessary reserves. This is undermining business and costing jobs. If the banks won’t release the funding then it’s time to introduce legislation to force them. The government’s proposal to land millions in extra costs for sick leave, on those we need to create more jobs makes no sense. It will increase unemployment and cost the State money. A better policy would be to reduce costs, particularly for businesses under pressure. Taking a lead on this, we will introduce legislation to allow an ability to pay clause for commercial rates. Locally, our councillors will also support reduced commercial rates as a way of stimulating local job creation and revenue.These are practical, innovative solution which can be implemented immediately helping thousands of small businesses. Supporting job creation is going to be central to our work in the years ahead.
Exactly fifty years ago Seán Lemass and the Fianna Fáil government submitted Ireland’s application to join what is now the European Union. Jack Lynch, Paddy Hillery and others built this tradition further. Today, hundreds of thousands of jobs depend on our being a full and active member of the European Union. For Ireland’s economy to create jobs we need Europe to return to growth and investment. This has always been a pro-EU party and we are not going to change that now. We have taken the lead in setting out a detailed series of reform measures which Europe needs to get through the crisis. It reflects the policy we have consistently supported and because it is the right thing to do for Ireland, we will be true to our tradition and we will support this new treaty.
We were founded as a republican party and republicanism remains our core belief. We will always believe in a united Ireland. We will work day and night to fulfil the republican ideal of uniting Protestant, Catholic and dissenter. In the last 14 years we’ve led the absolute victory of constitutional republicanism on this island.
As far as I’m concerned the heroes of the peace process are the Irish people who were willing to open a place for the men of violence to abandon their illegitimate campaign of death, destruction and unrest. The end of violence is not the end of the peace process; it’s just the first stage of realising the great potential of this island. Our country cannot afford engagement between North and South to be reduced to a level of formal exchanges between official institutions; it needs to be stepped up. The all-island agencies should be expanded and strategic investment in integrating North-South links can and should be delivered in full. Fianna Fáil will never agree to step back from or wind down this process. For the sake of generations to come we need to realise its full potential.
Ireland was very lucky to have such a wonderful President through these vital years. Tonight let us acknowledge the historic presidency of Mary McAleese and her role of building bridges on this island. The people of this country have told every party that they want a new politics. They want solutions not an endless election campaign.
I’m determined that Fianna Fáil under my leadership will lead the way. This is a government making many unfair and damaging decisions, and we will never shirk from challenging them. But let me be clear, if you want destructive opposition, if you want a replay of the deeply cynical opposition politics seen before the election, then go elsewhere.
If you believe in renewing the progressive republican tradition which built up this country, then join us. If you believe in building a future for Ireland based on supporting education, new industries and small businesses, then join us. If you believe in opening up politics to new people and new ideas, then join us. If you believe that politics should be about helping people not exploiting their fears, then join us. If you want to make a positive contribution to the future of our country, then join us. Fianna Fáil will not retreat from the fray. Ireland needs a viable and vibrant republican party.
To renew our work and to regenerate our society is a huge national task. Join us in that great endeavour and let’’s all play our part in getting this country back on track.”