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Full Text: Taoiseach Brian Cowen at the official Opening of 72nd Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis - Part 1

Speech by Taoiseach Brian Cowen at the official Opening of 72nd Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis.

Fáilte chuig an 72ú (seachtú dóú) Ard-Fheis ag Fianna Fáil. Seo í mo chéad Ard-Fheis mar Thaoiseach agus mar Uachtarán ar Fhianna Fáil. Is mór an onóir dom a bheith mar cheannaire ar an bPáirtí seo agus is mó ná sin an onóir dom sampla na ceannairí a chuaigh romham a leanúint.

Agus sinn i lár ghéarchéim eacnamaíochta ar fud an domhain is féidir ár muinín a chur sna traidisiúin a bhí agus atá fós ag Fianna Fáil. Cuireann Fianna Fáil fáilte roimh gach uile dhuine ar spéis leo leas ár dtíre. Déanaimid ár seacht ndícheall ar son an phobail idir íseal agus uasal. Táimid ionadaíoch ar gach pobal in Éirinn. Tá toscairí anseo ó gach cearn den tír.

Ní páirtí polaitíochta amháin é Fianna Fáil ach gluaiseacht náisiúnta. Nílimid ag brath ar fhealsúnacht amháin thar aon cheann eile. Nílimid ag brath ar chuid amháin den phobal thar chuid eile. Is sinne an t-aon pháirtí i saol na polaitíochta in Éirinn sa lá atá inniu ann atá ag obair ar mhaithe lenár muintir i ngach contae in Éirinn le tír níos fearr a chruthú dár muintir ar fad. Léiríonn an bonn leathan atá faoin bpolasaí atá againn tuairimí an éagsúlacht daoine sa pháirtí seo. Ní neart go cur le chéile, agus sin é an bonn láidir atá fúinn.

I would like to welcome you all to the 72nd Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis, It is an immense privilege for me to lead this party and to follow in the footsteps of the great Fianna Fáil leaders who have gone before me. At the outset, on behalf of all the delegates, I want to sincerely thank my distinguished predecessor, Bertie Ahern for his immense commitment to our Party and this Nation over many years. This Party is proud of him and his many achievements on behalf of the Irish people.

I also want to express our appreciation for our partners in Government and the Independent TDs who have steadfastly supported us in the Dail. The Green Party is making a strong and distinct contribution to the work of this administration and I appreciate the commitment at the cabinet table of Ministers Gormley and Ryan. The Progressive Democrats have a long track record of service to this country. I look forward to continuing to work with Mary Harney to deliver progress for our people.

This weekend gives us an opportunity to renew our vigour as a party in Government - and as a people - to deal with the greatest economic challenge that this nation, and the other nations of the world, have faced in generations. We will focus on how we in Fianna Fail and all the people of Ireland, can face these challenges together, and gain strength and renewed purpose from coming together as a party and a nation.

Ireland has succeeded in recent years in my view because of one factor above all others - our people. This nation is full of hardworking, smart, and dedicated people who are willing to get the job done. It’s an asset that we have not lost, even as the values of so many other assets have diminished.

In preparing for this year’s Ard Fheis, we have identified key challenges and opportunities that we face as a Party, as a Government and as a nation.

Tomorrow we will focus on economic challenges and how we can best protect this country from the ravages of the most severe global recession in eighty years.

This evening we will discuss organisational matters and look at our place in Europe.

The Irish republican tradition which our party is a part of is distinguished by the fact that it has always combined the assertion of national aspirations with a strong belief in international engagement. As early as our formative days in the 1920s Seán Lemass was talking about how the only way to secure peace and prosperity in an historically strife-torn continent was for the countries of Europe to work together.

It will always be an immense source of pride for this party that it has taken the lead in fulfilling this vision through securing, first our membership, and then our active engagement within what is now the European Union.

A great strength of the Union has always been a determination to meet new challenges and progress its own work. The various Treaties which have been enacted over the last thirty years have played essential roles in increasing regional development, opening up markets, improving working conditions and allowing the Union to build a stronger voice in the world.

There is no way of avoiding the fact that 2009 will be a defining moment in our relations with Europe. After a seven year process, a package of institutional reforms has been agreed and 26 other countries wish it to be implemented.

The result of the referendum last June was clear but the way forward was not. Anyone who claims that there was a single reason why the referendum was defeated, or that there was a consensus amongst those who voted on either side, is simply wrong.

I took the view that time was needed to step back from what was a fractured and divisive campaign in order to try to build a deeper understanding - particularly of exactly what the Irish people want in terms of our relationship with the Union in general, and the Treaty in particular. We also recognised that Ireland is not in a position to impose a solution on 26 other sovereign states - our voice must be respected; but equally, we must respect theirs.

We believe that there can and will be no simple rerun of the Lisbon Treaty. June’s vote demonstrated that there are concerns felt by many people which require a substantive response.

We have worked hard to try and find as much common ground as possible in terms of the Irish public’s views on the way forward. At its most basic this involves the question “what type of member of the EU should Ireland be?”

This is not actually a simple question. Let’s not forget there are people who have opposed every European Treaty and continue to oppose some core provisions underlying our membership, who are now claiming to love and admire the Union.

Poll after poll confirms that the substantial majority of the Irish people believe that the EU is a positive force and that its development over recent decades has been to the benefit of Ireland. Fundamentally, people want us to be members of the Union and they want it to be as efficient and effective as possible. Equally, people are scared of the idea that there will be a ‘two-speed’ Europe, where other countries forge ahead with greater cooperation and we would opt-out with countries traditionally less Euro-positive. There is no evidence of a desire for a radical change in our relationship with the Union.

We have worked hard to identify a clear negotiating position. Ireland can’t seek to be on both sides of every argument in a debate - which is the reality of many of the anti-EU campaigns. When our partners say to us “what do the Irish people want?” they are asking for specifics, not contradictory arguments and general phrases.

Our engagement and negotiation with our EU partners has been comprehensive. Already, the other Member States have committed to ensuring that, if the Lisbon Treaty enters into force, each Member State will retain a Commissioner. This is a huge achievement in its own right, given the efforts over many years to reduce the number of Commissioners. They have also committed to providing legal guarantees on key areas of concern to the Irish electorate - taxation, neutrality and ethical issues. Finally, there is a recognition of the need to reaffirm the importance of specific issues such as workers rights and public services. The legal and technical work to give effect to these commitments will be finalised in the period ahead. Then, and only then, will I be prepared to call a referendum.

Any new referendum will involve a significant and comprehensive response to the major concerns raised by the Irish people last year. The democratic will of the people will be reflected in the proposal and then they will have the final say.

For our part we will again campaign actively. We will learn the lessons of last year. Our core belief is that the future of this country demands that we be full, positive and active members of the European Union.

It is not just in terms of a decision on the structure and powers of the Union that 2009 will be a defining year for Europe, June’s elections for the European Parliament are coming up also.

This is a time when parties who support Europe from all parts of the Union must work more closely together. They must make sure that the Parliament works well and stands against the radical Eurosceptic agenda.

Given the changing role of the Parliament and the new structures of its groups, Fianna Fáil has no alternative but to reconsider current arrangements. We need to strengthen our work with others who share our basic approach while insisting on the right to vote in accordance with the views of the people we represent. To that end, we will soon advance a proposal to join, for the first time, a pan-European party - the European Liberal, Democratic and Reform Party. Our representatives have been part of that party’s group in the Council of Europe for some time and this has worked out well - particularly because it is a group which works hard to respect the views of smaller countries.

Following June’s election, should everything progress as expected, we will then consider joining the parliamentary group to which the ELDR is affiliated. I am confident that we can negotiate a position that will strengthen our voice and that of all people who believe in a Europe of states working closely together.

In the history of this party we have much to be proud of and a great tradition to draw upon. Central to this tradition is a commitment to reform and renewal.

Continue to part 2