Thank you for your warm welcome and for the great energy and commitment which we have had at this Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis.
Tonight I want to stay true to this positive spirit. I want to focus on the issues which matter most to people in these difficult times. And to set out a vision for a fairer society.
Every week for the last year I’ve met people in their homes, in communities throughout the country.
The families I’ve met are from all backgrounds – supporters of all parties and none. I want to thank them for their honesty and for giving me their time.
I’ve listened to the details of problems such as mortgage arrears, unemployment, and families worrying about how to pay the next bill.
And just as importantly I’ve listened to their hopes and aspirations – about how they want Ireland to be.
They don’t care about party labels – they want to hear what ideas we have to tackle the urgent problems of today. They want to know how Ireland will be a better, fairer, more successful country in the future.
Ireland will come through this crisis. The skills and spirit of the Irish people will make sure of this – yet they see a Government which is already out of touch and has none of the urgency or ambition which is so badly needed.
Let me repeat what I’ve been saying since the first day of this Dáil – if you want destructive politics-as-usual, if you want blinkered all-out opposition, then the Fianna Fáil party I lead is not for you.
That’s what we saw from Fine Gael and Labour in opposition – it’s what we’re getting from Sinn Fein and others today – and it has done immense damage to public trust in politics.
If you look at the record of the Dáil you will see that when it was the right thing to do, Fianna Fáil voted in favour of government measures. But when they get it wrong, when basic requirements of fairness are ignored, we stand against them.
These are tough times but there are still choices to be made – and every day this government is making choices which are deeply unfair and which are delaying recovery.
This is a crisis which keeps changing and requires new, more flexible and more creative approaches – yet they refuse to respond.
They keep saying “the plan is working”.
Well, unemployment is up, mortgage arrears have doubled and vital services are disappearing.
If that’s how their plan looks, when it’s working, what would it look like, if it wasn’t?
After two budgets and hundreds of other decisions this government has to stand on its own record, and the facts are clear – it is actively placing the burden of recovery onto those who are feeling the most pressure.
Every independent study – national or international – has shown that they have implemented tax, welfare and other charges which are significantly less fair than those that went before.
The less you have, the more this government wants from you.
The more you rely on a frontline public service, the more likely you are to lose out.
With new levies and taxes the one thing they refuse to respect is your ability to pay.
Our message is a clear one. It doesn’t have to be like this. There is a fairer way to recovery.
We’ve already set out in detail our alternative proposals. They are fully costed and they can be implemented immediately to help economic growth and those most in need.
In addition, there is now more money available because of how Europe has changed its policies. This means over €1 billion extra per year is available because of a cut in interest rates and a rescheduling of debt which has been introduced for Ireland and other states.
This should be used to lessen the burden of new taxes, to fund an increased capital programme and to protect health and education.
The domestic economy is crying out for some relief and now the opportunity is there to deliver it. What’s more, it can be done while fully meeting Ireland’s debt targets.
No issue matters more than creating and securing jobs.
To create jobs we have to invest in our infrastructure and we have to invest in our people.
The capital programme has been cut too deeply and this has resulted in job losses and deprived the economy of much needed investment.
We believe a €4 billion capital programme funded by the National Pension Reserve Fund and investment by pension funds should be introduced.
This would allow the development of projects that will offer a commercial return, while also providing a significant stimulus to economic activity which would be beneficial to all sectors of society through our schools, roads, hospitals and other badly needed projects.
Businesses starved of funding cannot protect and create jobs. Banks are hoarding money given to them at low rates specifically to lend to businesses. It’s time to say to them… ‘Release the money to job creators or you will lose it to others who will.’
We’ve also published plans specifically to target youth unemployment. For example, there are industries which are still growing and our plan provides for the training places required to make sure no new job opportunity is missed.
Agriculture and food is one of our most important industries, supporting many thousands of jobs. Our Harvest 2020 strategy remains the blueprint for further growth and job creation and it should be implemented in full. Ireland should stand resolutely against the proposal to cut all farm support by 10% as proposed by European leaders.
And there must be urgent and comprehensive action on a fodder crisis which has already done great harm and is causing long term damage. The lack of real action to date is unacceptable and again shows how out of touch this Government has become.
The majority of jobs in our society are provided by people running small businesses and it is they who are feeling the most pressure.
A fairer recovery which delivers jobs to all parts of the country can only come about if small businesses are helped to prosper.
Many businesses vital to the domestic economy receive little or no support from national agencies. To add insult to injury, the city and county enterprise boards are to be abolished. This is the wrong choice and a backward step.
County-based supports for small businesses should be retained and increased.
In addition there must be an appeals system for commercial rates which takes into account ability to pay.
Businesses on our streets need room to breathe.
Our local authorities and utilities need to be more flexible. Closing businesses because they can’t afford their rates helps no one and causes huge damage.
People who take risks starting businesses are too often left high and dry when it comes to basic social protection. This should change, and for a start access to welfare payments should be extended to them if their business fails.
Fianna Fáil’s proposals would help small business once again become an engine of growth and job creation.
A fairer recovery must also protect the state’s assets as much as possible. There is no excuse for going ahead with their fire sale.
One example of this is the proposal to sell the woods owned by the people through Coillte. They are a major economic resource. They provide a wonderful amenity enjoyed by tens of thousands of families every week.
The sale of our national forests should be stopped immediately and they should be protected for this and future generations.
If we want our country to recover we have to help families in trouble with mortgage and household debts. Over the last two years their problems have grown dramatically worse.
The human impact is an urgent national crisis demanding radical action.
It is wrong for this Government to make it easy for the banks to repossess family homes and that is why we will oppose its Home Repossession Bill next week in the Dáil.
Giving banks full control of debt restructuring is not an agenda for action – it is a recipe for escalating the human, social and economic damage.
Two years ago the detailed Keane Report made recommendations for helping families but since then almost nothing has been done.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
We have published a series of measures to protect family homes and give people a realistic and fairer route out from under the burden of unsustainable debts.
These include an independent office to take charge of restructuring loans and, if necessary, writing-down debt.
Giving this power to the banks, as Fine Gael and Labour are doing, means that there is nobody in the process to ensure a fair and independent outcome.
At immense cost the banks have been recapitalised by the Irish people and they have reserves which are there specifically to tackle this problem.
A fairer recovery demands that families get a real chance to tackle unsustainable debts.
The property tax now being implemented is a classic example of a government which is refusing to respond to a developing crisis.
They have produced a tax which is about, as unfair as it could be. It makes no provision whatsoever for the ability of people to pay. It actively discriminates against many urban areas.
And still, no one in Government has explained why families who cannot even pay their mortgage are now being asked to pay this property tax?
It is wrong to expect families to do so.
This is the wrong tax at the wrong time.
Ní amháin gur dlúthchuid dár n-oidhreacht agus dár stair í an Ghaeilge ach is cuid lárnach dár bhféiniúlacht Éireannach í inniu.
Ar fud na tíre, tá lion na bpáistí atá ag tabhairt faoi fhoghlaim na Gaeilge ag méadú de shíor agus nach iontach an rud í an tacaíocht fhorleathan atá ag Gaeilge i measc an phobail i gcoitinne.
Ar fud an domhain tá go leor tíortha beaga a bhfuil a dteanga féin acu agus níl fadhb dá laghad acu an dátheangachas a chur chun cinn go héifeachtach.
A chairde, is féidir le muintir na hÉireann é seo a dhéanamh freisin agus ba chóir dúinn tabhairt faoi láithreach. Ach tá iarrachtaí ar siúl ag gach leibhéal na cosantóirí ata ag an nGaeilge a thógáil. Tá an daonlathas bainte de na Gaeltachtaí agus pobal na Gaeltachta trí bhogadh toghán don Udaras. Is droch cheim é seo.
Ach bi cinnte tá Fianna Fáil ar thaobh na Gaeilge, bhí riamh agus beidh go deo!
In tough times, community life is even more important. A basic part of community life is safety and security.
Ireland is lucky An Garda Siochana enjoys a close relationship with the communities it serves. This has been built up over generations. Anything which undermines this will cause lasting damage.
That’s why the decision to break the physical link between communities and their Gardai is wrong.
Research shows that nearly half of people now say that they are not confident that the Gardaí have the resources to protect their area. Minister Shatter has confirmed that this has nothing to do with saving money, it’s because the government believes it’s better to have Gardaí driving around in cars than having a local station.
Alan Shatter thinks that telling someone to find their Garda on Facebook is smart policing. Fianna Fáil thinks that he is abandoning a model that works and we will campaign to restore community policing.
Our schools are the heartbeat of our communities. They are the great enablers of opportunity.
Over the last ten years the numbers completing school and achieving good qualifications reached record levels – with the biggest progress being seen with pupils in disadvantaged communities.
Working together, teachers, management and families were making great strides forward.
Yet this government, with the Labour Party directly controlling education policy, has specifically targeted cuts against the most important schemes. It has done nothing to respect the role and achievements of education professionals and in particular, those staff who play a crucial part in educating children with special needs.
For example, today, for the first time and when there is enormous need, Ireland has no dedicated provision for guidance and counselling in schools – this is a disgraceful situation. Furthermore, all support for teaching modern languages in national schools has been ended.
These decisions can and should be reversed – and we have shown how in our budget proposals.
A great strength of our schools is how they are based at the heart of the communities they serve. We should value and develop this unique social role.
Because of this, we will fight any attempt to implement the plan of closing hundreds of small schools in the name of false efficiency.
We will work for a fairer approach which protects the core strengths of our schools and helps improve them by giving them a real priority in funding.
A modern, motivated, patriotic public service is essential for our country’s future.
That’s why the new policy of attacking public servants, and targeting frontline staff for the biggest cuts, is causing so much damage.
It’s why the attempt to undermine, then bribe and then threaten public servants on Croke Park 2 ended in abject failure.
In the past, public servants have undertaken much bigger reforms in their work and delivered major savings. The rejection of a deal for the first time in over 25 years is what happens when a government is more interested in talking to the media than talking to its own workers.
They need to get back to the negotiating table, commit to a fairer approach and rebuild the trust which their behaviour has destroyed.
Real Political Reform
Two years ago the people delivered a loud and clear message – they wanted change.
Our party was held to account for its failings in government – but equally everyone was put on notice that more of the same wasn’t good enough. The time had arrived for a deep reform of Irish politics.
Today Ministers give speeches praising themselves for their reforming zeal but there’s no substance behind it. They have changed the status of who drives their cars – but they haven’t implemented a single significant change in how Ireland is governed.
They said they wanted change but actually all they wanted was their turn.
If we are to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past then the only way we can do that is to implement a genuine reform of Irish politics from the top down.
During this year Fianna Fáil will publish specific measures for reforming the Dáil and government. These will reduce the absolute control Ministers have on all elements of the Dáil’s work, will introduce real oversight over their actions and will bring outside expertise into policy decisions.
We are determined that the public demand for change will not be ignored and that this moment for reform will not be lost.
And reform should not stop here.
As everyone can now see, Ireland is not alone in facing major problems. Throughout Europe and the developed economic world, public finances are in trouble, unemployment is rising and a new sense of despair is setting in.
This is why global economists have labelled this crisis as ‘The Great Recession’.
The European Union desperately needs an ambitious reform programme so that it can once again be an engine for growth and prosperity. The current plan is to start talking about reform at the end of 2014 at the earliest.
How many more emergency summits must there be before they realise the current system is broken and it must be reformed?
Here and in Europe – in every forum to which Fianna Fáil belongs, we are going to campaign for a real reform so that Europe stops being about crisis management, understands the need for a fairer approach and once again starts being about creating jobs and opportunities for its citizens.
Today, as much as ever before, Fianna Fáil believes in the unity of all who share this island. Socially, economically and culturally a diverse and inclusive Ireland is an Ireland which will best serve the needs of its people.
15 years ago Fianna Fáil negotiated and secured overwhelming public endorsement of a new departure North and South.
Through the years we kept up our absolute commitment to the peace process and helped it through many difficult days.
What we are seeing today is an alarming disengagement by the British and Irish governments, who act as if peace can be taken for granted.
The flag riots and dissident violence simply cannot be ignored.
What we need now is for the governments to step up – not walk away.
We need parties to work on the social and economic issues affecting the entire community – not on exploiting divisions to shore up their political base.
The ongoing failure to proceed with the Narrow Water Bridge between Louth and Down even when funding has been allocated from Europe is yet another depressing illustration of this point.
Everyone must recommit to delivering the lasting peace and prosperity promised in the Good Friday Agreement.
Every day the government says that there are no alternatives to the decisions it is taking. It says nothing else can be done.
They are quite simply wrong.
The policies I have talked about tonight can be implemented fully within Ireland’s debt targets.
The Taoiseach claimed last month that the ‘silent majority’ supports his government and its actions.
He may even believe that.
But I can tell him, if he takes the time to go to the doors he’ll find there’s nothing silent about the majority of the Irish people.
He’ll find there’s nothing silent about their anger at a government of spin and broken promises.
He’ll find there’s nothing silent about their anger at decisions which are unfair and hurting those who are already hurting most.
Fianna Fáil is a progressive republican party. I want to thank our members for everything you are doing to work to rebuild the bond of trust which must define our relationship with the people we represent.
These are tough times for our country but there are still choices to be made and there are opportunities to tackle the biggest problems facing people.
Our country needs a credible voice for a fairer society, a credible voice for investment which creates jobs; for helping families tackle their debts; for protecting social supports for those who need them the most; for equal access to a quality Health Service; for supporting safe communities; for valuing our schools; for securing the lasting benefits of peace; for learning the lessons of the past through delivering a real reform of politics.
These are our values and this is our work.
If you share them, join us and help us work for a fairer way to recovery.