I want to thank you all for attending the Youth Conference and for your commitment to Fianna Fáil. It’s been a great year for recruitment and Ógra remains a dynamic part of our presence throughout the country.
For our party as a whole it’s also been a year of steady progress. We have recorded our highest membership since the introduction of one member one vote.
The biggest objective of that reform was to ensure that we become a party which doesn’t just wait for elections in order to start campaigning. It is our members who are driving forward the current programme of local campaigning and public meetings on vital issues such as housing, Brexit and health.
Our party draws on a proud republican tradition which is dedicated to the idea of reflecting the needs and aspirations of today. The challenge to all of us is to make sure that we are constantly looking at the reality of issues in the communities we serve.
Our great founding generation built a legacy of securing real sovereignty and radical institutional reform which entrenched democracy, rejected extremism and gave our country the ability to set its own direction.
Even though he came to office after forty years in public life, Seán Lemass and the new generation of leaders which he brought forward delivered a period of genuinely radical transformation upon which the progress of the last fifty years has been built.
They opened up our country to participation in strong, rules-based international organisations.
They dramatically increased access to education. They reformed restrictive laws, created new social supports, began the drive for equality and made Ireland a preferred destination for foreign investment.
And while we have made mistakes, many of the strongest parts of today’s Ireland comes from our work in more recent governments.
The research base central to some of our biggest industries, the motorway network, the continued expansion of education and major advances in public health are achievements which remain core for our country’s success.
And of course there is our central role in securing a new beginning for peace and cooperation on this island. The simple fact is that Fianna Fáil in government showed an unmatched commitment to relentless working to overcome every obstacle and deliver historic progress.
No one can question the central role of Bertie Ahern, and the way he built a remarkable relationship with Tony Blair. Particularly in light of recent events, we should remember how he reached across traditional boundaries to establish unprecedented and close relations with the unionist community.
And we must also honour the role of Brian Cowen and the way that he worked with Gordon Brown during incredibly difficult times to keep delivering progress.
The twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement is coming at a moment of deep crisis for Northern Ireland. At a moment when Brexit is threatening enormous damage, the people of Northern Ireland have no voice at the table. With record homelessness and hospital waiting lists in Northern Ireland, there is no Executive in Belfast working on behalf of the people.
The issues which caused the breakdown are a fraction of those which have been overcome in the past – but there is little hope at the moment.
For six years we have been saying that the dysfunction of relations in Belfast and the lack of impact the Dublin/London cooperation was having, would lead to a serious crisis.
Both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have criticised our party for having the cheek to question them and call for a new approach. We do not need to justify ourselves to anyone when it comes to our commitment to an effective consensus approach to Northern Ireland.
We have a duty to speak up when we see things going wrong – and surely even they must now accept that a new dynamic is required.
A return to genuine all-party talks, with an independent chair and the full participation of the two governments is probably the only way of getting some chance of a return of functioning government. And without a functioning government in Belfast the Brexit outcome will be much worse.
The talks about re-establishing the Executive and Assembly deserve a lot more attention than they have received. Every possible outcome which does something to mitigate the impact of the English-driven decision to walk away from Europe requires a devolved government in Belfast.
While Fine Gael and Sinn Fein believe they should attack anyone raising questions, we will continue to call for the governments and parties to respect the will of the people and get back to delivering on the Agreement.
Since last year’s conference there has been a change at the top of government. One of the remarkable things about it has been how little change in substance there has been – in fact there has been a step back to the past in many areas.
The new Taoiseach’s obsession with trying to divide society into the deserving and the rest speaks to the views of a time and place he claims not to remember.
The deep, ongoing and overwhelming obsession he has with spin has already become a defining characteristic for him. It is one that he can get away with for a while but it will disappear as soon as attention focuses where it should be – on the near systematic failure to deliver on critical issues such as housing and health services.
For this government the priority is selling a message not delivering on services. While they rush to elbow their way into the centre of pictures on some occasions – on others they are nowhere to be found.
When the latest homelessness figures were released how many interviews or press conferences did they make themselves available for?
Last November we were all told that the corner was being turned and the crisis would be solved by 2019. The facts paint a very different story.
Since last June alone homelessness is up by a remarkable 15%. The number of children who are homeless is up by 13% – with 3267 children homeless this very evening.
What does it tell you about priorities that a government faced with this emergency and the ongoing crisis in many parts of the health system, is focused not on solving the problems but on spending millions branding government and promoting projects which will not even be built in the next decade?
The obsession with spinning everything, over claiming on everything and bringing politics into everything means that our new Taoiseach and his government is very close to a tipping point.
The day is not far off that no matter how aggressively they brief or how much public money they spend promoting themselves the public will stop listening.
And for the young people of this country the government is failing to deal with issues which are step-by-step undermining their ability to achieve long-term security.
Its policy on higher education is incoherent at best. The cost and ability to access higher education is a rising problem. The only things which have been done to address them were forced on them by Fianna Fáil. We forced them to end the exclusion of many students and to restore key grants schemes. But there is an ongoing refusal to understand how much more needs to be done.
There is a student housing emergency which is being made worse by escalating rents both on and off campus. It’s time to at very least regulate rents in buildings which benefit from state aid and to have strategy which matches supply with demand for affordable accommodation.
Unlike the rest of the housing market, the state knows exactly what the short, medium and long-term demand for student housing is and it has a duty to play a much bigger role.
And when people leave education and go into the housing market this generation is facing unique problems. Even with well-paid and secure employment, something which is not available in many areas and for many people, finding a place to rent let alone buy is becoming close to impossible.
This type of impact is also being felt because of escalating insurance costs. There are practical steps which can be taken to reduce them, but the government continues to resist meaningful actions.
And in the jobs market, the younger generation is facing unique pressures with the rise of insecure contracts, the need to constantly retrain and the knock-on inability to plan properly for the future.
What we are seeing at the moment is a failure by the state to appreciate the incredible pressures our younger generation is experiencing. It seems that the more they talk about youth the less they understand about the reality of the pressures felt by young people outside of a small golden circle.
What distinguished Fianna Fáil from most of the other parties is that we are not just pointing to the problems and the failings of the government – every day we are working to propose genuine alternatives.
In housing, access to education, household debt, insurance cost, mental health services and many other areas no one can say that we are failing to be constructive.
What we have to do is to go even further in this work. The scale of the problems which this government is failing to tackle and their deep impact on different generations is such that we have to bring many of these separate initiatives together.
In particular I want us to prepare in the next four months a comprehensive plan for helping people under 30 to access education and training, get a job which gives them a chance of a good career and access key services.
I want everyone here and in the wider Ógra organisation to work on this. Talk with our spokespeople. Meet together and come forward with your contributions to this plan.
This is the very spirit I talked about at the beginning. At key turning points in our work as a party we have taken the time to understand and address the problems and aspirations of a new generation.
It’s not about presentation, it’s about substance, it’s about renewing the public belief that politics can deliver for them.