Speech by Micheál Martin TD, Leader of Fianna Fáil
Fianna Fáil National Youth Conference
South Court Hotel, Limerick City
Saturday 5th November 2016
Congratulations on another excellent Ógra conference. This is the final major event in what has been a great year for Ógra. Membership has never been stronger and you’ve made a huge contribution to our party’s success. I want to thank Eoin Neylon in particular, your officers and the members who are not here tonight for your great work – and even more importantly for the energy and ideas you give to Fianna Fáil.
In February’s election the many and diverse prophesies of Fianna Fáil’s disappearance were proven to be spectacularly wrong. While acres of newsprint was devoted to dismissing our chances the reality on the ground was very different. It’s worth understanding the reasons for this because it shows us our core strengths.
Our party has a great tradition of making a positive and lasting contribution to developing our country – a tradition ignored by some but appreciated by many more.
When we suffered a major defeat we didn’t waste time refighting old battles, we focused on renewing our party’s commitment to its founding ideals. We used our representation in the Dáil to develop positive proposals for Ireland and addressing the urgent needs of today and building a positive future for all. Much of this work received no media attention whatsoever, but we took our message directly to the public. And they responded positively to our constructive and ambitious approach.
We also set about empowering our members and enabling a new generation of representatives. It wasn’t always an easy process, but our focus on the future had a big impact.
Our parliamentary party is now more diverse – balancing proven experience and new skills. In area after area our representatives are taking a lead in addressing important issues and working to have an impact on behalf of the people we serve. They’re producing important legislation, amending and improving bills introduced by others and driving pressure for a strategic and urgent approach to tackling vital issues.
In housing for example, we’ve pushed the government to start introducing serious measures across the full range of issues involved in the housing emergency. They continue to make mistakes and still fall victim to an enormous gap between promises and implementation, but at least five years of denial and hype have been stopped. We will continue to hold the government to account on delivering what is needed to tackle the national housing crisis.
The fact is we weren’t able to persuade any other TDs to vote for the only realistic route to remove Fine Gael from power. And having tried three times to form an alternative government we alone said we would continue to be constructive while others continue to play populist games.
We have succeeded in stopping the deeply regressive tax plans of Fine Gael and have begun to have some of the worst policies of the last government unwound. That shows a party which isn’t interested in playing political games and isn’t interested in the idea of total opposition or total control.
I absolutely agree with those who say that this government is failing to show urgency or ambition in tackling major problems. In area after area it has to be pushed into action and in others, like the Brexit vote, it keeps failing to prepare for tackling obvious risks.
Brexit is one of the biggest challenges Ireland has faced for many decades and if we do not invest in a plan thousands of jobs could be lost and growth in our economy could be jeopardised. The small medium business sector is already feeling the impact in the drop in sterling and this is being particularly felt in the agri-food sector which is the back bone of employment in regions across our country.
There is no excuse for not getting prepared for Brexit and other issues facing our country. There are those who fall for the idea that this is because of the fact that the government doesn’t have a majority in the Dáil. They believe that being in a minority makes the government weak and leads it to fail to get to grips with important issues. This is nonsense and doesn’t pass even the most basic scrutiny.
For five years we had a government which started with a 60 seat majority – the largest in our history. But that so-called strong government failed in area after area to understand what was happening or plan for the future. After five years it went arrogantly into an election demanding thanks but was rejected by people who looked at health, housing, education and public services and saw no policies and no leadership.
Every cabinet minister has at their disposal the full resources of the public service to help them chart a way forward. Their failure to move beyond short-term approaches isn’t about not having a majority, it’s about not having the commitment or vision.
In the last few weeks certain Fine Gael figures have got very upset with us because of our criticisms of the government. According to them it is outrageous that we should point to our differences with them or point to the substantial areas where positive developments are happening because we demanded action.
It appears to be Fine Gael’s position that we should avoid challenging them or saying hard things about them. Bizarrely they believe that it might be possible to talk about health without pointing out the shambles and damage of the past few years.
The team which brought us “Keep it Going” still doesn’t understand the impact which five years of a divisive and unfair government has had.
Well I’m sorry to have to disappoint them, but Fianna Fáil has no intention of stepping back from entirely justified criticisms and challenges of a government more committed to holding power than doing anything with it.
Following the last minute deferral of the unprecedented Garda strike on Friday the country is now facing hundred of schools being closed on Monday because of the ASTI dispute. In the meantime other public sector unions are pushing for more pay increase when the Lansdowne Road Agreement is meant to be in place until September 2018.
We all need to step back and acknowledge that Ireland is just coming out of a deep recession and demands for early pay increases would jeopardise the country’s recovery. I firmly believe that as a country we need to invest more in public services.
We are all aware that there are parts of the country that still has not felt the impact of the recovery. Public services have been decimated by the last government and this needs to be corrected. Our public services need continued investment in areas such as education,health, disabilities and mental health so that people who depend on these services can receive them.
Ireland also needs to look at more imaginative ways of continually investing in capital infrastructure .The stop and start polices are not working.
Let’s be clear on the issue of populism and responsibility. Alone of any party in Dáil Éireann in recent years, in opposition we have accepted strong fiscal constraints. In the last Dáil we regularly voted for reasonable proposals and rejected the more cynical populist approach of others.
We reached a deal and we’ve honoured it in spite of a lack of transparency from the government and last-minute game playing more focused on internal Fine Gael manoeuvrings than a constructive process.
It’s long past time for ministers to put aside their complacency and politics-first approach and to start showing some urgency in bringing forward serious strategic measures on major policy issues.
Education has always been a core issue for Fianna Fáil. Every step-change in participation, investment and qualifications in education has been initiated by Fianna Fáil.
It is fifty years ago this year since Seán Lemass’ radical government, with Donogh O’Malley as minister, began implementing access for all to second level education. At the same time new types of second-level schools were begun, the now Institutes of Technology were created and a massive expansion in participation in third-level was initiated. A modern Ireland with rising standards of living and falling poverty would have been impossible without these decisions.
Later on we started the targeting of educational disadvantage, created new universities, supported new Irish-medium schools, developed special education and implemented research policies which underpin entire sectors of our economy.
And it is because we have always made education a core priority that we have fought against the neglect and damage of policies implemented in recent years. Third level funding has been neglected over the past few years and the ratings are showing all the signs of this.
There are institutes of technology across the country that are on the brink because of funding difficulties.The funding deficits have to be corrected. We used our influence in the confidence and supply arrangement negotiations on this core issue and there was some extra funding allocated for third level in the latest budget.
Labour and Fine Gael ministers undermined vital elements of our education system and made it more unequal.
Some of their worst policies are now being reversed because of our insistence.
Every student leaving school should have access to guidance and counselling at a critical crossroads in their lives. Because of Fianna Fáil this vital service, which has been shown to make the biggest difference in disadvantaged communities, is being restored.
The ending of post-graduate grants was a mean and unnecessary which directly blocked ladders of opportunity for thousands of students from poorer families. Next September the restoration of these grants will begin. It’s about fairness and opportunity and we will make no apology for having demanded it.
But we also have to be clear that the funding crisis in third-level is now at a point where it is doing deep and potentially permanent damage. This is happening in all parts of the system.
What the government doesn’t appear to understand that there comes a point where rising class sizes, falling investment and reduced choice impact on the quality of education.
We are also already losing hundreds of advanced researchers vital to our future. At a time where the ability to compete internationally is more and more dependent on skills and innovation, drift and underfunding in third-level will have a much wider economic and social impact.
While the latest budget increases are a start, what the sector needs most of all is a long-term strategy. It can’t keep going from year to year, it needs some certainty and it needs to be able to focus on the quality of the teaching and research carried out in our universities and institutes.
The future of our third-level system is a defining challenge in shaping our wider future – and it is one where we will be pushing for a clear blueprint and sustained investment.
During 2016 Ógra members have also been active participants in the commemoration of the founding event in our country’s modern history.
This has been a wonderful year where the Irish people have shown a generous and open approach in expressing their pride in the men and women of 1916. Almost uniquely for Europe at this dark moment, the expression of deep commitment to Irish national identity has positive and constructive.
We owe this to the vision of Irish republicanism of Pearse and his comrades. They believed in a modern, inclusive and forward-looking Ireland which worked in cooperation not competition with other countries. They started a rebellion, but did so in the name of creating a democratic republic dedicated to the welfare of all its citizens.
Fianna Fáil was founded by men and women who fought in 1916 – and who believed in focusing on the objectives of true republicanism rather than an unchanging commitment to set means. We have every right to be proud of the role our founders played in 1916 but our commemorations this year’s have always emphasised that 1916 belongs to no party.
Thankfully the Irish people had no difficulty seeing through the cynical and dishonest attempt by Provisional Sinn Fein to rewrite history and claim some direct relationship with the Rising. In what is one of the most brazen moves in our modern politics they put Constance Markiewicz on their election posters – in spite of the fact that she chaired the founding meeting of Fianna Fáil and was a Fianna Fáil TD when she died.
I think we need to build on the positive atmosphere of this year’s commemorations and in particular the support of community initiatives to reconnect with their history. In too many countries you find governments and parties manipulating history for their own ends.
If we remain true to the spirit of the 1916 commemoration then Ireland will have done more than any to empower people to engage with the past and make it a source of unity.
Once again, thank you for your great work this year and enjoy the rest of the evening.