I want to start tonight by thanking you all for the great support which you provide for our party. Time and time again it has been clear that our members and supporters are our greatest asset.
It is you who have provided the irreplaceable foundation for our growth and renewal in recent years.
This is a social night for stepping away from the day to day noise of politics, but it is also a moment for us to reflect on the challenges ahead.
Today our organisation is much stronger than it was five years ago. We have become the largest party of local government. We have doubled our Dáil representation and our membership is up.
I want to thank everyone here who has played their part including the party’s staff who retain a remarkable calm in working with over 20,000 members who are always ready to give their opinion.
The late, great PJ Mara once said that “the more people are fighting over nominations the healthier the party is”. I’m happy to report that we are in robust good health.
In conventions throughout the country we are bringing forward teams which combine established experience and new blood, including an essential increase in the number of young people and women standing for the party.
We know for sure that we will be contesting two major national elections in May. Preparations are well advanced and we are going to compete with a positive and active campaign.
We are going to promote a message of local government which is more dynamic in addressing the urgent needs of communities and which can do more to make up for the dramatic failures of central government on vital issues like housing and tackling local disadvantage.
And we will compete in the European Elections as a party committed more than ever to active membership of the European Union which is one of the greatest legacies of our party’s founding generation.
We will always be proud of the outward vision of Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch in leading us info the EU.
At a time when dark forces are seeking to push Europe backwards we will campaign for an Ireland which supports a more active and effective European Union.
I know many of you are closely following developments in relation to the confidence and supply arrangement. From the first moment we entered into that agreement we have been completely consistent in our actions and we have operated in good faith.
The facts show that we stepped-up when others wouldn’t and ensured that a government could be formed after a general election and that we have provided strong and constructive opposition.
And for all of the posturing we’ve heard from Citywest today – Fine Gael ministers and their leader need to remember that they don’t get to spend a year trying to destabilise their own government and then start delivering lectures about stability.
In entering this review we’ve ignored the spinning and attempts to introduce preconditions. We have insisted on a substantive review of the current state of priority issues and plans for the future.
Our focus is where it should be, on the substance of policy and the concerns of the people who we represent.
Let no one be fooled into thinking that by being constructive we are being complacent. The opposite is true.
There have been two defining characteristics of this government, particularly in the last year and a half.
First it never acknowledges there are problems until they have reached crisis level and second there is a chronic and growing deficit between its claims of action and delivery on the ground.
The housing emergency is the direct result of a government which refused to undertake even basic planning, ignored population projections and has failed to deliver on any of the four housing strategies published in the last five years.
At times it has seemed that the more photographs we see of the Taoiseach and his favourite minister in hard hats the less they are actually doing.
12 months ago at his last party conference the Taoiseach announced “the plan is working”. He even claimed that the homelessness figures had turned a corner and were getting better.
Yet today there are 800 more children homeless than there were on the day the Taoiseach took up office. Despite the ongoing efforts to massage the figures, there are almost 10,000 people homeless today.
Young people are being locked out of the rental market and are losing hope of being able to afford to buy their own home. Rents are actually up on average 34% since we were told that they were going to be controlled.
We have worked in good faith to get much greater urgency in action on housing.
We have demanded and secured a dramatic increase in funding for a new affordable housing scheme, for an increase in the direct building of social housing and for tackling the shameful homelessness emergency.
Yet there is still a terrible inertia at the heart of government on this issue manifested by the frustrating delays in delivering on any scheme that they have announced.
In the health service they are providing the opposite of leadership. In the face of rising waiting lists they focused not on treating more people but on removing people from the list using any available excuse.
The Minister is desperate to talk about anything other than the core services provided in hospitals throughout the country.
And of course the Taoiseach is playing his favourite role of outside commentator – ignoring his time as Minister for Health and even recently outrageously attacking doctors, nurses and other frontline staff for taking holidays at over Christmas period time.
It’s the nurses and doctors and other frontline staff that keep the hospitals open at Christmas time.
The Taoiseach will always find someone else to blame for their own failings.
And they have nothing to say about the growing failure to provide vital services for special needs children. There are 4,000 children with special needs waiting for an assessment and there are of thousands more waiting for access to therapies. This is a national scandal and our children deserve better.
At the root of these health failures are government decisions to abolish essential oversight within the system through the removal of the HSE Board for PR reasons some years ago.
HSE staff have been neglected to the extent that there are disputes in progress or threatened with nearly every core profession within the health system.
There is now also a chronic shortage of qualified consultants on the frontline and a very serious recruitment and retention crisis in all disciplines across the health service.
The rising waiting lists and underdeveloped policies are not inevitable and they reverse previous progress that was delivered by Fianna Fáil led governments.
Since 2011 Fine Gael has been incoherent in health and the people are paying the price. They want us to believe that nothing can be done, but we reject this idea completely.
Through the current confidence and supply agreement we have secured some vital initiatives. Thousands are being treated by the re-established Treatment Purchase Fund which was an essential pre condition by our Party in the talks on the confidence and supply arrangement.
We also secured an increase in mental health services funding but we are very impatient and frustrated with the lack of progress.
It says something about their health policies that the only areas they can point to progress on are ones they were forced to do through the confidence and supply agreement.
But it is long past time to show a genuine commitment to resourcing key services, working with staff and putting aside the short-term politics which has driven policy in recent years.
We need a serious commitment to defining and implementing the long-term expansion of our public health services.
And of course the massive delivery deficit which has grown in recent years is particularly dramatic on vital infrastructure like broadband.
If we want businesses to grow and thrive throughout the country they simply have to have access to basic technology. Six years ago Fine Gael promised universal broadband access. They said 90% would be connected by 2015 and 100% connected by 2020.
Yet they have failed to deliver these commitments today. It is businesses and homes in rural Ireland that are bearing the full impact of this failure. They rightly sees this as the result of a government which continues to ignore its urgent needs.
The Taoiseach says Broadband is his personal crusade, yet this is the most dramatic failure to meet delivery targets in our recent history. We need far more urgency and transparency on this issue.
So let no one be in any doubt, we have serious issues with the direction of public policy.
We reject the complacency of the Taoiseach and his government who believe that things are great and all problems are in hand.
That’s why we are not stepping back from our insistence on a meaningful policy review before any decisions can be taken on the future.
When we hear speech after speech in Citywest attacking the time being spent on reviewing their policies the more it suggests that for Fine Gael the objective is holding power not what you do with it.
Of course this is a very sensitive moment because of the current state of the Brexit process. That’s why we took the initiative last month to give a guarantee that Ireland will not be caught without a functioning government while the outcome of this round of negotiations and the form of Brexit next March is uncertain.
There are many minority governments in Europe who are concerned about the outcome of Brexit, not least the UK government – but the Irish government has been given a unique opportunity by the largest opposition party to have security and stability at the most critical time.
Yet what has Fine Gael done? Reports today claim that at the critical Cabinet discussion on Wednesday about Brexit, Fine Gael ministers spent time talking about whether they could pull an electoral stroke and have a general election.
I am saying to Fine Gael, please; don’t give us any lectures about responsible politics or the need for stability.
There is an agreed process. It requires a substantive review which should be completed. Stop trying to manufacture a political crisis and start focusing on doing your jobs.
But let’s focus on the bigger picture.
Brexit is a tragedy for Britain, for Europe and for the wider world. Its impacts are deep, underway and universally damaging.
One of the cynical tricks of Eurosceptics in the past has been to hide from the likely cost of their policies. They have claimed that the EU is the enemy of efficiency and somehow holds back our economies – and they have gone further by claiming that everything is sunnier outside the Union.
This mountain of lies has been exposed and we are seeing everyday what the cost of anti-EU politics is.
Growth is down, prices are up and wages are squeezed. The negative impact in the UK stock exchange alone speaks volumes.
The economic illiteracy of the Euro sceptics has turned the UK from the fastest growing economy in Europe to the slowest – and they have done this even before Brexit has happened.
And Ireland has already been hit by Brexit and will be hit further whatever the final outcome.
As of tonight no one has any idea what will happen on March 29th next year or in the long-term. We know for sure that there are fanatics who want to push a crash-out Brexit and there is no emerging consensus on what to do.
We need to understand that Ireland is nowhere near ready for all eventualities. In terms of substantive issues at government and business levels we are well behind where we need to be.
The Dutch have hired 1,000 extra customs and tax staff who will all be trained and in place next March. We have just started hiring 400 with no clear date about when they will be trained or in place.
Funding schemes announced last year have either not begun or have allocated a tiny fraction of funding.
There has to be an urgent redoubling of Brexit preparations or we risk missing our opportunity to minimise the impact of the UK’s Brexit mess.
Our job as a party is to work in every community to listen to people, to represent their views and to keep them informed.
We have to focus on critical policy issues, and especially the housing emergency, failures in health and the growing pressures being faced by young people and families in achieving and maintaining a good quality of living.
Our unique role has always been to be a party which learns to respond to the challenges of new generations and we remain committed to this.
Ours is a progressive, Republican Party which is determined to keep working for an inclusive, successful and outward-looking Ireland.
An Ireland which gives a strong voice to its people in national and international affairs.
I want to thank you for your support and you commitment to our party and I look forward to working with you all in the year ahead