Good morning delegates and viewers at home.
Following the general election last year, an opportunity presented itself for all those honoured to be elected to Dáil Éireann to play a role in shaping the next government. Most took the safe option, ran for hills and said taking responsibility was – as always – a matter for someone else.
With no other option left, we took the historic decision to facilitate the formation of a Fine Gael-led minority government. I don’t need to tell any of you, for so many reasons, this was not an easy thing for us to do. We did this to give the country the possibility of political stability in a very uncertain time.
For agreeing to do so, we laid down one overarching condition. The approach to Budgets had to change. The deeply regressive budgets introduced by the last government could not continue. We insisted on progressive budgets – with the emphasis on protecting and improving public services, and investing in our economy.
Last year’s Budget was the first progressive Budget in six years.
Last Tuesday’s Budget made some progress on key commitments in the Confidence & Supply agreement to improve services for our citizens. Dara Calleary will highlight some of those.
Because of that overall emphasis on services, the tax reductions in the Budget are modest – but they are targeted at low and middle income levels. We secured an electoral mandate to reduce the USC and we have made progress on that for two budgets in a row.
I can say categorically – were it not for Fianna Fáil – 420,000 mortgage holders would be losing 100% of their mortgage interest relief at the end of this year. We were the only party to campaign last year for it to be retained. Instead of it being abolished overnight, it will now be phased out over 3 years – this will prevent large, sudden increases in monthly repayments for many mortgage holders.
There is further progress in this Budget for up to 150,000 self-employed people with an increase in the earned income tax credit. It is our party’s position that the self-employed and PAYE taxpayers should be treated equally in our income tax system.
We have also been instrumental in bringing about – for the first time – a scheme that will allow charities to claim back some of the Vat they pay.
For the past couple of years, we have put the issue of high mortgage rates firmly on the political agenda and it has led to some real progress despite no support from Fine Gael. But many customers are still paying rates that are far too high, and rates need to fall further towards European norms.
Our legislation will reach Committee Stage in the coming weeks. It will end the discrimination between new and existing customers and it will force lenders to compete on rates rather than cashback gimmicks that cost customers more in the long run.
We will also continue to fight for proper solutions for those in mortgage arrears. Our party believes families should be kept in their home.
The Government’s Mortgage to Rent Scheme has been a flop.
We introduced a Bill that would empower an independent office to impose a sustainable solution to restructure a mortgage in arrears. It will undergo Oireachtas scrutiny in the next two weeks.
Delegates, I am sure you will agree with me that the handling of the tracker mortgage scandal by the banks has been a disgrace.
Customers were overcharged – often by hundreds of euro every month, for many years. To put it in plain and simple language: the banks took their money.
Some customers lost their home as a result. Others had their lives turned upside down, their dreams shattered.
I am sure many of you are curious like me as to how all the main banks made the same mistake. We need answers. The Central Bank is before the Oireachtas Finance Committee next week and will be rigorously questioned.
Delegates, I am sure you will join with me in sending out a clear message on this issue from this Ard Fheis.
It is not good enough. Those who have not yet been repaid need to be repaid now. Customers should be compensated immediately and people have to be held accountable for how this happened in the first place.
The government’s claim that the trebling of stamp duty on non-residential property will bring in an extra €367m next year is dubious and we highlighted this risk in the Dáil on Tuesday.
There is a need for greater clarity on the transition arrangements that apply to this increase. We are aware of the concerns in the farming sector and I support the call by our Agriculture Spokesperson Charlie McConalogue for the Minister to engage with the industry about specific changes that may be needed.
Despite the economy growing in a strong fashion, many risks remain. Not least, the great unknown that is Brexit looms large on the horizon. We will not adopt a partisan approach to Brexit, but we will hold the government to account.
When I heard yesterday that NAMA was to repay all its senior debt, I thought of the late Brian Lenihan. I thought of him too when Paschal Donohoe said we would have a balanced budget next year – of course Brian introduced budgets that went two thirds of the way there.
Delegates, they have taken the criticism, but there should also be an acknowledgement that, when the crisis struck, many of the decisions made by Brian Lenihan and Brian Cowen laid the foundations of our recovery.
Beyond 2018, we believe establishing a Rainy Day fund is the right thing to do – we need to put money away when times are good so we can draw funds when times are bad. We need an auto-enrolment pension scheme for private sector workers, we need to address the skills deficit in our economy and there is enormous work required to develop the regions.
We have led the way in this Dáil on cost of living issues facing our people. Motor insurance is a good example. A Fianna Fáil motion led to a Working Group being set up. It has now reported and the recommendations are being implemented. The premium hikes of recent years are not acceptable and the reasons behind it must be tackled in an aggressive and sustained manner.
Three and a half years on from the collapse of Setanta Insurance, policyholders are being told by their solicitors they could be personally liable for any shortfall in claims. The government needs to intervene to resolve this mess for once and for all.
It is not on that motorists who had a valid motor insurance policy taken out in this country face the prospect of having personal judgments taken out against them. We will continue to advocate for them until this issue is resolved.
While we should of course cooperate with OECD reforms, the Irish government needs to be absolutely clear with our counterparts in Europe – we are not in favour of tax harmonisation either through the front door or the back door. Fianna Fáil will protect Irish jobs and Irish tax revenue.
Delegates, since last year’s election, we have used our mandate to good effect.
We have fought for a fairer Ireland, an Ireland for All. Unlike other parties, we don’t target certain sections of society and write off others.
We are an inclusive party, a republican party in the true sense of the word.
While we will honour our commitments in the Confidence and Supply Agreement, it is not a blank cheque to the Government.
The defining feature of the Fine Gael Government so far has been its abysmal failure in housing and health. They must up their game.
The ordinary members of Fianna Fáil are the bedrock of our party.
We will continue to listen to you and to the people at home who we are privileged to represent.
Thank you for your continued support.