This conference is happening at an important moment in Irish politics. Nine months after the general election the real shape of things is beginning to emerge. A government elected with a massive majority has started to let its mask slip. Instead of offering a radical new politics they are governing in an even more cynical way. Every day they are casually breaking even the clearest of their promises. They are treating the Oireachtas and the people with contempt – publishing more and more documents which over-spin and under-deliver.
In the opposition most parties are concerned with the equally cynical game of opposing everything, pretending that there are easy solutions to even the hardest of problems. Their extreme ideologies let the government escape real scrutiny.
In contrast, only Fianna Fáil is offering strong, middle ground opposition. Supporting measures where we agree with them but offering credible opposition where we don’t. On a whole range of issues it is Fianna Fáil which has been holding the government to account. Where it matters, such as their deeply-damaging and counter-productive levy on private pensions, we are the ones who have exposed and scrutinised their plans.
They had a very long political honeymoon because of their huge majority and a lot of goodwill. Nobody wants the government to fail and they have been given a lot of room to get on with things. What’s happened is that they have become increasingly arrogant. In the Dáil they shout-down their opponents and they shut-down debate to stop criticism.
Every time they are caught out they try to claim they are breaking their promises because the Troika are forcing them to. They really seem to think that the public will swallow this nonsense.
The full agreement with the troika was published three months before polling day. Every party’s manifesto was drawn up with exact details about the fiscal situation available to them. Since then nothing has changed. When Ruairi Quinn pledged to stop fees and reverse student charges he had the same information available to him as he has today. When Eamon Gilmore said “Labour’s way or Frankfurt’s way” and Enda Kenny said “not a cent more for the banks” they had the same information available to them as they have today. When every Fine Gael and Labour TD promised more money for special needs assistants they had the same information available to them as they have today.
When they increase fees, pay back unsecured bondholders and cut special needs assistants they are solely responsible. No one forced them to make their promises and everyone will remember that they broke them.
Over the course of recent days, one minister after another has refused to answer questions about the upcoming budget. Minister Ruairi Quinn insisted that there could be no discussion of the budget in advance of its publication. It now transpires that while he was making these comments, details of the budget were being distributed in the German parliament.
This is totally unacceptable, not to mention reckless. After the leak to the Germans, Minister Noonan confirmed it was his intention to increase VAT by 2% and the Government have yet to sign off on it. This decision in itself would be wrong and it is not a requirement of the EU/IMF deal to hike VAT up in one full sweep. This will put more pressure on business and cost jobs.
Three weeks into their drip-feeding of the budget the public can see that the only new strategy they have is a communications strategy.
After February there were a lot of commentators who casually dismissed the idea that Fianna Fáil would play any further part in public affairs. They have already been proven wrong and they will continue to be proven wrong.
Most of you have participated in the renewal meetings which have been held throughout the country. You’ve seen thousands of our members turn up and give their honest and passionate opinions about what went wrong in our party but also about why Fianna Fáil has a unique and positive role to play. We have a great tradition behind us and we can have a great future in front of us.
One of the most consistent messages from our members has been that we have to renew our party based on stronger local foundations. Membership must involve more than turning up to cast votes and give opinions. We have to be a party of activists, working hand in hand with public representatives to make sure we’re representing the people properly.
Our members are up for this challenge. We’ve already moved into the next phase of discussing specific radical reforms of the party’s rules which will implement the restructuring of the organisation. At a transformative Ard Fheis in February, these will be voted on. That’s a major programme of renewal and reform in just 12 months.
I want you, our local representatives, to take a leading role in rebuilding the party. We have to see a strong organisation as helping representatives not as a threat to them. Equally I want a new partnership between the party nationally and our local representatives.
The first thing which needs to be realised is that this government’s plans pose a direct threat to key elements of local government. Their proposals involve dismantling key local services. In all areas their instinct is to increase central control. From education to enterprise their policy is to reduce and remove local democratic involvement.
Water services are a very good example. What they are proposing is to remove all local involvement in the planning and delivery of water services. There will be one water company based in Dublin which will take over the water and sewerage services now provided by councils. They are proposing this without having produced a single piece of paper to show its benefits. They have not examined its impact or its cost, yet they have a junior minister working full-time on making it happen.
There are many problems with our water services, and there’s no doubt that more coordination is required in many areas, but their plans are deeply dangerous.
The plan to create a single Irish water company is, most probably, actually part of an attempt to privatise water services. This is what was behind the creation of a water company in the North before devolution and what happened in Britain under Margaret Thatcher. Fianna Fáil is resolutely opposed to this agenda. We will oppose any move towards privatisation. Instead of wasting time and money on new structures the money should be put into improving services.
We will also oppose the proposals to strip local communities of their say in developing country enterprise strategies and to dramatically reduce their say in the control of VECs.
Reforms introduced in the last ten years have begun to have a very positive impact on local government. A lot of progress has been seen where an area-based approach has been extended. In many parts of the country, local representatives and local communities are in greater contact than ever before and councils have significantly improved the quality of consultation. For example, the area committees in the cities have been a great development.
I think that local government in Ireland has been improving significantly because councillors have been given extra support in their work and because real consultation has been built into policies.
At the same time as removing local involvement in services the government is, of course, talking about how much it loves local democracy and how much it is committed to reform. This is the same government which loves to talk about political reform to empower the Dáil but does exactly the opposite in practice
When they reduced the Taoiseach’s exposure to parliamentary questions they called it reform. When they moved topical issues from the end of the day to the middle of the day they called it reform. When they proposed cutting six TDs from the Dáil’s membership they called it radical reform.
I want you to work with us in helping to fight the attack on local delivery of services and local democracy. I also want you to help us to develop our own counter-proposals for increasing local democracy and the role of councillors.
The next local elections are a crucial challenge for us. To maintain or grow our position on councils throughout the country we have to give these elections a priority which has been missing for far too long.
Candidate selection will happen early. It is in everyone’s interest that we immediately fill gaps in representation where we have no councillor. That’s why we have proceeded to put in place a network of local party representatives to lead the work in those areas.
We have to offer the people tickets which combine the proven expertise of effective councillors with new candidates. As everyone could see in Dublin West, when Fianna Fáil puts forward a young and energetic candidate standing on a platform of meeting the needs of people, we can grow our vote significantly. We went from fourth place to second place in only eight months. Our vote was twice what the opinion polls were suggesting.
That performance has knocked the hell out of those who were writing us off and proven once again that the people do not share the elite consensus on politics.
Between now and 2014 I want us to ramp-up the link between our national activity and your activity, with our work in Leinster House being carried into as many council chambers across the country as possible. Every TD has been assigned constituencies to support. I have instructed them to seek from you issues to raise in parliamentary questions and the topical issues debates. I know that some of our Senators are also putting place a system to collect these ideas. Everyone in Fianna Fáil needs to start doing what has been absent for a long time – work together as a team and this has to start from the parliamentary party outwards.
By 2014 we have to do something else we’ve been poor at over the years – holding Fine Gael and Labour accountable for their performances on local councils. For the last three local elections they have used the cynical tactics of pretending to be in opposition even where they control the council. In Dublin, Fine Gael and Labour have held the majority on the three county councils without a break for the last twenty years. Yet look at the campaigns they have run and their refusal to accept accountability for any of their failings.
The left wing will continue on its policy of attacking everything, so they will have no credibility in criticising the Labour and Fine Gael councils. We have to be ready to show all the promises they made in 2009 and how they have systematically proken these promises.
I believe that local elections should be about local issues, but in 2014 the politics of broken promises will be on the ballot paper in every council. The behaviour of the government nationally is being reflected in councils throughout the country. They will do everything possible to run away from their record. Let’s be ready to challenge them and to provide a positive alternative.