Speech by Micheál Martin TD
Leader of Fianna Fáil
National Youth Conference, Silver Springs Moran Hotel, Cork
Saturday 5th November 2011
I think we should start by being honest with each other.
The message the electorate delivered us in February was clear – that Fianna Fail has to change.
From the moment, I had the privilege of being elected leader of this party in the final days of the run up to this election; I said I was determined to reform Fianna Fáil and to make our party more open.
I have done my best to live up to that pledge.
Over the last eight months I have tried to do something which had not happened for far too many years.
I have been touring the country and spending a lot of time sitting down and talking with all of our members. It has been a privilege and an education.
What I set out to do is to give every member of Fianna Fáil the right to have their say in a real dialogue with the leadership. The best republican traditions of this party oblige us to be forthright and inclusive.
I know that many of you here today participated and attended the renewal meetings I held in every constituency in this country. Thank you for your contributions and for making those meetings a really positive experience on the road to renewal.
I want to say today that those meetings were not a one-off. Fianna Fail must continue to listen. As leader, I intend to address a similar gathering in every constituency in this country on at least one more occasion before the election.
There were many disparate issues raised in those meetings to date, but they can be brought together in one major message and that is this Fianna Fáil will be rejuvenated and Fianna Fáil will be renewed.
On that, there is no doubt.
Travelling around the country, I felt a real energy and vibrancy amongst our members.
And I saw too a passionate commitment to ensure that this would not be the generation of party members who would let our political tradition go under.
And that made me proud.
And it gave me heart and it gave me energy to continue our work for renewal.
And, most of all, it confirmed that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Our opponents have dreamt about dancing on Fianna Fáil’s grave for a long, long time.
But that won’t happen.
And the reason this – there are thousands of people in all parts of this country who are determined to work together to rebuild our party and to promote the unique and positive role Fianna Fail has to play in Irish public life.
That is people power that can’t be defeated.
I know we suffered a significant defeat in February, but equally we have a real duty to represent the nearly 400,000 people who voted for us. And we also want to earn again the support of the many more who recognise the sustained progress which Fianna Fáil has secured for Ireland over many decades, but chose not to support us at the last election.
Our party has a bright future and I believe that should be informed by the achievements of a proud past. Our founders set an unsurpassable standard in patriotism and public service.
We are proud of their example and of the great record of social, economic and constitutional achievements set in train by de Valera, Lemass, Markiewicz, Aiken and the rest of the founding generation who built our party from nothing.
For that generation, Fianna Fail was a new departure and never a closed shop.
To achieve renewal this must be a party that is totally open to new people, new ideas and new thinking. This must a party where every member is valued and can make their own distinct contribution to what Fianna Fáil stands for and what we deliver for the Irish people.
To succeed we need every single member to play their part. The distance which grew between our leaders and our members in the past played a big part in us losing our way and I am determined that this will not and cannot happen again. The days of a Parliamentary Party attempting to decide everything in isolation from the membership are over for good.
This is a party that is going to listen and be informed by what our members think and what they are hearing on the ground. Constituencies are again holding meetings on a series of radical reform proposals for our organisation. I want to encourage you to play a full part in this process. By the time we hold the Ard Fheis next year I want us to vote on these reforms and swiftly move on to implement them.
No one should doubt the commitment of the members of this party and no one should be foolish enough to write us off. To borrow Mark Twain’s phrase, rumours of our demise are much exaggerated. Last week the voters of Dublin West showed that the public will respond when we put forward good, young candidates with a strong message.
Earlier this year, at the hallowed ground of Arbour Hill, I gave a sincere commitment that at the next local elections, Fianna Fail would, where possible, field at least one candidate in every single local authority area under the age of 30.
In the by-election, at only 25, David McGuinness was the youngest candidate in the field, but he stood head and shoulders above everyone else when it came to being dedicated to working for the people. His energy and commitment is an example to all of us.
I am delighted David is with us here today and I want to thank him and his campaign team for their efforts – quite simply, they did us all proud.
No amount of spin can erase the reality that the Government parties fell 15% from their vote of only eight months ago, and they won the seat only because Labour pretended they were running an anti-government candidate.
The biggest movement in support was to Fianna Fáil, with David increasing our vote by twice the level of any other party. Our support was also double the figure for Dublin in all recent opinion polls. We lost a giant of Irish politics when Brian Lenihan left us. But without our long-established and much missed standard bearer in Dublin West, we campaigned with a new candidate and a positive message. We talked about education, about helping people in trouble with their mortgages and about tough but constructive opposition. In contrast the hard-left parties pushed their empty message of total opposition and ideological politics.
Our great performance in the most difficult of circumstances shows our way forward. It proves that the electorate are fair and are open to a centre-ground alternative which offers credible policies. The daily betrayals and broken promises that we are seeing from this government highlights that you just can’t trust the parties who see problems as things to be exploited not solved.
I want Ógra to play a vital role not just in the future of the party but in the here and now.
Ógra is where I first got active in politics.
For me it was always a place full of debate and energy. People of all backgrounds came together with a great collective spirit.
A commitment to the best traditions of the party was absolute, but so too was a determination to make the party relevant to the needs of a new generation. Now more than ever Fianna Fáil needs Ógra to be a strong and active force within the party.
By the time we get to the local election in 2014 I want to have new young candidates running for every council. I want our candidates to be able to take the message to every doorstep that Fianna Fáil is once again a major positive force in Irish politics. I want people to know that this is a party which welcomes people who have no background in politics but want to make a contribution to public life. I don’t believe in dynasties, I believe in hard work and a better future. And I am asking all of you to help me, in this objective.
The agenda of organisational reform is long and I would like to leave the detail to another day. What I would like to do today is to focus on a number of core policy priorities for us.
Every piece of sustained progress in our country since independence has been based on expanding and improving education. The infrastructure which built this country was investment in people. While others like to talk about a commitment to education, the facts show that every significant expansion in access to education and the quality of education was implemented by Fianna Fáil.
From the 1930s onwards it was our party in government who protected minority education, expanded choice at all levels, opened up second and third-level and in recent years helped Ireland become a world leader in research. No other party has shown even a fraction of our commitment to education.
Paddy Hillery was one of Ireland’s great presidents. Before that he was a great Minister who famously once proclaimed “if Ireland is to have a future it must support education.”
That was true 50 years ago and it is still true today.
It is a core value for us and it will remain absolutely and unequivocally so.
It is becoming abundantly clear that this is a government unwilling to pay nothing more than lip service to education.
In eight months, the only debate they have participated in on education in the Dáil was initiated by Fianna Fáil. On that occasion, they were forced into grudgingly agreeing to our motion that education and training must be protected areas in the forthcoming budget.
In the period ahead, we will hold the government to account on this. And we will be watching their every move very closely because so far they have spent their time briefing about hypothetical reforms but have implemented nothing but a steady attack on key services and abandonment of solemn pledges.
We know there are many tough budget decisions to be taken, but we showed how over 4 years education could be protected. We showed how advances in special education, class sizes and university research could be maintained.
In area after area, sadly this government’s agenda has been to treat education as no different from any other area and it seems to be almost deliberately targeting recent advances.
Because of Fianna Fáil’s decisions, tens of thousands of the most vulnerable citizens of this state, children with special needs, were given the first ever support for participating in the wider education system. Within weeks of taking up office the new government set about rolling back key parts of this progress by holding back hundreds of Special Needs Assistants. Even though there is a €66 million under-spend, posts were frozen and the process of effectively excluding children from their local schools was accelerated.
The same sort of destructive approach has been seen in their well-leaked plans to cut teacher numbers, increase class sizes, cut the number of years of second-level education and prevent children from starting school at 4. This agenda will cause huge damage if it is allowed to succeed and we will fight it at every stage.
Education is also the area where people have seen one of the most cynical political u-turns in our history. Before the election, Labour made a huge play to reverse all increase in the student charge. When they were getting desperate a week before polling day, Ruairi Quinn went to the front gate of Trinity College and brazenly signed a solemn pledge that Labour would fight a return of fees and reduce the student charge. There was no terms and conditions attached to the pledge – it was simple and direct.
Within weeks he had completely and cynically abandoned that pledge.
We now know the price Ruairi was willing to pay to be a minister again, is to cheat an entire generation. Shame on him.
With the Labour Party in control of all spending and in charge of the Department of Education, they laughed and said ‘to hell with our promises to students’. When students started getting angry about this, Labour’s response was to move last month’s polling day to Thursday in an effort to reduce the number of students voting.
Overnight, a decade’s worth of posing as the friend of students has disappeared and they are increasingly exposed.
This is going to be an especially tough time for the education system as a whole with a government which sees it as an area which deserves no special attention. We are going to be active everyday in pushing the interests of education, supporting common-sense reform and trenchantly opposing senseless cutbacks.
In June, we held a full-day policy conference on education which we are continuing to build on. Next year, we will start publishing policy papers on key areas and following these up with specific initiatives in the Oireachtas. We will be true to the tradition of Fianna Fáil being the party of education.
Job Creation & Training
No challenge is bigger than creating the jobs people need. The one area of the economy which has shown continued strength in terms of employment is the export-oriented high-tech sector. Investments which we put in place over the years have paid off, with tens of thousands of people in all parts of the country working in companies which are world leaders.
This success did not come from one initiative but from a series of joined-up policies ranging from education to enterprise support. These were implemented consistently across a lengthy period of time.
This can and must be extended. The potential for employment growth in the export-led sector remains very high.
Unfortunately one of the greatest dangers is that the government will try to focus everything on a handful of programmes and will ignore the wide foundations which are required for success. There are early signs of a return to the failed mentality of the past where government divisively thought it could choose winners and losers, demanding immediate outcomes from every programme.
In eight months the only initiative this government has taken on jobs is actually costing jobs. Their downsized ‘Jobs Budget’ has taken a net €1/4 billion out of the economy. Their collection of ill-thought out, minor policy soundbites on jobs have done nothing. In relation to tourism, they quote figures showing extra visitors, but what they dishonestly never acknowledge is that the increase started well before they made any tax changes – or that the biggest cause of the increase was the absence of an ash cloud this year.
Leo Varadkar is a man of many talents, but controlling the emissions of Icelandic volcanoes is not one them.
The major increase in training places and the replacement of FAS which we provided for are important moves that will have a long-term benefit. It is welcome that Ruairi Quinn and Richard Bruton have decided to simply continue their predecessors’ policies. But they should have the grace to admit this. What is needed now, for the future, is an agenda to build on this work already in train.
The research base which has been central to attracting enormous investment must be protected and enhanced. The move towards prioritising areas of high unemployment must be continued. Support to help small businesses to get involved in innovation and to reduce their regulatory load have to be implemented. Local business rates have to be controlled. The job creation agenda is a very broad one and it requires a much greater commitment than has been seen in recent months.
We are going to play our part by pushing positive pro-employment policies in the coming months.
Dismissive of debate, arrogant in everything and addicted to a cynical strategy of narrow ‘politics first’, this government is already showing its true colours. These colours were in full bloom when Minister Shatter chose to rubbish and abuse the bipartisan comments of a group of distinguished Attorney-General. These same colours were also on display when Minister Howlin, in a cowardly and erroneous attempt, to absolve himself decided to dump on the Referendum Commission and its chairperson.
It is only fair to say that it’s not just Fine Gael and Labour. The equally cynical ideologues of the extreme left offers nothing positive. The people want a credible, middle-ground alternative to this government. They want it to be held accountable by a constructive opposition. Only Fianna Fáil can offer this alternative and it is our duty to deliver it.
The Crisis in Europe
The rapidly escalating crisis in Europe has once again confirmed that Ireland’s problems are closely linked to international ones. From the early 1930s this party has been committed to Ireland being an active player in international affairs and a supporter of close European cooperation. We have led policy in this area and we will continue to do so.
Last week’s European summit marked a very significant moment in the short history of this government. After eight months of posturing, it finally became clear that the government has no European agenda and it has formally abandoned all of its pre-election commitments.
As far as Europe is concerned, this government is irrelevant.
The only sentence in the 15 page communiqué which refers directly to Ireland praises the implementation of an agreement which Fine Gael and Labour condemned and a budget which they voted against. Otherwise Ireland and its demands are completely absent.
Enda Kenny has attended five summit meetings as Taoiseach, but has yet to table a single item for discussion at one of those meetings. He has never circulated a paper for a summit. He has never held a pre-summit meeting with a Eurozone leader. He has never even called another leader in advance of a summit. These are not political claims, they are facts confirmed by him on the floor of Dáil Eireann.
His only European policy has been to meekly sit on his hands and hope that something emerges that he can claim credit for. In July, the Greek deal was extended to every country without us tabling any proposal – yet ministers have received instructions to claim that the Taoiseach ‘negotiated’ €10 billion in savings for Ireland.
This strategy of inaction was directly responsible for their broken promise about bondholders.
Every member of this government and those sitting behind them was elected on a commitment not to pay the full €700 million Anglo Bond repaid last Wednesday. They can dress up their position in all of the brazen nonsense they want, but they can’t wriggle out of their own clear words. They repaid this money without even trying to fulfil their promise of “not one cent”.
A major haircut for these bondholders was a demand of the last government which could not be implemented because others argued that it could only happen in the context of a comprehensive deal. The burning of junior bondholders was insisted on and delivered on. The demand for burning others was repeated in negotiations in both January and February.
Both July’s deal and this deal remove all previous barriers to burning these bondholders but the government has refused to even try to do it.
Put aside the spin and what has happened since then is a complete refusal to actually push something which the government claimed was fundamental when it was looking for votes. Minister Noonan went to Washington and briefed RTE about how much he would do, but in the end, he wouldn’t raise it with Secretary Geitner. He then said he would raise it with the then ECB President, Mr Trichet, in Frankfurt but didn’t.
At the four crisis summits he has attended, the Taoiseach did not table any measure to allow the burning of these bondholders. He did not meet Mr Trichet about it. He did not ask Mr Draghi about it when appointing him as the new ECB President. He did not raise it with his close friend Chancellor Merkel. Fine Gael made a solemn promise of “not a red cent more” which evaporated no sooner than the votes were tallied.
During their years in opposition, the government parties developed a very skilled political operation. As everyone saw during the general election, they put enormous effort into the presentation of policy rather than its substance. As the Taoiseach said repeatedly, their only focus was on polling day.
In government they have continued with their well-oiled media operation – with an ability to hype even the most minor development and to make claims which are divorced from reality.
On major issues and small ones alike finding things to claim credit for has taken priority over actually setting out new policies. In area after area, this has been a deeply cynical, increasingly arrogant and surprisingly inactive government.
The Taoiseach’s ridiculous article last week is classic demonstration of a government which is self-righteous and brazen in equal measures. Claiming credit for growth which began before you took up office takes some special brand of cynicism and hard-neck. Every day ministers industriously praise themselves for a budget they voted against and for a bank restructuring plan which was written by Brian Lenihan. In February they said the export-led recovery was an illusion, now they claim to have created it.
In many areas the government’s “politics first” strategy is disappointing, but in others it is very dangerous. The failure to set out an agenda or even talk about key issues with other European leaders is beyond doubt. It doesn’t matter how many ministers the Taoiseach sends out to praise him for negotiating phantom deals he had nothing to do with, because his refusal to even try to honour a major pre-election commitment will not be forgotten.
With yesterday’s spending plans, politics will start to move to a different agenda. They’ve had their honeymoon and they wasted it on empty spinning and cynical u-turns. They have avoided every tough decision and used their Dáil majority to stifle debate and reject accountability. This time is over – they are accountable for their own choices. They are accountable for their broken promises. They are accountable for their strategy of politics before substance.
They have worked hard to straddle the fence, claiming credit for overall progress but distancing themselves from every decision which has made it possible. As the funders helping Ireland have confirmed, every decision in this budget is the government’s decision forced on them by no one.
When they were in opposition they followed a destructive strategy of opposing everything, and this is being copied by the hard left parties in this Dáil. We will set a different course. No one will match us in doing the hard work of challenging flawed policies and holding the government to account. We won’t obsess about daily headlines, we will concentrate on the harder and more important work of offering a credible alternative.
The Irish people want a renewed Fianna Fáil to act as a counter to this over-powerful and deeply cynical government. We will meet this challenge.
True to our traditions, we will offer new candidates, new ideas and unmatched energy.
Every member of this party has a role to play.