I want to welcome you all today to our National Councillor’s Conference. This is the first time we have held this conference since Fianna Fáil became again the largest party in Irish local government.
If you followed the predictions and the polls last May many of you would not have been elected. In fact, there are commentators who have still not acknowledged how many of you were elected. They went silent for a couple of days and then just went straight back to what they were saying before.
Your performance – the performance of our party – in the local elections marked a major step forward. It showed us being able to reconnect with people in communities in all parts of the country.
It also showed how big the gap can be between national commentary and what’s happening on the ground. It was a great achievement to recover from the 2009 and 2011 elections and emerge first in both seats and votes.
Congratulations to you, to your campaign teams and to the local Fianna Fáil members who made the difference.
Our strategy for the Locals involved strong candidates, active campaigning and a programme of credible solutions for people.
We refused to join Sinn Fein and the far-left parties in promising people whatever they wanted to hear – and we showed people that Fine Gael and Labour’s mantra that nothing could change was wrong.
It was a campaign, based on being honest with people and taking our message to them directly. We didn’t obsess about the polls and we didn’t lose our heads. We were focused on becoming elected representatives for our local communities.
Whatever we do, however much we achieve, there are those who will find a way of talking it down.
We can’t be wasting time on that.
We have to keep the focus on addressing the problems faced by people in every community in our country.
And let no one be in any doubt that these problems are very real.
You wouldn’t know that from last week’s meeting in Castlebar – which may well have set a world record for the amount of arrogant self-praise.
A combination of dishonest hype and hysterical attacks showed that Fine Gael today is deeply out of touch with the reality of Ireland after four years of their unfair, arrogant and divisive government.
Every single element of the story they are promoting is a fairytale.
They claim to have turned around the public finances, but they voted against the majority of measures for two years before the last election and these measures actually closed the deficit.
Many sectors of the economy have proven to be resilient during the recession. Foreign direct investment has remained resilient because of the skills and industries developed well before they came to office. Their budgets have actually harmed jobs growth in some sectors of our economy.
They claim to have been fair, when every independent review has shown that they have significantly shifted policy to place the biggest burden on families under the most pressure.
They claim that they cut taxes while they have actually introduced 13 tax hikes.
The less you have the more they are asking you to pay.
They claim to be fixing the health service while in reality cutting services to people who need it on a daily basis.
Perhaps worst of all they claim to have implemented a “democratic revolution”. The only revolution there has been has been a four year campaign to take more and more power into the government’s hand and to close-down opportunities to challenge them.
‘Enda the Fireman’ dramatically turning around the country is a fiction which not even his most blinkered supporters actually believe. That’s why they are so eager to keep shielding him from a head to head debate.
He can find time to talk about Fianna Fáil at his party’s conference but he won’t repeat his words anywhere where he might have to deal with the reply.
You can call that many things, but brave leadership it isn’t.
It is the Irish people that have delivered the start of recovery and it is this government and its policies which has made this recovery so unfair.
It is Fine Gael and Labour which has decided to ignore the household debt crisis. They have insisted that the Banks have the final say in dealing with distressed mortgages and as a result thousands of family homes are being threatened with repossession.
I know that at council level you are all dealing every day with the practical impact of the government’s policies.
Our councillors were warning about the huge social cost of Joan Burton’s cuts to housing benefit well before they hit the headlines.
The impact on local services of the government’s water policies has been disruptive.
Solely in order to pull a book-keeping trick they established an unneeded bureaucratic monster which is directly taking funding away from local services. At the same time delivery of water services is still being done by the same local authority staff.
The sole new activity which Irish Water has delivered is the installation of water meters which will at best be unused for years.
Last week, after a lot of questions and digging for information, Seán Fleming found out that last year alone €290 million in motor taxes which should have gone for local services was instead diverted to Irish Water.
This is money which is legally supposed to go directly to councils yet it is now paying for unearned bonuses and the installation of water meters which serve no purpose. In spite of the imposition of a crude version of water charges, investment in fixing supplies is actually down.
Irish Water is not needed to ensure investment and it is not needed to deliver the modern reliable and safe service people have a right to expect. Water services which are local, responsive and accountable are what we need.
The Irish Water model is already costing the taxpayer more, and will cost more in the future because of the convoluted, meandering way it has been set up. In the meantime no extra money is being invested in water infrastructure to improve water quality.
I know that many of you are already tired of the empty speeches of Sinn Fein councillors claiming to be in favour of radically changing everything. Well their approach to water is very interesting.
They were encouraging people to pay their water bills, and then they changed and encouraged them not to .They were calling for the removal of Irish Water and changed and now calling for it to stay in place .Today, despite the waste of money we have exposed, it’s not clear where they stand.
Maybe we should look to the North, where until relatively recently, they had a Minister in charge of Northern Ireland Water. Did they tear down the quango? Did they introduce any major reforms to row back the centralisation process initiated by the Direct Rule British ministers, which was the blueprint for Irish Water? Of course not.
In fact, the stand-out event from Sinn Féin’s stewardship of Northern Ireland Water was when their Minister was found guilty of religious discrimination in appointing a Chairman to the quango and landed the taxpayers with a huge discrimination fine of more than £120,000.
That sort of behaviour would end a political career here, but the normal rules of accountability don’t apply to Sinn Féin.
Since last May Fianna Fáil’s councillors have been delivering on their promise to work to protect and improve local services as much as is allowed by the cuts imposed to fund Irish Water.
They’ve been voting to hold down property taxes and rates to the maximum extent possible. They’ve been working constructively with others to give a priority to services which communities rely on. Most of all they’ve been staying in touch with the people they represent and bringing their concerns to Council meetings as well as to a national level through our party.
I want to say how much I appreciate the regular information we receive from councillors about the issues that are being raised with them. On issues like medical cards, housing benefit and health services this feedback helps us to make a big impact on a government whose first reaction to every problem is to deny it exists.
At a national level it is quite clear what the defining issues are at the moment and Fianna Fáil is determined that a credible alternative will be available to a government of spin and broken promises.
We’ve already published 84 bills and 30 policy documents, but over the next six months we’re going to go further. We all have a responsibility to communicate and disseminate these policies.
Let me tell you about the core principles which will underpin our platform for the next general election and the years ahead.
We will stand up for the squeezed middle in our society; the huge majority which have lost faith in the idea that their work and effort will be recognised by the state. There are too many working families who at the end of a week’s work are still struggling to pay all of their bills.
There must be a return to the core principle of ability to pay being respected when taxes and charges are levied. The priority for tax relief must be for it to be fairly spread with the greatest benefit going to those most under pressure. We will be paying particular attention to the Universal Social Charge.
We will show our commitment to ending unfair austerity – which is the way that government has targeted cuts at services and communities which can least afford them.
Time after time vital services relied on by the weakest in our society has been the first in the firing line. This doesn’t have to be. There is a decent and fair alternative.
Childcare costs in Ireland are the second highest in Europe and they need to be addressed. Deputy Robert Troy is finalising a detailed and costed document that will be published over the coming weeks.
We will put the interests of children to the fore. Everywhere you go in our country people tell you about the fear they have of their children losing opportunities and being denied a fair chance.
This government’s education policy has not just been a shambles it has been a disgrace. To end all guidance and counselling support in disadvantaged schools is a policy which no government could take if it cared for educational opportunity.
Our policies will show how schools can be funded properly, important pre-school programmes expanded, apprenticeships made available and access to 3rd and 4th- level restored.
We will address the growing crisis which is the exploitation of many vulnerable workers. The growing casualization of parts of the workforce and the expansion of deplorable zero-hours contracts must be tackled immediately.
These practices are not required for growth or competitiveness. They simply build a two-tiered labour force and deny opportunities to many skilled and hard-working people.
An industrial policy which expands the groups and regions which benefit is an absolute priority and so too is the principle that we must have a recovery based on decent employment opportunities.
Of course nothing will change unless there is a true reform of politics and public life in our country. Six years into the crisis there has not been one single significant change to the way Ireland is governed.
In fact, many of the worst aspects of the system have been strengthened.
Fianna Fáil took the lead in defeating the government’s plan for strengthening its control in the Seanad referendum and we will set before the people the most comprehensive and credible political reform plan ever produced in a general election.
Our principles are for a country which moves forward in solidarity; which is determined to leave no community or group behind.
Many constituencies have already arranged policy meetings and all are due to have held them by the time of the Árd Fheis. Their suggestions are all analysed and taken on board.
In the next year there will be a General Election and selection conventions have already started across the country. The government is right when it says there will be a choice at the next election but it’s not the one they are talking about.
It will be a choice between an arrogant, out of touch and self-satisfied government and a programme for a recovery which is fairer and felt by all communities.
It is up to all of us to inform people on why they should vote for Fianna Fáil and why our policies are fairer. We believe that public services should be protected and that ability to pay has to be at the forefront of all government taxes.
Fine Gael is only interested in a second term but we are interested in Ireland in the long term. This is why our party founders fought in 1916 and this is why our democratic republican party was founded in 1926.
I want us all to work together towards returning as many candidates as possible in the general election.
It won’t be easy but by staying focused and working hard we can expose the broken promises of Fine Gael and Labour. We can give people a real choice at the next General Election.