A chairde agus a dhaoine uaisle

Is mór an onóir   agus phribh léid dom  bheith i bhur láthair anocht mar Uachtarán FhiannaFáil don chéad uair.

Ba mhaith  liom mobhuíochas a ghabháillibh as bheith anseo anocht ag an oíche soiseálta seo – go háirithe dóibh siúd a tháinig anocht ó timpeall natíre.

Ón tús anocht,ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas ó chroía ghabháillibh as uchtandil seacht agus tacaíocht a bhfuil tugtha agaibh don Pháirtí le blianta beaga – go háirithe i míFeabhra i mbliana.

I won’t hold you long tonight but I do want to set out briefly what we’re doing to renew this great party and the contribution which I am determined it will play in the future of our country.

This has been a tough year for Fianna Fáil.  That’s why it’s especially encouraging to see people here tonight in such numbers.  At the outset, I want to say simply – thank you for your loyalty and your continued support.  We all know we have a big job of work in front of us. In February the public were angry with us and the state of the country and they showed it.  We suffered a very large defeat.

There’s no way to put a gloss on the election result and it helps no one to try.

Faced with this defeat there were two options facing us.  First we could pretend that this was just a swing of the electoral pendulum.  We could just pick ourselves up and head straight back into battle, without taking full stock of the message the electorate gave us, but hoping that things would just work out in the end.  The other approach open to us was to step-back, to accept the scale of what happened and deal with this critical situation by taking time to review and renew our party.

That is the practical and sensible path we have taken.  It is more challenging in the short-term but it is the more sustainable for the long-term of our party.  It is a process not without pain and not without rigorous self-analysis and the need to accept fresh thinking – it forces us to question even basic assumptions about our work and our policies.  It is also the only credible way forward.

After four months of travelling the country to meet with our members, I can tell you something for sure – they are up for it.  They believe in the Fianna Fáil tradition.  They are proud of our service to this nation over 85 years.  They are determined that this party will be renewed.  And they are adamant that this will not be the generation of members which abandons Fianna Fáil the Republican Party.

That true commitment and that sense of resolve is our major asset as we work to build once again a great national movement.  It is also something that our critics have not taken on board in their determination to write us off.  But let me tell you this, they do so at risk only to their own credibility because there is a lot of fight still left in this party.

I am truly heartened by the enthusiasm and the determination that I have seen from our members.  And I know that with hard-work and the same collective will that made our party great in the past, we will succeed.

Thousands of members have attended our renewal meetings.  We’ve had very lengthy and open discussions.  I told these meetings that I wanted to have something in our party which has been missing for too many years – a genuine dialogue between the members and the leadership of Fianna Fáil.

We have to be a party that is open to new ideas and new thinking so we can best respond to the challenges of an ever-changing Ireland.  I want to lead 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.

If we are to get this party back on track then the last thing we need is ivory-tower solutions.  The Parliamentary Party can’t thrive in splendid isolation from the membership.  The perspective and the experiences of our grassroots must keep our public representatives grounded and informed.  The distance which grew during a long stretch in government is something I sincerely regret and am determined to put right.

The first round of our renewal meetings have nearly finished and we’re ready to move things on.  A series of radical proposals for reorganisation have been distributed for comments.  At the heart of them is the idea of empowering the membership.  We have a lot of great representatives, but on the ground political work is the business of every member, and every member should have a real opportunity to influence both candidate selection and party policy.  We need a constant two-way flow of ideas and communication between our members and our public representatives.  Membership can’t be a passive thing of just attending meetings and giving your opinion – it has to be active, constructive and valued.

Next February we’ll have an ÁrdFheis where the changes will be voted on and a real debate will be allowed.  The ÁrdFheis will be returned to what it was supposed to be, a major decision-making forum for the party.

By then we will also have completed the process of putting in place area representatives so that there is a publicly-available person representing the party in every community.

What we will also do is move forward a programme of policy renewal.  This will include proposing a new set of fundamental aims to replace those first adopted by the party in 1926.

Let me be clear on this, we will always be loyal to the core values upon which this party was founded – but the scale of change in our country should be reflected in our party constitution.

The fact that from the outset, de Valera and Lemass saw Fianna Fáil as a republican organisation, a unifying force in Irish life and a vehicle for progressive politics should not be lost on us today as we seek to revitalise this party and bring new energy to it.

I am especially conscious from listening to our membership that there is quite rightly a huge sense of pride in the accomplishments of this party as a republican movement, in delivering the fullest measure of Irish sovereignty and working for the essential peace and unity of our island.  We have always been a progressive, constitutional republican party and this is hallowed ground which we will never move from.

In spite of what some people have been saying in the last week, the peace process which we led marks the absolute victory of constitutional republicanism on this island.  We stood against those who dismissed the great achievements of our War of Independence, who were deaf to the mass support of the Irish people for non-violent republicanism.  And in recent years we took major risks to bring the men of violence into democratic politics.  The heroes of the peace process are the Irish people who were willing to open a place for the men of violence to abandon their illegitimate campaign.

There is a vital place in Ireland’s political landscape today for an open and inclusive republican party that is people-centred, that stands for equality and fairness in Irish life and that unequivocally respects and upholds the rule of law.  In fact, given the real difficulties the country still faces, I believe it is crucial to this nation’s future well-being that the people are given the option of supporting such a party.  It is our job to mould again such a party and offer ourselves and our distinct republican analysis to the Irish people. 

Never forget that the men and women who founded our party did so against great odds.  They were a minority of another fading party, increasingly seen as irrelevant.  Fianna Fáil built its support because it listened to the people and offered them a radical and relevant programme.  Instead of just carrying on with old priorities, Dev, Lemass and those who worked with them on our first programme showed a new way.  They brought forward policies that were radical and innovative – they created most of the welfare state; they cleared the slums with practical social housing program mes; and they introduced a republican constitution that is now one of the world’s oldest.

Lemass did the same in the 1960s, once again breaking new ground and leading us to be the pioneers in developing education, developing new industries and opening up to Europe.

We are a republican party, proud to be Irish and dedicated to Ireland’s prosperity within a prosperous Europe.  We believe in a united Ireland, in making education a priority and promoting the balanced development of both urban and rural communities.  Between left and right there is a more credible middle way, which sees social and economic progress as inter-related.

We have to take these ideals and show the people a comprehensive series of policies addressing the needs of today and the years ahead.  We will detail proposals for sustainable job creation built on the foundation of a strong education and innovation system.  We will detail policies for promoting the interests of rural communities.  We will address the enormous social and economic implications of unsustainable mortgage debt.  We will set out proposals for reforming the work of the European Union, addressing the major flaws exposed in its working in the last few years.  We will work to deepen the peace process and promote unity through a specific North/South programme.

At February’s ÁrdFheis we will vote on a renewed version of core aims, relevant to the Ireland of today, and on a series of specific policy proposals which will direct our work in the coming years.

Dublin West is a constituency which is particularly hit by many of the problems of the economic crisis.  Both long-established and new communities are struggling with mortgage debt, unemployment and new pressure on local schools.  Over the next four weeks, we will be campaigning hard to support our candidate David McGuinness in the by-election.

Aged only 25, he is deeply dedicated to the community he was raised in.  He had a great performance in the local election and he ably supported Brian Lenihan in February.

On the streets of Castleknock this week I was reminded again about the enormous regard in which Brian was held by the people he represented.  I always knew about Brian’s huge commitment to the people of Dublin West and it’s wonderful to meet so many people who remember him with such fondness.

This extends to his father and family, and I would like to specially acknowledge tonight his aunt Mary O’Rourke.  She has always combined those great Lenihan qualities of being a brave politician, committed reformer and dedicated representative.

On the ground in constituencies and in our national work, 2012 will be a year of great activity and I believe great progress in the task of renewing Fianna Fáil.

There are no quick fixes and there is no way we can rapidly grow again – but there is a clear way forward and we have a unique role to play in Irish politics.

In the face of a government with an unprecedented majority there is only one party in opposition which is prepared to challenge on the basis of a credible debate.  Sinn Fein and assorted left-wing TDs have taken the route of being opposed to everything.  They believe there is an easy answer to even the toughest of questions.  Every problem is caused by a conspiracy and every response is ideological.

This lets the government off the hook – helping them to avoid having to justify their decisions.

Fianna Fáil is the only party willing and able to take the more credible route of challenging the government from the middle ground.  Where something is inevitable or reasonable we support it, when it’s not we challenge it.

As time goes on the impact of this approach will grow.  A new government with a large majority can get away with a lot of things, but not for much longer.

The more they push legislation through without any real debate and without providing even basic information the more they will get into trouble.  The more that ministers refuse to answer basic questions and dismiss even reasonable criticism the more people will see through their arrogance and empty rhetoric.

In its first six months the government has laid the foundations for long-term trouble.  Instead of coming to government with the radical programme of change Fine Gael and Labour promised, they immediately abandoned most core policies and implemented those they had condemned before.  They’ve put a huge amount of effort into presenting the most trivial of changes as being radical, but nearly every day there is a reminder of just how little they have done.

The budget is on track and winning international notice, something which Enda Kenny praised himself for this week, ignoring the fact that he actually voted against every part of the budget.  In reality, the only significant move on any fiscal issue in the last six months has been a so-called ‘jobs initiative’ which will cost jobs through the imposition of a pension levy.

Ministers have been busy renouncing initiatives which were well underway before the election or leaking news of initiatives which they know are unlikely ever to be realised.

What they can’t do is to cover up the enormous and growing scale of their broken promises.  In the Dáil they use their numbers to shout down opponents and stifle debate, but they can’t do this to the public.  People see the arrogance involved in how they have handled issues like Roscommon hospital or the burning of bondholders.  They see the sheer cynicism of a new Government taking only days to abandon promises such as no third-level fees and no cuts to Special Needs Assistants.

Last week we had the incredible situation where the leader of Fine Gael dismissed as “blather” a question about why he was abandoning his own supposedly solemn pre-election promises.

None of the promises they made in February came with small print.  They knew everything about the state of the public finances and they are accountable for their promises.

After seven months they have settled into the role of a government which is dismissive of the Oireachtas and of anyone who challenges it.  They are drawing on a deep well of hope and expectation in a country where everyone wants the government to do well – but this well will be dry very soon if they keep behaving like this.

Fianna Fáil is determined to offer a robust and constructive opposition.  We will have an impact because we choose to offer a credible way forward rather than empty ideological sound bites.

The people of this country have told us and every party that they want a new politics.  They want a politics which is as serious as the problems we face.

Let others carry on with politics as usual, we’ll get on with the business of reform and renewal.

Over 85 years we have achieved many great things in partnership with the Irish people and we will do so again.