I would like to welcome you to the opening session of the 73rd Árd Fheis of Fianna Fáil – the Republican Party.
The first thing I must do is to thank you for the very great honour of being elected Uachtarán Fhianna Fáil.
This Árd Fheis is the culmination of nearly a year’s worth of engagement and debate within the party. It’s going to be a vital Árd Fheis. It will set the future direction of this party and the contribution we are determined to make to public life in this country.
This will be a very different Árd Fheis from the type of highly-scripted party conferences which have dominated Irish politics for decades. The reports of party officers are completely open and public about the party’s affairs. We provide a full breakdown of the financial and organisational state of the party. There is no attempt to cover up the challenges we face.
But let’s not forget that this party still has great strengths and the most important is that we have tens of thousands of members who are proud to call themselves Fianna Fáil.
This weekend there are also a record number of motions on the Clár and they appear exactly as they were submitted. In order to maximise the opportunity for members to have their say, a wide series of sessions have been organised which are designed to allow space for a real discussion. The focus is on the big long-term issues.
We’re also going to vote on the most significant reforms of the party’s organisation in its history. What makes these reforms so radical is that they were developed in full partnership with the members of this party.
No one could look at what has happened in recent years and say that everything is fine and should be left as it was. Equally, I was determined not to have a top-down type of reform.
In meetings in every single part of the country as well as in written submission, thousands of members have had their say. They demanded change. They demanded that we have a party which values and respects it members. They demanded that we acknowledge our past failings as a first step. They demanded that we renew the core Fianna Fáil tradition which made them so proud when they joined. They demanded that we show what we stand for and reject empty populism. They demanded that we leave no one in doubt that this is a party which sticks by its principles no matter what.
Most of all, they demanded that we act and act now.
These discussions happened away from the spotlight in hundreds of meetings. It was great work. I want thank everyone who contributed and made it such a success.
Tomorrow night I will be speaking for longer and in more detail about some of the most important issues – but let me mention a few points now.
There’ll be a chance to discuss the reforms further tomorrow so I’m not going to go into them in detail.
There is one point which was raised in every meeting throughout the country and which should be said at the start of the Árd Fheis. Our members feel let down by people carrying Fianna Fáil’s banner who failed to live up to the standards of integrity which our founders set.
Every time someone brings the name of Fianna Fáil into disrepute because of their personal behaviour it is our members who are the most angry. They give their heart and soul to working for the party. They give everything and all they want in return is to be proud of their party.
Let me say loud and clear, your message has been heard. I am determined that the people who belong to Fianna Fáil and support Fianna Fáil will never again be let down by low standards.
Tomorrow we will finalise what are the strongest ethics rules of any Irish political party. Any person seeking to stand for Fianna Fáil will have to provide a completely new level of transparency of their affairs. They will also be subject to rules which allow the party to act immediately against members who abuse the trust of the organisation and the public.
I repeat tonight a promise I have given in every meeting throughout the country – when the final report of the Mahon Tribunal is published we will act without fear or favour against anyone who is shown to have abused their position in Fianna Fáil or in elected office. Action will be swift and comprehensive.
Our members also demand that we act to show that our fundraising will be completely above suspicion. That’s why we’ve published details of all our fundraising, going well beyond what we are required to publish. As of this moment nearly 95% of all money raised by Fianna Fáil is from contributions of under €100.
If we keep up our focus on broad-based fundraising no one will ever again be able to raise questions about who funds this party .
I promise you that we will not repeat the deeply cynical response of Fine Gael and Labour to the very serious report of the Moriarty Tribunal. Justice Moriarty showed how money was targeted at Fine Gael fundraising and said that he didn’t accept the evidence of a Fine Gael cabinet minister. Seven members of the current government were ministers when all this happened. But what did these great ethics hawks have to say about it? Nothing, nothing at all.
In hours of debate in the Oireachtas Fine Gael and Labour members stood up and refused to even acknowledge their role let alone be accountable for it.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that for Fine Gael and Labour accountability is something they only demand of other people.
After less than a year in office this is already a government of broken promises. It puts politics first in everything it does, and is obsessed with the media management of every issue.
This can win them a few headlines but the public has seen through them.
Their biggest problem is the hangover from the tactics they used to get into government. They adopted the policy of destructive attack politics and cynical promises.
Every day the list of their broken promises grows and their credibility falls. From Roscommon, Sligo and other local hospitals to student fees, from burning bondholders to no cuts to frontline services, the core election promises have been discarded.
People won’t be fooled again. The next time a party campaigns on ‘not another red cent’ the public will be waiting for them’.
People are hurting and they want credible answers to the problems they face – not more political posturing. The only place where a credible alternative approach to this government can come is from Fianna Fáil.
As we saw last time, the parties who used anger as their main tactic did very well in the polls between elections, but rapidly lost over 1/3rd of their votes once people focused on choosing a government.
With a large Dáil majority and an arrogant disregard for even basic consultation this is a government which needs to be held to account and it is Fianna Fáil which is doing the real work.
We exposed them on the closure of local hospitals, on their attack on rural services, on their deeply unfair budget, on their raid on private pensions, on the lost jobs which will flow from their budget and on many other areas.
We have also used our mandate in the Oireachtas to push for action on the issues which matter most to people. On capital investment, mortgage arrears, job insecurity, banning corporate donations and many other areas, we haven’t just criticised them we’re proposed alternatives.
And we are going to go much further. We are going to focus on presenting a comprehensive range of policies over the next year addressing each of the key challenges facing Ireland. I want members to play a central role in this.
There’s too much on the agenda of an Árd Fheis to be able to get into more than a few issues in detail. Also, dozens of decisions on policy have to be made every day in the Oireachtas – but what we can do is make Fianna Fáil the leading party in involving its members in policy development both locally and nationally.
Over the next few months arrangements will be made to hold a policy meeting in every constituency. Party spokespeople and outside experts will be available on the topics chosen by the members.
There will also be a new national policy conference which will be separate to the Árd Fheis. It will be open to all members to attend and make a contribution.
A draft set of core values for Fianna Fáil will be circulated this evening. It is important that while recognising the best of our traditional core values, we must also reflect what is required in the 21st century for a progressive republican party. I want to facilitate an inclusive dialogue and want you to come back with your response in the next two months.
This is a republican party, working for unity, promoting our language and culture, committed to equality between all and determined to use education, public service and investment to support a better future for all of the people who live on this island.
The single most important thing we can do in rebuilding Fianna Fáil’s standing with the people is to show them that we still stand for the forward-looking republicanism of our founders. We must show that we are not a party which changes core beliefs in the search for short-term poll boosts.
Last year the people demanded a deep reform of politics and every party committed to it. As things stand today the Government is abandoning any real reform. They will accept change but nothing which limits their absolute control of the Oireachtas.
This year they will present a referendum on abolishing Seanad Éireann and claim that it represents reform. It will do nothing of the sort. In fact, it will tighten their grip on political debate and reduce the scrutiny of ministers and legislation.
Because the government has a much lower majority in the Seanad, at the moment they are more willing to listen to other opinions when matters are debated there.
Abolishing the Seanad with no accompanying reform to government powers and the independent powers of the Dáil would be a major step backward. That’s why we will oppose abolition. We believe that the Seanad has a role to play and should be reformed rather than abolished. It should be smaller and more efficient, salaries should be reduced.
Our proposal includes directly elected Senators along with specialised areas being represented .The Seanad should play a particular role in scrutinising European legislation .
From the foundation of our party up to today Fianna Fáil has a consistent record of being the party which established Ireland’s high standing in the international community. Eamon de Valera worked tirelessly to try to make the League of Nations a more effective body. In the United Nations our ministers built a renowned reputation for Ireland as a promoter of peace have been central to major agreements against nuclear proliferation and cluster munitions.
Time and again we have shown the way forward for small nations to gain influence and prosper from being active in working with other nations to overcome common problems.
This is what has always distinguished the progressive republicanism of Fianna Fáil from the destructive isolationism of others. This was at the very core of our success.
Seán Lemass defied his parents’ as a teenager to go to the GPO and fight for Irish freedom. Along with De Valera and other great leaders from that revolutionary generation had a vision for Ireland’s future which has been vindicated time and again. No matter what it meant for us in the polls, we have always stood true to this vision.
Fifty years ago last month Lemass submitted Ireland’s application to join what is now the European Union. At the 1962 Árd Fheis he explained his decision, saying that the way for Ireland to prosper and to avoid isolation was to join a dynamic European community of nations.
That decision has been vindicated time and again – and has been supported by Fianna Fáil’s voters time and again.
There are literally hundreds of thousands of jobs in this country which would not be there without the leadership of Fianna Fáil on Europe.
Over the last year I have spoken more than any political leader in any party about the need for Ireland to take a more assertive approach to European issues. I’ve set out a series of reforms we must seek in cooperation with others. I’ve set out policies to make sure that Europe is again an engine of growth and investment.
Other parties have taken opposing stands of either being quiet or attacking everything. We have taken the only approach which has democratic legitimacy – which is to push for real reform in Europe.
Before the last election Fianna Fáil proposed the introduction of strong fiscal rules at national and European level. Brian Lenihan prepared a detailed study on how they would work.
The Fiscal Treaty reflects the policy we promoted. It will not make any budget in the next four years worse.It is part of a series of measures required to return growth here and throughout Europe.
This party must stand by its principles and core traditions.
Ireland must and I believe will get a significant reduction in the cost of the promissory note. The government has mishandled the negotiations so far. They’ve concentrated on talking to journalists rather than other leaders.
The debt will be reduced because it is structured in such a way that it has no relationship to other public debt and has no implications for other countries.
In this and many other areas we miss Brian and his determination to find the right way forward for Ireland. It is right that we acknowledge him this weekend together with the great Lenihan family tradition of service to this country.
I also want to acknowledge my predecessor Brian Cowen former Taoiseach and Leader of Fianna Fáil who made an enormous contribution to this country and party. In his period as Taoiseach he operated under unique pressures and always put the country first. Brian, we thank you for your commitment and contribution to Irish public life.
These have been difficult times for our party. We suffered a major defeat last year and there is no way of ignoring that and no benefit from trying to.
The challenge for us today is to show modern Ireland that there is a vital role to be played by a progressive republican party. We have great tradition in this party which we must renew to serve the needs of a country which has lost its faith in politics.
Having toured the country meeting our members, talking with them about their communities and our party, I have absolutely no doubt that this party is up to the challenge.
When we stand by our principles, when we work hard to address the needs of people and when we offer them good candidates we can succeed. Just look at David McGuinness performance in the recent Dublin West bye election where we performed well ahead of the polls and raised our vote.
Well over 4,000 delegates have registered for this Árd Fheis. It is the gathering of people committed to a movement which has achieved a lot in the past and will do so again in the future.
This Ard Fheis is a big step forward in the renewal of our Party.
Thank you and let’s make this a great weekend.