Thank you all for being here for the opening session of the 78th Árd Fheis of Fianna Fáil the Republican Party.
This will be a very active two days. At the centre of everything will be talking about our positive agenda – about how a progressive, democratic and republican vision for Ireland’s future it as important today as it ever has been.
Since our last Árd Fheis we’ve made great strides forward as an organisation.
We fought a general election where every pundit said we had no chance of making a breakthrough. We had our positive agenda, our great candidates and members who worked tirelessly in every community in our country – and we achieved a great step forward.
On behalf of the parliamentary party I want to thank you our members and our staff for everything which you helped to achieve not just this year but in the spirit of renewal which we have been working to build our party.
I am pleased to say that our Honorary Secretary and Treasurers report confirms today that we have the highest level of membership since we introduced individual membership 5 years ago.
There is one member I want to acknowledge tonight and that is Rich Howlin.
He has been a member for over six decades and spent the last few years as a very valued and solid Trustee of the party. Rich helped steer the
Party during very difficult years and is stepping down as Trustee tomorrow. I want to thank him for all of his dedicated work.
The new Taoiseach has put us all on notice that we are now facing into a new era of hype and spin.
In three months he’s had nothing whatsoever to say about improving health services, developing education or addressing his government’s chronic lack of delivery – but he’s had lots to say about what he claims is an urgent need to communicate more.
There are more political communications in government than at any time in our history and they now have a bigger budget than at any time in history.
On Wednesday he was caught out when he tried to deny that he had appointed the head of his new €5 million Strategic Communications Unit.
He’s also admitted that it is their objective to coordinate over €170 million in publicity spending.
He has given up on trying to address chronic problems which have arisen on his party’s watch and he wants a relentless, politicised spin campaign to try and sell their image.
And if you want proof of this just looks back to the statement of a senior Fine Gael source on July 29th.
When asked what the new unit was about the response was “We’ll be turning government activity into a Fine Gael message”.
What they don’t understand is that the more public money they spend on new slogans, new images, social media ads and everything else the more they confirm just how out of touch they are.
The Taoiseach says he’s only concerned about telling people what’s going on. Well people know about the waiting lists. They know about the 3000 children in emergency accommodation. They know about the rents and houses they can’t afford.
He needs to understand no one is being fooled by his new era of propaganda.
And we have no intention of changing our core beliefs to fit some publicity campaign.
Today and into the future we stand for an Ireland which serves all of its people.
Last year we achieved a lot in stopping the new Taoiseach’s attempt to take Budget policy significantly to the right. The final package this year bears almost no relationship to the briefings he gave two months ago and his almost obsessive attempt to get large groups of Irish people to resent each other – splitting them between the deserving and the dependent.
Higher pensions, smaller classes, action on waiting lists and a reduction in USC that benefits everyone are being delivered solely because of our Party’s insistence.
In the various sessions of the Árd Fheis our spokespeople will talk about what more could and should be done.
And one of the core things is to tackle the deplorable failure of this government to deliver on promises.
In area after area they are failing to turn plans into action. We will be relentless in pushing for an end to the delay and inaction which has characterised their behaviour in health, housing and so many other vital areas.
When our party was founded 91 years ago it was led by an inspiring generation of people. De Valera was their unquestioned leader, but they were men and women with strong views and a determination to forge a new way for Ireland.
They were radical and they were successful not because they appealed to old loyalties, but because they reached out and persuaded people that change was possible.
We should always draw immense strength from that great generation and the traditions they established.
Amongst the most important of these was the drafting and enactment of the republican constitution on 1937. As Paul Gallagher said earlier, Bunreacht na hÉireann is magnificent testimony to democratic republicanism.
Given what was happening in Europe at that time, Eamon de Valera’s decision to write a constitution which included separation powers, protections for minorities, respect for international law and free referenda is one which all democratic parties should be willing to honour.
It is a sad reality that the highly tribal approach of Fine Gael at the moment has meant that both the 75th and now the 80th anniversaries of the constitution have been ignored by government.
It is now one of the oldest written constitutions in the world and it was the first constitution in the world adopted in a free vote of the people – that’s something which deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated.
And the means of amending the constitution where times or attitudes have changed is quite clear. It was never intended to be frozen – and it has evolved very significantly.
It provides recognition of the different traditions on this island and endorses an historic peace settlement. It also is the foundation upon which we have built our participation in the European Union and achieved incredible progress for our people.
In the next year there will again be referenda to amend the constitution. It is not yet clear what the range of issues involved will be. This is subject to negotiation and the government is in no position to dictate that its priorities will prevail.
One thing is for sure, there will be a vote concerning the 8th Amendment.
After a third of a century after it was enacted there is a legitimate call for the public to be consulted.
Fianna Fáil’s position is that the fundamental issue of rights and laws concerning life have to be left to each individual’s conscience. In fact the public believe that this is not and should not be a party political issue. That freedom of conscience principle will apply to our party members while the Oireachtas considers this issue.
Their demand is that a fair question be put to them so that they can decide what changes if any they want to be introduced. It will be up to each person to decide where they stand.
The process underway in the Oireachtas is designed to be a fair one. I’m sure that by the end of it every opportunity will have been given to the full range of views to have their voices heard. The bottom line is that the people will eventually decide.
But there is one very important point which has to be made about having a referendum on the 8th amendment – nothing will be solved and no conclusion will be reached unless we have a debate which shows respect for divergent opinions.
It is a challenge for our democracy and we should be willing to have a debate in which tolerance of opposing viewpoints will be the key touchstone.
We should avoid at all costs a campaign which degenerates into caricatures and name-calling.
And we also need to remember that as a country we have a crisis in how we help our most vulnerable children.
It is a genuine scandal hosw many services which children rely upon have failed in recent years. The situation is by some distance much worse than it was before. One look at the waiting list for Scoliosis illustrates this.
There are three thousand homeless children. This is an appalling situation.
There are over 4,000 children with disabilities waiting for the basic assessment of their needs.
There are 6,000 children waiting for psychology appointments and there are unacceptable delays for children waiting for child and adolescent psychiatry appointments.
Schools serving disadvantaged children have higher demands and lower funding.
In area after area this is a government which is failing to work for all of the children of the nation.
And in most of these areas the problems did not arise because of fixing the deficit, they arose because of Fine Gael policies which diverted money to other areas or left it unspent.
But the amazing thing is that there is still a full Department of Children and Fine Gael had a summer campaign based on the theme that they are caring for our children.
The more they talk about helping children the worse the situation gets.
The past practice of coordination across government to help children has clearly broken down. In most vital areas there is no longer even a strategy in place to guide what should happen if the needed money and attention was provided.
We believe that the situation is so desperate that there needs to be a new departure in children’s services. Reducing and eliminating long waiting for urgent services and ending child homelessness is our absolute priority.
We also want a return to community-based work between all state agencies, to stop overlap and to make sure that we do everything possible to help.
We will be pushing for the publication of concrete commitments to children’s services as soon as possible. And we will also propose to the Dáil that the Ministers Zappone, Harris and Murphy are obliged to prepare a two monthly update on child homelessness, on children waiting for urgent treatment and assessment, on school drop-outs and on the full range of statistics which are available to government.
If they are so committed to informing the public about what’s going on, let’s start with forcing them to talk about our vulnerable children.
Tomorrow I will talk in more detail about some of the fundamental issues which our country is facing and where Fianna Fáil stands.
We remain a progressive republican party – committed to responding to the needs of the Irish people today and into the future.
We remain a constructive, democratic party which respects the demand of the people that its representatives try and get things done for them.
We also remain determined to fight against the rightward impulses of this government and the destructive policies of the far left.
We remain a party working for an Ireland for all.