I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Ógra on another successful year. In particular, I want to pay tribute to your President Ian Woods and all your officer board for their hard work over their term in office.
Ógra continues to be the largest and most impactful of any of the party youth organisations and it is an essential part of our renewed Fianna Fáil. We can see its strength in the competitive contests for election during this conference.
The labour of love that I see in Ógra is a reminder of the basic values that founded our party. When a group of patriots, sore from the wounds of a bitter civil war and gathered in 1926 to chart a new path forward they were deeply uncertain about the future. However, their spirit of public service was the flint that sparked a remarkable record. Fianna Fáil was founded, as Gerry Boland put it, as “an association of citizens, banded together for the purpose of rendering voluntary service to their communities and the Irish nation”.
That profound spirit was fundamentally one of responding to the needs of contemporary Ireland, securing its place in the world and promoting the democratic republicanism which has been at the centre of the great advances achieved by our country.
Let us never forget that our founding generation was unique in modern European history. A group of revolutionaries who came to power and designed a constitutional system which reinforced democracy, introduced new checks on the powers of government and insisted on the rights of all citizens. That great generation also declared Ireland to be a country which honours international law, seeks cooperation with other nations and, as its final act before handing over to a new generation, set an outward-looking and European future for us.
At a time when we have a profound crisis in vital public service and fundamental values are again under threat in much of the world and even in parts of Europe, the need for us to be a state dedicated to the welfare of its people and to embracing strong international cooperation is clearer than ever.
This means something very practical for Fianna Fáil. We reject the stale ideologies of the left and right. We choose instead the harder path of being constructive, seeking to promote dialogue and focusing on putting practical solutions ahead of party manoeuvring.
At a moment where we have a hyper-political government which is more focused on attacking others than on attacking the people’s problems we believe the Irish people are tired of politics as usual. They see through the endless spin and partisanship. They can look at the mass of stories and focus on those which are central to defining our future.
Over the past few years when other parties shirked responsibility we stood up to the mark. We accepted the responsibility of the Dáil to produce a government while others refused to budge or wanted to simply collapse everything. In the face of Brexit and a government desperately seeking to find an excuse to run away from problems in health and housing, we ensured stability and protected our country’s ability to defend its interests.
As we’ve seen over the last few months, the absolute focus on Fine Gael at the moment is on campaigning. Certain Ministers appear only interested in appearing in public if they can be guaranteed not to have to talk about their own areas. The only initiatives that party has launched have been absurd attacks directly at us and they have signalled that they intend running one of the most negative campaigns we’ve ever seen.
But however negative and personal they get, and no matter how much effort they put into their obsessive attempt to shape media commentary, we must have as our primary focus showing the people that there is an alternative. They don’t have to accept the arrogance, the out-of-touch complacency and the systematic failure to turn plans into action which we see from this government every day.
Our country faces grave challenges at the moment. Across Housing, Health, Climate change and the evolving frontiers of technology this government is letting down a generation. Tonight I want to talk briefly on one element of this – the impact of the housing crisis on young people in particular and what Fianna Fáil is committed to doing for them.
When I started out in political life I joined Fianna Fáil because I saw in it a vehicle for change that benefitted the ordinary working people of Ireland. It’s the kind of change that helped families from Turners Cross to Tory Island build a better future for the next generation. Yet that basic aspiration is being lost under this government. Housing is the frontline of that failure.
The dream of home ownership was a modest and achievable aim for generations of Irish people. Owning your own home, or finding an affordable and secure place to rent, was inextricably bound with our aspirations. Decades of state policy helped them to reach this goal and less than thirty years ago we reached a home ownership rate of over 80%. The average age of owning your first place was 26.
In recent years this goal is drifting away from young people across the country. Our home ownership rate has plummeted to 67% and we have gone from being a world leader to below the EU average. Those who are lucky to get on the property ladder are now on average 35 years of age.
The reason for this is not that young people are squandering their wages on avocado toast. Nor is it because they want to live with Minister Murphy in what he calls boutique-style hotels or what the rest of us call extortionate chicken-battery bedsits.
The real reason is a failure of government policy. That policy has created an affordability crisis that reaches deep into every community but impacts upon young people the hardest.
In its first years in office Fine Gael cut housing investment even though the worst of the recession was over. When the evidence of a housing crisis started to emerge, they refused to accept that there was any problem. Following their massive loses in the last election they finally accepted the problem and published a strategy which has missed every major target and accompanied rising prices and rents.
Young people are frozen out of the housing market by lending restrictions and struggle to save enough for a deposit while making ends meet. Affordability, according to a wide variety of independent studies has slipped further away hitting younger people the hardest.
Tenants find themselves handing over unprecedented levels of cash despite the fact that paying a mortgage would be far cheaper. Even according to the Department of Public Expenditure’s own studies renters still overwhelmingly want to own their own home but can’t afford to.
For the first time a generation risks being worse off than their parents. International studies show that millennials are financially worse off than their parents at the same age after housing cost are factored into account. Further worrying studies from Harvard show a sharp decline in young people’s faith in democratic institutions. The two go hand in hand.
Each citizen must have a direct stake in the prosperity of the state for it to thrive and flourish.
Opening up greater opportunities for home ownership and secure, affordable tenancies for young people is a vital part of that. We need to protect the integrity of the core promise of democracy that each generation can build on the success and prosperity of the last.
This is why Fianna Fáil is committed to replacing this government’s record of failing to deliver with an absolute to deliver on housing. To secure this:
· We will freeze rents to reduce costs for young people.
· We will ensure the Central Bank recognises rental payments to open up the mortgage market.
· We will launch an ambitious €2bn Affordable Housing scheme to boost the supply of homes available to ordinary workers.
· We will establish a shared ownership scheme where the government takes a stake in your home to reduce the price for you.
· We will launch a new Special Savers scheme to help tenants save up a deposit to get out of the rip off rental market
To achieve that we need to be in the driving seat of the next government.
Next year the 32nd Dáil will come to a close. The Irish people will be faced with a clear choice.
The decision will be between a Fine Gael party that has overseen unprecedented homelessness levels, plummeting home ownership and spiralling rents.
A Fine Gael party that has demoralised our health service, generated historic heights in waiting lists and a delayed discharge crisis.
A Fine Gael party that has failed to deliver rural broadband, turned the National Children’s hospital into a money pit and orchestrated fictional health budgets.
It’s a choice between that and a real alternative.
The alternative is a Fianna Fáil party that took responsible action on Brexit when it counted. A Fianna Fáil party with a clear plan to end the rip off rental market trap and boost home ownership levels. A Fianna Fáil party that will invest in our health service and ensure education creates a ladder of opportunity open to all.
Our party continues to be sustained by the bright vision of public service, an abiding faith that we can build a better republic for the next generation. For those of you gathered here tonight, students and young workers, Ógra marks the beginning of your political life. It’s an exciting time and one where you can start to make your mark on the world around you. I know that your commitment to public service will drive each of you on in life and lead to tremendous accomplishments in the years to come.
The upcoming electoral test will be a seminal moment in that journey. It will be an opportunity to take part in Irish history.
In the coming days and months leading up to by-elections and a general election I am asking you to live up to that rich potential. I am asking you to reach out to that core value of public service that has always inspired Fianna Fáil at its best.
Our party thrives on your energy and enthusiasm. Even more importantly, our republic needs your optimism and innovation.
Let’s knock on the doors, put up the posters, make our case on-line, post videos and persuade our friends, families and communities of the need for change. Let’s end a decade of Fine Gael arrogance in power and strike out on a bold new direction for our republic. Let’s set our hearts to the task of building a better republic for the next generation.
At stake is your future, so let’s get to work for it.
Go raibh maith agaibh agus bain taithneamh as an deireadh seachtaine.
Nowhere is it more evident than in the boundless energy and enthusiasm that has defined Ógra.