Address by Leader of Fine Gael, An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD, at the 79th Fine Gael Árd Fheis

-   Cliona Doyle

A dhaoine uaisle, a comhlachaí, Oíche mhiath agaibh go léir.

Welcome to the 79th Fine Gael Ard Fheis.

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An Ard Fheis is often an opportunity to look back on what has been achieved since the last time we met.

But tonight, I want to talk to you about the future.

Where we want to go.

What we want to achieve.

Why we want to make life better for all our citizens.

We gather here tonight from all parts of the country, with many more watching at home to hear new ideas about how we will rise to our greatest challenges.

You are all very welcome, and thank you for joining us.

Some of our members have joined me here on stage.  Women and men from all over Ireland who care passionately about making our country a better place.

Women and men who earlier today shared with me some of their hopes and dreams for the future.

Like me, they are proud of our history and our achievements in office – as Cumann na nGaedheal and as Fine Gael thereafter:

  • We founded the state and created its institutions – the army, the Gardaí, the Courts, the ESB, and the IDA to name but a few;
  • We rescued our economy on more than one occasion when it was sabotaged by others;
  • We helped Ireland take her place in the world – declared a Republic, brought our country into the United Nations and placed us at the heart of Europe;

And now it is our mission is to take Ireland forward again.

To build an Ireland – prosperous, modern and free.

To build an Ireland where no one feels left out.

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One of our members, Lorraine, wanted to know how the talks about extending the Confidence and Supply arrangement are going.   I said it’s not easy negotiating with the Fianna Fáil front bench.

Just ask Micheál Martin.

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However I am confident we can secure a deal to provide political stability.  We will need it as we lead our country through Brexit in the year ahead.

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Earlier today I spoke to Kevin from Leitrim – he’s a farmer – about his hopes and fears for the future.  His story was the same one I hear every week when I travel around the country.

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It resonates with me because it’s the story I used to hear from my parents growing up.  The same one that my grandfather – a haulier, businessman and farmer – used to tell me.

Delegates, a comhlachaí, I’ll never be found wanting when it comes to standing up for the self-employed – our shopkeepers, our solicitors, our auctioneers, our plumbers, and our farmers like Kevin.

I know how hard the self-employed work on every main street, side street, and shopping centre in Ireland, and in every small business.

They create their own jobs and create jobs for others.

I know the risks they take, and I know how hard it can be to do the simplest things like take a day off for a family funeral or a First Holy Communion.

So, we’ve introduced:

  • a new deal for the self-employed,
  • increased tax credits,
  • new benefits like dental and optical, and
  • access to the invalidity pension for the first time.

And we’re not done yet.

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Now I want full equality for the self-employed when it comes to income tax.  There’s no reason why someone who’s self-employed should pay more income tax than those of us who are PAYE.

And a safety net for a self-employed person who loses their job or business through no fault of their own.

In Fine Gael we believe in rewarding work.

We believe in making work pay.

And we believe that people should have the freedom to make their own decisions about how to spend their hard-earned money.

Some people see a tax cut as the State giving you money.   We see it as the State allowing you to keep more of your money, the money you earn.

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I also spoke to Tom from Limerick – he’s in charge of a production line and does shift work.  Tom asked me if I think it’s fair that if he gets a pay rise, works extra hours, or gets promoted, he’ll lose more than half of it in tax and levies.

I told him he’s right.  It’s not fair.

Tom, people like you are the beating heart of our country, and we want to do more for you.

So, fairness drives our approach to the country’s finances:

Fairness to citizens who pay their taxes.

Fairness to those who get up early in the morning – or late at night – and make this country work.

Fairness to the citizens who rely on government services. Fairness to the pensioners who built this country and fairness to the young who will inherit it.

The reckless economic mismanagement of the past was unfair to all.   It resulted in hundreds of thousands of jobs lost, public services slashed, taxes hiked and future generations burdened with a huge national debt.

We have managed to reverse much of that unfairness, but some elements persist. For example, people on average incomes in Ireland pay the highest rate of tax. The average full-time income is almost €46,000 but in Ireland we pay the top rate of tax on just over €35,000.

It discourages parents from returning to the workforce, discourages people who emigrated from coming home, and makes it harder to attract good jobs and talent to Ireland.

It is holding our country back.

Fine Gael will end that unfairness.  But we won’t do it in one big dramatic move – we have learnt from the mistakes of Fianna Fáil.   We’ll do it in a way that’s sustainable and affordable.

Over the last 3 budgets, Fine Gael and the Independents in Government have increased the point at which people pay the higher rate of tax, but we must go further now.

So, over the next five budgets, we will commit to increase the point at which people pay the top rate of tax to €50,000 for a single person or €100,000 for a two income couple.

We will end this unfairness and allow hard-working people keep more of the money they earn.

They deserve it!

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Delegates, a comhlachaí, working with our Independent colleagues in Government, we’ve brought about full employment so that there is now a job in Ireland for everyone who wants one.

We’ve increased the minimum wage four times – it’ll be €9.80 in the New Year.

Delegates, a comhlachaí, Fine Gael is building a state that cares and in particular one that cares for families:

  • Restoring the pay of our dedicated and committed public servants – teachers, nurses, Gardaí, civil servants;
  • Reducing income tax and USC across three budgets saving the average household more than €1,500 a year – that’s the equivalent of a month’s mortgage or rent;
  • 2 years of pre-school and childcare subsidies for working parents;
  • New family benefits in return for your PRSI like paternity benefit;
  • Free GP care for all kids under 6, and all children with severe disabilities, so tonight, no mother with a sick child has to worry about finding €50 to pay the doctor.

And delegates, we are only getting started.

We plan on bringing in further family benefits – like two weeks of extra paid parental leave for both parents next year.

Higher quality childcare and more generous subsidies so that low income families get more – and more middle income families qualify.   As they should!

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Lynda told me she’s worried about housing.  She has a job, is working hard, and doesn’t know if she’ll ever be able to afford a house, or be able to save enough for a deposit.

I hear stories like that every day and these stories motivate me to solve this problem.

Yesterday with Eoghan Murphy and Catherine Byrne, I had the privilege of opening a new Housing Development not too far from here.  I saw the joy in people’s faces when they got the keys to their new home.

That sense of relief and security you feel after years of waiting or saving for your first home.

I want that to become a reality for everyone in Ireland.

Fine Gael believes firmly that every family should have a roof over their head, a place to call home.

Fine Gael is the party of home ownership.  And now it is our mission to ensure that home ownership becomes achievable and affordable again for many who today feel it is beyond their reach.

The housing crisis was many years and perhaps decades in the making.

We know what we inherited from Fianna Fáil – broke banks unable to lend, ghost estates, Pyrite, Mica, Priory Hall, hundreds of thousands of people in negative equity, mortgage arrears, and hundreds of thousands of construction workers on the dole.

It was never going to be easy to turn things around but bit by bit, just as we did when it came to unemployment and the economy, we will.

The biggest social housing programme in decades is now underway, more than 100,000 homes will be provided over the next ten years for people on the housing list.

8,000 this year alone.

In fact, this year we will build more new homes than in any other year this decade, 5,000 in the last three months alone.

We will use public land as it should be used, for the benefit of all of the public with a mix of housing – social, cost rental, subsidised, and for private purchase.

Some argue that we should build only one type of housing, social housing, and that local authorities should do all the building.   We profoundly disagree with that ideology.

When you are in a housing crisis you build as many new homes as you can, as quickly as you can, by any means that you can, and that’s what we’re going to do.

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Delegates, a comhlachaí, I sometimes despair when I hear the economic policies of some of the opposition parties – proposing to increase borrowing when we should be reducing debt, making no provision for a rainy day with Brexit around the corner.

They are promising everything to everyone and they are promising to do it all now.

But we’re not fooled.

They seek to buy your vote using your credit card to pay for it.

We know borrowed money has to be repaid and with interest.

We all know the Fianna Fáil motto:  ‘when we have it, we spend it’.  We all know where that led us.

And we’re not going back.

Sinn Féin and the parties of the hard Left are even worse.

When they don’t have it – they’ll just borrow it.

We know those policies will put Ireland back on the road to recession and austerity and we won’t allow that.

Do not believe their promises – pay increases or welfare increases or tax breaks or public spending paid for with borrowed money today turn into pay cuts, welfare cuts and tax increases tomorrow.

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Fine Gael is different.  It can be seen in how we approached Budget 2019.  Minister Paschal Donohoe achieved something that many thought impossible only a few short years ago.

He balanced the books, eliminated the deficit, set up a Rainy Day Fund and paid down our debt.  We could have done it differently.   We could have ‘splashed the cash’ in a giveaway budget, but we didn’t.   Why?   Because we aren’t Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin – we’re Fine Gael.

Only Fine Gael can be trusted when it comes to the economy and our public finances.  Only Fine Gael can be trusted to protect your job, your pocketbook and your pension.

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Earlier today I asked Vera what she thinks is the biggest challenge we’ll face in the years ahead. She said – safeguarding the future of our planet.

I agree with Vera.

I believe that we have a duty to pass our planet onto the next generation in a better condition than we inherited it.

Known as the Emerald Isle, not just because of the green of our countryside, or the colour of our flag, or the jerseys we’ll be cheering for tonight, but because of the way we care for our environment.

We are already a world leader on recycling.  Now we must go from laggard to leader on climate action.

We must and we will meet our 2030 targets for carbon emissions and renewable energy.  We will:

  • transform Bord na Mona into a green semi-state generating renewable energy instead of generating carbon;
  • end the purchase of dirty diesel buses in our cities; and
  • invest in forestry to transform farms from carbon emitters into carbon sinks that produce timber products which in turn can replace plastics.

New laws will protect our environment as we:

  • ban micro-beads and smoky coal nationwide, and
  • implement an EU wide ban on single use plastics.

Because we believe in clean air and clean seas.

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In Fine Gael, we believe in building bridges not borders.   We don’t want any new borders to divide us, North-South, between Britain and Ireland, or between Ireland and Europe.

So, along with the Tánaiste and Minister McEntee, we have negotiated a deal that protects our jobs, protects our economy, defends the rights and freedoms of all Irish citizens North and South.

We have no hidden agenda in these talks. Our only red line is protecting the Good Friday Agreement:

  • peace in Britain and Ireland,
  • powersharing in Northern Ireland,
  • ever closer co-operation North and South, and
  • no hard border.

No matter what happens across the water, Ireland will continue to be at the heart of the common European home we helped to build.  We will do all that we can to build a new relationship with our nearest neighbour.

And we will engage more deeply with the wider world through our commitment to free trade, international development, peacekeeping, and the United Nations.

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To build a better future, we have to invest in it now.

Our Project Ireland 2040 Plan, now being implemented, provides for massive increases in investment in our public infrastructure – housing, transport, broadband, education and healthcare.  An investment of €116 billion over ten years to remove bottlenecks, modernize our public services, reduce congestion, and ensure that economic development is brought to all parts of our country.

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Friends, education is at the heart of Fine Gael’s plans for the future.

So, next year we will increase spending in Education to almost €11 billion.

That’s a big number, but what does it mean in practice?  Let me tell you:

  • 5,000 extra teachers hired in 2 years;
  • The lowest pupil-teacher ratio ever in primary schools;
  • More Special Needs Assistants than ever before for children with special needs;
  • New subjects like PE and computer science;
  • More people attending Higher Education from non-traditional backgrounds than ever before;
  • Technological Universities to drive balanced regional development;
  • New school buildings, extensions and refurbishments all over the country.

Tax payers’ money, your money, well spent.

Many of our members today asked me about healthcare and I was able to say that, for the first time, with Sláintecare, we have a consensus on what we want our health service to look like in ten years’ time, and a leader in Simon Harris to make it happen.

Next year the health budget will be €17 billion. This is the highest in the history of the State, and we are determined to make sure that this extra money gets to the patient.   We have 1,500 more nurses than two years ago, 10,000 doctors – more than ever before; this year, 250 more beds in our hospitals, and 120 Primary Care centres up and running.

We need to make sure this investment results in better care and better outcomes for our patients.

We are already seeing some good results.

We are living longer and healthier lives than ever before.  Today more people survive cancer than die from it.  And survival rates for stroke and heart attacks are also improving.  Waiting times for operations and procedures are going down.

These things didn’t just happen by accident.  They were a direct result of Government policies and strategies, Government spending and resources, and the professionalism and quality of our healthcare staff.

Now we need more, especially when it comes to seemingly intractable issues like hospital overcrowding.

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When I became leader of my party and Taoiseach, I made a commitment to double spending on arts, culture, on our teanga náisiúnta, and sport within seven years.

We’re true to that commitment.

Next year the increases in the budgets for arts, culture, heritage, the Gaeltacht and on sport will all exceed our projections.

We do this because they help to define and set us apart as a nation.  They are big business and create jobs all over Ireland. But above all we do this because they enrich our lives.

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Delegates, a comhlachaí, 85 years from the founding of the party, we should be proud of what we have achieved in the service of our country and our people.

And we should be determined to do much more.

We are the party that will take Ireland forward to long-term prosperity, away from the boom and bust economics of the past.

Forward to a society where people can aspire:

  • to own their own homes,
  • good healthcare,
  • world-class education,
  •  a better life for their children, and
  • where nobody feels left out.

Forward to a country that is at the heart of Europe, that respects diversity, is open to the world, and is an example to others when it comes to personal liberty, gender equality, and the protection of our environment.

Forward to a place where hard work pays off, and the Government is on your side.

Forward together.

Thank you.

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