Speech by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar – Fine Gael National Conference, Wexford

-   An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD

Delegates – everyone watching from home - thank you for joining us tonight.

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

Delegates – everyone watching from home – thank you for joining us tonight.

We live in extraordinary times.  The last two and a half years – the last two and half months – even the last two and a half days – have seen many twists and turns in the Brexit saga.

Throughout all of it, we have stayed firm.  We have held our nerve and we have stayed the course.  

I feel that I have learned something from Brexit, about leadership, and about the things that are necessary for success in politics.

Above all, you need the right team.  You need the right values. And you need the right policies.

Brexit has shown that Fine Gael can be trusted with the greatest challenges.  You know our team – you know what we stand for. And you know we deliver for Ireland.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Of course, none of this would be possible without the Independent Ministers who agreed to serve in Government alongside us.  Tonight we salute them for their comradeship.

Look around at the other parties and ask yourself where the alternative is.  Fianna Fáil is a party with no ideas, no policies, no alternatives.

I’m sorry Micheál, but hurling from the ditch isn’t a policy, conspiracy theories don’t constitute analysis, and finger wagging isn’t a solution.  

In contrast, Sinn Féin is a party with plenty of ideas and policies.  Bad ones. Higher taxes, more borrowing, more debt. But the bigger problem I have is that the values of Sinn Féin are toxic.  

We see it in the culture of bullying, in the personalised aggression in the Dáil, and on those occasions when the mask slips.

They don’t respect our Courts, they don’t respect our Gardaí, they don’t respect any of the four parliaments they are elected to, including the ones they turn up for, they don’t respect our democracy.

At some point between now and 2021, there will be a General Election.  And I can tell you tonight that under no circumstances will Fine Gael enter Government with Sinn Féin.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Fine Gael as a party is different.   We are a party of ideas and we are a party of values.  Our policies have been tested, and they work.

Eight years ago, the people of Ireland asked our party, Fine Gael, to take on the responsibility of Government.  

We should never forget how awful the situation was back then.  Mass unemployment, forced emigration, taxes up, pay down, cuts to welfare and services, debt, deficit and our international reputation in tatters.

Today, because of our policies and your hard work, the country is transformed.  Things are far from perfect, but we are in a much better place than we were, and we can be optimistic about the future.   Full employment, incomes up, taxes down, emigrants coming home, the public finances back in order, poverty and deprivation falling, and our international reputation restored.  Demonstrated by the support we have received in the Brexit negotiations.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

But tonight, I want to talk to you about something else, about my vision for Ireland after Brexit.

I want to set-out five steps to build a better future.

First.  A strong economy – eacnamaíocht láidir – one that rewards work, and backs business.  One in which prosperity is shared, reaching every home and every part of the country.

Second.  A society in which nobody feels left out – fir agus mná, séan agus óg, workers, students and self-employed, rich, poor, people with disabilities, LGBTQ, the new Irish.  One Ireland in which there are equal opportunities for all and a second chance for everyone who needs one.

Number Three.  World class infrastructure – tionscal iontach agus nua-aimsireach.  That’s what Project Ireland 2040 is all about.

Fourth.  Ireland – at the centre of the world – at the heart of the European Union, committed to the United Nations, peacekeeping and international development, new embassies, promoting our culture, language and heritage around the world.

Fifth.  Protecting our environment – an timpeallacht.  Passing on our planet to the next generation in a better condition than we inherited it.  From climate action to plastics, the air we breathe, the water we drink, our rivers, our oceans and seas.

Cúig chéim ar son na slándála, dóchas agus an rathúnas.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I start with the economy.  The job you do and the money in your pocket.

As you know, I believe we must reduce income taxes further, and reduce the cost of accessing public services as well.

Over the next five years, we will increase the point at which people pay the higher rate of tax to €50,000 for a single person and €100,000 for a couple.  

Let me tell you how we’ll pay for it.   Because there are more people working every year, and people are earning more, we’ll take in about €1.8 billion extra in income tax. I want to give about half of that back to you, taxpayers and pensioners.

This is a policy for the many, not the few, and will benefit more than a million people.  If it’s not done, more and more people will fall into the high tax band every year losing most of any pay increase to the taxman.  That’s not fair. And it’s something we’re going to change.

A growing economy enables us to help those that need it most.  Next week, the increases announced in the Budget to the State pension kick in. Over the past three years, the pension has increased by more than €850 per year.  

We recognise and value the contribution pensioners have and continue to make to this country.

Next week, we will also see increases to weekly welfare payments to carers, people with disabilities, widows and jobseekers.   There will also be special increases for low income families with children. Prescription charges will go down and the income limit for GP visit cards will go up, so fewer people have to worry about the cost of paying the doctor.  We do this because Fine Gael is and has always been the party of the Just Society. And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

With a growing economy so much is possible.  

Without it, nothing is.  

And Fine Gael is the only party tried and tested and trusted to keep our economy strong.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Comhleacaithe,

When I talk of building a society in which nobody feels left out, I mean a country in which everyone has the opportunity to reach their potential.  

We know, for example, that childcare is expensive for parents and early education gives children the best start.   Parents talk to me all the time about it. About how it’s like having a second mortgage to pay.  We’ve made a good start – 2 years free pre-school, paid paternity leave, the universal childcare subsidy.  Now we need to do more – and we are – with the national childcare scheme and paid parental leave coming in later in the year.

It means also creating a health service to be proud of.

Through the Sláintecare implementation plan we will deliver a health service which meets the needs of our citizens.

Through record investment in our health service we will ensure timely access to treatment.  This year, more operations and procedures are being funded and more outpatients’ appointments will be offered.  

And, for the first time since 2009 we have over 11,000 hospital beds, and many more planned or under construction.

I know there has been a lot of focus on the rising cost of the new National Children’s Hospital.  First of all, I want to say to everyone at home, that we accept responsibility for the mistakes made in projecting the true cost of building this project.  We cannot claim the credit for things going well if we do not also accept responsibility when things go wrong. And this is one of those occasions.

I promise you, we will learn the lessons and ensure it does not happen again.  But more importantly, now that it’s started, we are going to finish the job.

Children deserve world-class medical facilities and they’ve been waiting for them for far too long!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

With Project Ireland 2040, we are modernizing our public infrastructure – housing, transport, culture, sport, education and healthcare in all parts of the country.  

At its core, Project Ireland 2040 is about balanced regional development.  Planning for a country with a population of 6 million by the middle of this century.  

So, we will develop Cork, Waterford, Limerick and Galway into cities of real scale, growing twice as fast as the capital.

And, to help drive this vision forward, we are proposing that Cork, Waterford and Limerick should have Directly Elected Mayors with real power – Mayors who will personally lead their city regions forward.   The people will give their view on that on May 24th.

Delegates, the shovels are in the ground, Project Ireland 2040 is being implemented.  

There are three new hospitals under construction and extensions all over the country.

The new runway at Dublin airport is underway, Technological Universities are being established… an ambitious programme of school building in every county… major new road projects in the North-West and here in the South-East, and many more to come.   

Project Ireland 2040 will enable every part of the country to grow and share in our national prosperity.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I know the past few decades have presented enormous challenges for many of our smaller towns, villages and parishes.  I want all our towns and villages to be vibrant and buzzing again.

The success of Rural Ireland shouldn’t be measured by the number of post offices or the number of Garda stations alone.  It’s about so much more than that. It’s about the number of people living in rural Ireland, the number of young families being raised there, the number of jobs and successful businesses, the quality of roads, schools, amenities and sporting facilities.   Quality of life. We’re delivering on all of that.

Three years ago, only half the country had access to high speed broadband.  Today, that figure is three in four.

The last 25% is the most difficult to do, it involves reaching the most isolated areas, and the private sector won’t do it.  So Government has to step in.

It’s a huge undertaking.  More than half a million homes, farms and businesses.  Connecting a million people to fibre. The biggest investment in rural Ireland ever, and the most significant since rural electrification.  

It’s essential to our vision of the new Rural Ireland, one in which there is a post office and a bank in every home, one in which people in Belmullet and Granard can work for multi-nationals through the power of home working, and district nurses and GPs can check in on senior citizens more frequently through the power of remote healthcare.

And so, we will end the digital divide in Ireland and we will make sure that no part of the country feels left behind.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Delegates,

I want to talk about our commitment to Northern Ireland.  The Good Friday Agreement is an eloquent and inspiring document.  We stand by the agreement and all that it means. Peace in Britain and Ireland.  Political objectives pursued only by peaceful and democratic means. Power sharing in Northern Ireland.  

Ever closer co-operation North/South and East/West.  

This autumn, we will also have a referendum to extend voting rights in presidential elections to all Irish citizens no matter where they live.  I know that there are mixed feelings about it and it’s a referendum that won’t be easily won. But I am sure it’s the right thing to do.

There’s no such thing as a second class Irish citizen.  I believe an Irish citizen in Belfast, or Sydney or Chicago is every bit as Irish as one in Wexford or Dublin or Galway.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Delegates,

Climate change is the greatest challenge facing humanity today.  

Last week, like many of you, I was inspired by the passion of our young students, and how they are demanding action from us.

In the coming weeks, we will finalise an All of Government Action Plan to reduce our carbon emissions.

The changes that we need to make will not be easy.  They will require us to change how we heat our homes, how we travel and how our electricity is produced.

Government doesn’t have all the answers.  So we will work with people and communities to chart the best and most inclusive way forward.

In particular we will work with our farmers to modernise agriculture and reduce emissions from that sector, taking into account the need to protect their incomes and livelihoods as well as the environment.

When it comes to carbon tax, whatever is taken from a carbon tax will be given back to citizens.  

Carbon tax shouldn’t be about raising money for the Government or punishing you in your pocket.  It should be about nudging people and businesses to change behaviour and adopt new technologies.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Delegates, on Friday 24th May the nation will go to the polls.

These local and European elections come at a critical juncture in our history.  They really matter for the future of our country and the future of Europe as well.   

Fine Gael is, and has always been, the party of Europe.

Today I’m delighted that we are joined by Manfred Weber, Fine Gael’s and the European Peoples Party’s lead candidate for the European Elections and the next President of the European Commission.  Manfred, you are most welcome.

Fine Gael’s membership of the EPP, the most powerful force in European politics, has been advantageous for Ireland.

Michel Barnier, Jean Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk, Phil Hogan, Angela Merkel aren’t European officials, they’re our party colleagues.  And that’s why it’s so important for Ireland that we have a strong Fine Gael team elected to the European Parliament on the 24th May.  

With 13 Irish MEPs in a parliament of 705, we need to send our best people to Brussels, and the Fine Gael ticket is the best team, bar none.  Seven candidates, three men, four women, standing alongside over a hundred women contesting the local elections for us.  The first party to meet this milestone.

~~~~~~~~~~~

The Local Elections are also essential.  We need councillors who support housing and economic development in their areas.

I’ve had enough of Sinn Féin, hard left and populist councillors complaining about the lack of jobs in their locality, about homelessness and housing, only to vote against jobs and housing when given the chance.

We don’t need any more of that.  We need more Fine Gael councillors.

When it comes to housing, while it may not always feel like it, we are making progress – lifting thousands of families out of homelessness, helping first-time buyers, capping rent increases and enhancing tenants’ rights.

More than 18,000 new homes were built last year.   More new homes than any this decade.

So, tonight there are 18,000 families sitting in front of the TV, sitting around the dinner table, in a home that didn’t exist last year.  More new homes built last year than in any year in the last decade.

We need more homes and I mean homes of all sorts.  Yes, social housing for people on the housing list, but also private homes for young people to buy.   Houses and apartments that people can rent.

We need more homes for all.

25,000 more this year, 30,000 more next year.  

I believe the biggest threat to achieving this is a major shift in policy.   It’s starting to work. We are on the right track.

We need to stay the course.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Delegates, Brexit brings home to all of us the importance of having the right team in place.   

A team you can trust.  

A team with the ideas and a team with the vision to do what is best for Ireland and for all our people.

Fine Gael is that team.

Fine Gael has those ideas and Fine Gael has the vision.

Fine Gael has the right policies.

Brexit will define and consume the United Kingdom for the next generation. It doesn’t have to define us.   

We are in control of our destiny, and have the power to build a better future for all of our citizens.

A strong economy.

A society in which nobody feels left out.

World class infrastructure.

Our planet protected.

Ireland at the centre of the world.

So, let’s build it together.

Thank you.

Ends

Stay Up To Date With Fine Gael