Speech of An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar T.D., at the 15th Fine Gael Presidential Dinner 2018

6th October 2018 - Ken Gaughran

A theachtaí, a sheanadóirí, an Íar-Thaoiseach, a comhlachaí.

Óiche maith agaibh.

Good evening and welcome to the 15th Presidential Dinner.

I would like to welcome our two Vice-Presidents, Minister John Paul Phelan and Gerry O’Connell, and thank them for their service over the past year.

85 years ago our party was founded in the Mansion House, where W.T. Cosgrave set-out our mission and values.

Fine Gael would be, in his words, ‘a single, united party, working for the achievement of its ideals through constitutional methods…. to save the farmers, help industries, reduce unemployment, protect individual liberty, work constantly for peace, and build up the whole of Ireland’.

I believe that 85 years on that still sums up our mission and values.   We should be proud of our history and our achievements in office – as Cumann na nGaedheal in the 1920s and as Fine Gael thereafter:

  • We founded the state and created its institutions – the army, the Gardaí;
  • We rescued the 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.

Friends, Peter Sutherland, who died earlier this year, once said that the ‘European project is the most noble political ideal in European history in a thousand years.’

Tonight I’d like to pay tribute to him, because his legacy lives on all around us, for example, in the Erasmus programme he helped create, and the work he did in opening our skies to low cost air travel.

His life reminds us of how much we have benefitted from being at the heart of the common European home we helped to build.

We remember him tonight.

One of our first MEPs was Donal Creed, a remarkable politician who served the people of Cork, and our country, over four decades.

As a minister he made an important contribution to health, education and the environment, and his legacy includes the establishment of the National Lottery, and is reflected in the vastly improved sporting facilities in clubs all over Ireland.

We remember him tonight.

Dear friends, during the year we also lost Monica Barnes, someone who served the people of Dun Laoghaire, Fine Gael, and our country with courage and distinction.

Propelled by principle, she was an inspiration to many women and men across the country.

As I stood in Dublin Castle last May, as the results of the referendum were announced, I thought of how she had always been a voice for individual liberty and equality for women.

Tonight we honour and remember her, and we’re proud that Fine Gael is a broad tent, bringing together people of different views, respecting conscience, united by our patriotism and our desire to do what is right for our country.

Friends, tonight we continue to keep the promise made in our founding document in 1933, and I quote, ‘to look to the future, while rooted in the best traditions’.

As you know, this year marks the centenary of the end of the first world war, and I am reminded that we would never have to come to terms with that part of our history only for the courage of someone else who passed away this year, Paddy Harte.

He built bridges when others were hardening borders; he saw the good in the people as he opened hearts and opened minds.

So tonight we think of all those in Fine Gael – our brothers and sisters – who died in the past year.  Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha.

Colleagues, this year is also the tenth anniversary of the economic crash.

Eight years since this country was forced to apply for a humiliating bailout, signing up to Troika oversight of public finances and to austerity.

We should never forget the political failures which put us into that chasm ten years ago.  This should make us more determined never to go back to those dark days.

No matter how intense the pressure may be to repeat the mistakes of the past – we must stand firm, and we will.

Colleagues, it took a lot of effort – the sacrifices of the Irish people and wise policies by Government – but the country is now on the right track, and we are never going back.

Tonight there are now almost 2.3 million people at work in Ireland – more than before the crash, in fact more than ever before with most new jobs created outside the Dublin area.

Incomes are rising.  Poverty and deprivation are falling.  Income inequality is narrowing.

We have reduced the USC and increased the minimum wage – not once but three times – and restored pay for the hardest working people in our society.

We have increased the State pension by ten euros a week, and we’ll increase it again next week.

We have ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilites, brought in mandatory reporting of child abuse, because we care for our children, especially those at risk.

Today 75% of premises in Ireland have access to high speed broadband – up from 52% when we came to office.

More new homes will be built this year than any year this decade.  And we’ll build more again next year.

Tonight there are 600 more Gardaí on the beat because we want people to feel safe and secure in their homes.

This autumn, children going back to school in our primary schools go to schools with the lowest teacher-pupil ratio ever, because we see education as an investment in our future.

We have introduced subsidised childcare for working parents, reduced the cost of medicines and stabilised the cost of health insurance, particularly important for our elderly.

And we have extended eligibility for medical cards and free GP care to more children and carers, so tonight a young mother with a sick child does not need to worry about finding €50 to pay the doctor.

These are our achievements, Fine Gael and Independents in Government.

Our mission now is to build for the future.

And that’s why next week’s budget will be Brexit-proof.

We’ll balance the books.  There will be no deficit for the first time since the crash.  So if we need to borrow after Brexit we’ll be able to do so.

We’ll have a Rainy Day Fund that we can dip into to help businesses and farms to adapt if we need to.

We’ll increase investment in infrastructure by 25% so we can upgrade our roads, ports, airports, energy, and communications networks.

And that’s what makes me so concerned about the economic policies of Sinn Féin and many other 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 know those policies will put Ireland back on the road to recession and austerity and we won’t allow that.

If I do anything at all while I hold this office, I’m determined to break our country out of that boom and bust cycle that we’ve experienced for far too long, once and for all.

I want steady, sustainable investment and improvements in living standards every year – for a generation – I want that to be our new normal.  I want people to be confident that this year will be better than the last, that next year will be better again, and I want every parent to know that their children will have more opportunities and a better life than they had.

Next week, we will also find money to invest in public services, and we will put more money back in people’s pockets.

There will be a tax package; there will be a pensions and welfare package.  And, at long last, we will fully reverse the cuts made by governments of the past in weekly payments to carers, people with disabilities, widows, the blind, and lone parents with young kids.  Because we’re Fine Gael and we are the party of the Just Society.  We know what an Ireland for all really means.

Friends, a particular focus in our tax policy is reducing taxes for those who earn middle incomes.

We’ve already taken the lowest paid out of the tax net.  The 30% lowest paid in Ireland don’t pay any income tax anymore.

But people on the middle incomes pay the highest rate of income tax far too quickly in my view.  And there’s also a discrimination against the self-employed which we need to eliminate.

People on very modest incomes, earning 40,000 or 50,000 euro a year, pay the highest rate of income tax.  I don’t think that’s fair.  That’s not the norm in other European countries and it’s damaging our competitiveness when it comes to attracting talent and good jobs to Ireland.

Huge numbers of people at the moment, getting pay increases, doing a bit of overtime, getting an increment, lose more than half of that in income tax, and that’s wrong.

And that’s something we want to change over the years’ ahead.

We’ve started already and we will continue until it’s done.

Colleagues, Brexit is now only 6 months away.  It is one of the greatest challenges our country has faced since independence.

Our job as an Irish Government is to look out for the interests of the entire island of Ireland.

We know where we stand.

We made a decision a long time ago that our place was to be at the heart of Europe and that’s where we’re going to stay.  Full members of the Single Market.   Founding members of the euro and PESCO. 

Our objectives in these difficult negotiations are simple.

We want to retain the common travel area, ensuring that people who are Irish or British can travel freely between our two islands, can live, work, access healthcare, welfare, and education, in each other’s countries as though they were citizens of both.  That’s something we intend to protect.

We also want the withdrawal agreement to include a transition period.

We don’t want sudden changes at the end of March next year.  So we need a transition period of about two years and that’s hugely important for business and jobs.

We also need a backstop or protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland to give us the assurance we need that no hard border will emerge on our island under any circumstances.

And we want to protect the European rights and freedoms of people in Northern Ireland who will continue to be Irish and EU citizens.

And, of course, we want to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement between the EU and UK to minimise the disruption to trade between Ireland and Britain after the transition period ends.

You can rest assured that the Tánaiste and Minister McEntee are working flat out to get the best possible deal for this country.

Mindful of our history, we will be deeply engaged and vigilant on all aspects of Brexit.  We will bring home the best deal possible and we will stand our ground.

To secure our future, we’re determined to invest in it.

Our Project Ireland 2040 Plan, which is now being implemented, provides for massive increases in investment in our public infrastructure – housing, transport, broadband, education and healthcare – thus ensuring that economic development is brought to all parts of our country.

All of us in this room tonight fully appreciate the extent and depth of the housing shortage and the enormous challenge of homelessness.  And we’ve all heard and been affected by the stories of those who are at the sharp end of this crisis, especially children.

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 it is our mission to ensure that home ownership becomes achievable and affordable again for many who today feel it is beyond their reach.

This is a crisis that was many years and perhaps decades in the making.

We have not yet turned the corner but I do believe we will.

Rough sleeping is down 40%.  Working with NGOs and charities, we’ve taken people off the streets, they’ve been given shelter and housing and the wraparound supports they need to get back on their feet.

The biggest social housing programme in decades is now underway, more than 100,000 social housing units – homes for people – will be provided over the next ten years for people on the housing list, with 8,000 provided this year already.  So by Christmas, 8,000 families will have been given the keys to a new home.

And we must never forget that most people want to own their own home, and so we created the conditions in which 4,400 new homes were built in the last three months alone.  That’s about 20,000 this year, up from 15,000 the year before, and 9,000 the year before that.

These are big numbers, but behind these numbers are thousands of young couples and families moving into new homes and communities.

And the new Land Development Agency, with €1.25 billion behind it, is a step change in the Government’s involvement in the housing market.  We are going to build new homes and lots of them on public land, and public land will be used as it should be, for the benefit of all of the public with a mix of housing – social, cost rental, subsidised, and for private purchase.

Friends, the next few months are going to be a very eventful period in Irish politics.  And a real opportunity to make the right decisions to ensure that we take Ireland forward.

In three weeks time the ballot boxes will be opened in Dublin Castle and the votes will be counted to see who is the next President of Ireland.

As you all know, Fine Gael is supporting the re-election of President Michael D. Higgins.  He comes from a different party to us, a different political philosophy, but I think we can all agree he has represented us with distinction at home and abroad.

As a young Taoiseach who goes to Áras an Uachtaráin every few weeks to discuss matters of state under Article 28 of the Constitution, I’ve found it really useful to be able to talk to somebody who has the experience and knowledge and wisdom that he has.

Somebody who is an academic, an artist, somebody who has been a career politician, who has served in the Dáil and Seanad, who has served as a Minister in Government, and who understands the challenges I face.  So the advice he gives me is invaluable.

For these reasons, I hope he is resoundingly re-elected as President on the 26th of October.

We will also have the matter of a referendum, on blasphemy, and again we will be asking for a Yes vote here as part of our programme to modernise our Constitution and make it a 21st century Constitution for a 21st century country.

Next May we will, of course, have local and European elections, and again it will be an opportunity to ensure that we continue to be the largest party in the European Parliament and regain our place as the largest party in local government.

At this President’s dinner, 85 years from the founding of the party, we should be proud of what we have achieved in the service of this country and our people.  And we should be determined to do much more.

We are the party that rewards work.  The party of:

  • enterprise,
  • law and order,
  • equality of opportunity, and
  • hope.

We are the party of the Just Society.  We are the party of Europe.

And we are the United Ireland Party.

Today we face challenges, just as great as any which went before.

The greatest challenge of all is to secure our future.

To ensure that we bring Ireland forward, and that we never go back.

And with your help – tonight and every other night — that’s what we’re going to do.

Thank you.

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