Good afternoon and welcome.
On this exact day, 85 years ago members of Cumann na nGaedheal – from here in Galway and from all across the country – were making their way to Dublin to make history.
On Saturday we’ll mark the anniversary of the meeting where a new political party was formed, a patriotic party that wanted a genuine United Ireland bringing together people from all backgrounds and traditions, from all parts of the country – our party, Fine Gael.
At the Mansion House, 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’.
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 in the following decades:
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 – we declared a Republic, brought our country into the United Nations and placed us at the heart of Europe
We continue to honour the promise made in our founding document in 1933 to always ‘look to the future, while rooted in the best traditions’.
And that is what we will do in the days, weeks and months and years ahead.
As we enter a new Dail & Seanad year, I think it is appropriate to look back on much of what we have achieved – Fine Gael and Independents in Government – over the last two years.
The public finances are in order and the budget broadly balanced.
Incomes are rising, we have reduced the USC and increased the minimum wage – not once but twice, restored pay for hard working public servants and reduced income taxes.
Poverty and deprivation rates are falling and we are reducing income inequality.
We have increased the State pension by ten euros a week and we have done the same when it comes to weekly payments for the disabled, carers, lone parents and job seekers.
We have ratified the UN Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilites, brought in mandatory reporting of child abuse and today 75% of premises in Ireland have access to high speed broadband – up from 52% when we came to office.
More new homes were built last year than any year since the crash.
The number of people waiting more than three months for an operation or procedure – hips, knees, cataracts – is now less than it was when this Government came to office.
There are 600 more Gardaí on the beat and we have extended eligibility for medical cards and free GP care to more children and carers.
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 the country, well beyond the Greater Dublin Area.
We have introduced subsidised childcare, reduced the cost of medicines and stabilised the cost of health insurance.
And this week, children going back to school in our primary schools go to schools with the lowest teacher pupil ratio ever.
And perhaps most important of all, there are now almost 2.3 million people at work in Ireland – more than before the crash, in fact more than ever before.
These are our achievements, Fine Gael and Independents in Government.
We have made enormous progress in the last couple of years, we have a lot done, but there can be no doubt that there is much more to do.
There are always new challenges and there is always more work to be done.
And that is why I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition last week. Because I want to get that work done. I want this Government, with Fine Gael and Independents, to continue.
Not because we wish to stay in power, but because we want to serve, because we want to give more and do more.
As Michael Collins said, we govern not to rule but to serve.
So what kind of service do we seek, and what kind of service do we mean?
Above all, I want us to manage our economy and public finances prudently.
Once and for all to break out of the cycle of boom and bust.
Tax cuts one year, followed by tax hikes the next.
Pay increases given, only to be taken away again.
Stop-start investment in roads, public transport, healthcare and housing, which is ineffective and doesn’t work in the long term.
Instead of boom and bust, I want Ireland to have what many other countries have, sustained increases in living standards and sustained improvements in public services and public infrastructure, year on year, for a generation.
I want that to be our new normal
So, when it comes to this year’s Budget, our first priority will be to ensure it is broadly balanced, with a view to moving into surplus next year.
That we reduce the national debt.
That we establish a Rainy Day Fund, so that this time we are better prepared for a shock or if something goes wrong in the future.
In this Budget or the next – should we get the chance – we will of course find some space to improve living standards.
Pay restoration for public servants – like teachers, nurses and Gardaí – will continue, as agreed. And we will provide further for increases for pensioners, people with disabilities, carers, lone parents, among others.
And having taken the lowest paid out of the income tax net altogether, we will ensure that middle income earners will take home more of their hard-earned pay.
Ireland is a low tax country, that’s a good thing.
But when it comes to income tax that is not entirely true. People on average incomes pay the highest rate of income tax, which means that if they get an increment or a pay increase, a bonus, overtime or a promotion, they lose more than half of what they gain. That’s just not fair and we want that to change.
We also want to make sure that we can make life easier for families and reduce the cost of living. We have made real progress already, with the introduction of childcare subsidies, pre-school and paternity benefit. We need to do more to reduce the cost of childcare for more families, and also introduce paid parental leave so mums and dads can spend more time with their kids. I know Minister Regina Doherty is working out the details of this as I speak.
We also want to reduce the cost of healthcare by extending free GP care to more children and more low income families, and continue to reduce the cost of medicines.
And having introduced paternity benefit and having restored dental and optical benefits – including extending them to the self-employed – we want to make sure that more people receive benefits in return for the social insurance they pay, with a particular emphasis on equality for the self-employed – sole traders, business people, professionals, farmers and their spouses.
We will implement the roadmap for pension reform, which includes auto-enrolment, so that all private sector workers will have access to their own personal pension, thus removing an enormous inequality in our society at long last.
All of us here fully appreciate the extent and depth of the housing crisis and the enormous challenge of homelessness. We all know it in particular from our work as constituency TDs. We know the individual cases and we see the bigger picture.
Let there be no mistake, Fine Gael believes firmly that every family should have 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.
I want to commend Eoghan Murphy and all that he has done in the last year to improve a very difficult situation that was many years if not decades in the making.
Rough sleeping is down 40% – housing first is working.
4,400 new homes were built in the last three months and we are on course to build as many 20,000 this year.
More new houses were built last year than any other year this decade.
Rents are stabilising, with an average increase of less than 2% in the last 6 months.
More than 100 people every day and their families are being housed with government support, and in the last year 5,000 people have been taken out of homelessness and into secure tenancies.
We have not turned the corner, but it is in sight.
It’s now our duty to sustain this progress and accelerate it, just as was the case when it came to the economic crisis and unemployment. It will take time to solve it, but solve it we will.
Next week Minister Murphy will be bringing to cabinet proposals to establish a Land Development Agency, with €1.25 billion behind it.
This is a step change in the Government’s involvement in the housing market. We are going to build new homes and lots of them…
Social housing, affordable housing, private housing and cost rental on state owned land and privately owned land. An intervention which is 50 years overdue and in time, I believe will be seen to be as significant as the decision to establish the ESB, Aer Lingus or the IDA.
As we all know, Brexit presents one of the greatest challenge since independence. We’re working tirelessly to get the best possible deal for this country. We are preparing our businesses and our agriculture sector, as well as ensuring the transport sector is ready for whatever happens.
I want to reiterate today that it is our desire that there will be the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK after Brexit. If that does not prove possible, the backstop will be in place as part of the withdrawal treaty to ensure no hard border on the island and this will apply unless and until a better solution is found.
You can be sure that the Tánaiste, Minister Mc Entee and I will be deeply engaged and vigilant on all aspects of Brexit in the weeks ahead. We will bring home the best deal possible and we will stand our ground.
I know that healthcare is of enormous interest to everyone here and enormous concern to the people we represent. And again I want to recognise the phenonmenal work being done by Minister Harris in this most difficult and challenging of briefs. In particular I want to recognise the role he played in making sure that the people were given their say on the 8th amendment.
Notwithstanding a diversity of views within the Party, we’ve heard what the People of Ireland had to say loud and clear and we are acting on it.
We are all deeply aware of the challenges that we face when it comes to healthcare, whether it is overcrowding in our emergency departments, too many people waiting too long to see a specialist or for the operation or test they need, and the fact that so many people struggle with out of pocket expenses or cannot get the answers they deserve when something goes wrong.
However, we should not forget the fact that 85% of patients, when asked, say that their experience of our public health service was good or very good, that cancer survival, recovery from heart attacks and life expectancy has never been better and has been improving all the time. This isn’t happening by accident, it is a consequence of Government investment, good policy and the extraordinary work of our healthcare professionals.
Be assured, I am working closely with Minister Harris on improving, reforming and modernising our health service, guided by Sláintecare.
Over the course of the next 9 months, and before we meet again in this format, we will have a presidential election, local elections and European elections. And we have to be live to the possibility that we may have a general election as well.
Decisions that the public make in the next few months could determine who leads our counties, our cities, our country and our continent, well into the next decade. As always, there are many factors beyond our control, but what I am certain we need now as a Party is unity, purpose, ambition and determination.
With that in mind, I want to recognise the presence here of some of the candidates we have selected to contest the next General Election on behalf of Fine Gael – Julie O’Leary, John Paul O’Shea, Emer Curie, Alan Dillon, Sinead Maguire, Gareth Ahearn, Mary Newman, Emer Higgins, Micheál Carrighy, Pa O’Driscoll, John Clendennen, Peter Roche and Barry Ward.
We look forward to them joining us in our Fine Gael Parliamentary Party room, where our values are emblazoned on our wall, enshrined in our Constitution and are at the heart of the way we govern.
We are Fine Gael
We are the party of:
• equality of opportunity,
We are the party of the just society. We are the party of Europe.
We are the United Ireland Party.
We are the party with the courage to succeed because we have always had the courage take action, to try new things, and to defend fundamental freedoms and liberties.
Each generation must answer a different question about the future of our country.
100 years ago it was how to win our country its freedom and to survive as an independent state in a hostile world.
60 years ago it was how to develop enterprise and industry so that we could provide opportunities for all and end the scourge of forced migration.
30 years ago it was about freedom – how we could provide the liberty to individuals and families so they could decide how to live their lives, both North and South.
10 years ago it was about restoring our good name, international reputation, confidence in our economic and political system, so that people had hope again for the future of this country. Once again, able to believe that this year will be better than last and that their children will have more opportunities and a better life than they have.
And today we face challenges, just as great as any which went before.
There will always be new challenges, there will always be more work to be done.
Together we will meet those challenges head on.