A dhaoine uaisle, a comhleacaithe, Oíche mhaith agaibh go léir.
We are here in Athlone, in the middle of Ireland, in the Technological University of the Shannon… a perfect example of the new age of education we have pioneered for the 21st century and our commitment to balanced regional development.
Five years ago, Athlone achieved the distinction of being the first in our country to be named a designated college of sanctuary.
It is a spirit that speaks to the best of Irish communities: welcoming, compassionate, remembering of a past when we were the huddled masses seeking shelter from hunger and oppression.
And we see the same spirit in our response to Putin’s war.
The unprovoked war has brought terrible death and devastation to Ukraine, and our response has been unambiguous.
We stand with Ukraine.
There have been consequences for the global economy and knock-on effects for our own.
Our action taking in people and families fleeing the war has also brought with it significant pressures. But it is the right thing to do.
History teaches us that appeasing evil never works, it makes it stronger.
From this time and place, I want to promise you this: We will overcome the challenges we face… we will solve the problems that have arisen… and we will shelter our fellow human beings.
Because if Ireland is to be a symbol of anything, it should be a symbol of hope and opportunity… friendship and freedom.
We are being true to our own history. One hundred years ago, in the midst of a terribly tragic, and unnecessary Civil War… the Irish Free State was born on the 6th of December 1922.
The men and women who went on to found our great party, Fine Gael, played a central part in those events.
As we know, some paid the ultimate price.
We are proud of this tradition of one hundred years of service to the State.
We are proud of the State we fought to create and worked so hard to build.
As you know… my life story is an uncommon one.
My father is an Indian doctor… my mother comes from a farm in Waterford… they met in England and planned to move to America.
I could have been born in any four of these countries. But I am so glad that I was born and raised here in Ireland.
This is a great country, one of the best in the world, and I am grateful for all of the opportunities it has given me.
I love this country. I believe in it and its people… I will always try to make it better. And I will always stand up to those who would rubbish it.
The message from our opponents is that Ireland is some kind of failed State. It is not.
It is a State which has succeeded time and time again despite major challenges… domestic and global… over the past century.
A State which is not perfect, but which is driven by the same spirit of idealism and hope as was there one hundred years ago.
Delegates… we will not take lessons on our history from those who seek to rewrite it or deny it.
Those who tried to destroy and undermine our State over the past one hundred years were in a minority. They were wrong then and they still are.
Those who now denigrate and sneer at it, while simultaneously wrapping themselves in the flag, are also very much wrong. And delegates, we’ll never stop pointing that out.
Consumed by negativity, they ask what have we done in Government.
- Full Employment;
- Incomes up, income taxes down;
- Better pensions;
- Sick pay, Paternity Leave and Parents Leave;
- More affordable Childcare;
- Marriage Equality;
- Better opportunities for women and girls;
- Better protections for the self-employed and farmers;
- More people living in rural Ireland than ever before;
- Record levels of trade and investment;
- More young people in further and higher education than ever before;
- Respect and Influence in Europe and at the UN;
- 150,000 new homes built;
- Medical cards for children with severe disabilities and for those terminally ill.
- Record funding for sports and the arts;
- People living longer healthier lives;
- And one of the world’s best responses to the pandemic and a successful vaccination programme.
Colleagues, we can stand over our record in Government. And we should do. But we must never deny the many problems that we have yet to resolve. We know we need to do much more. There is more work to be done.
In the next two years in Government, we will do what needs to be done.
- Protecting the squeezed middle and vulnerable from increased living costs. Putting more money back in your pocket.
- Accelerating action on housing to ensure that people in their twenties and thirties can own their own homes again.
- Delivering for Rural Ireland and farmers.
- Building stronger and safer communities.
- And providing the very best start for every child.
With our partners in Fianna Fail and the Green Party, this will be our direction of travel based on our agreed Programme for Government.
We are determined to build a country… which is the best in Europe to raise a family… to become a homeowner… and to grow a business.
Delegates, I know we need to do much more on housing. We need to implement and accelerate Housing for All.
Whenever I meet young people, and not so young people, across the country, I am often asked the same question.
Will I ever have the chance to own a home? Is there light at the end of the tunnel? Should I give up and go abroad?
It’s a crisis that cuts across all age groups and is one that demands results… as well as actions.
My answer is that there is light and it is getting brighter.
16,000 people bought their first home in the last twelve months, and that’s the highest in 15 years.
But it’s not near enough. We will make it our mission to restore the social contract… and make home ownership affordable for the many again.
So, we will build more houses and apartments and get more people living in suitable, affordable accommodation.
First, we must build even more social housing. This benefits everyone… it takes people off the housing list… but it also frees up private rental properties… and puts downward pressure on rents and house prices.
We’re doing that. New social housing provision will break records this year.
We also need to scale up our cost rental programme. And, above all,we need many more new homes for people to buy and help them
to do so. That’s why we extended ‘Help to Buy’ for another two years.
And that’s why we’re providing grants to help people renovate old buildings and breathe new life into them, thus creating new homes in towns, villages and rural areas all over the country.
Increasing home ownership will be one of our guiding priorities for the next two years and it will take a whole of Government effort to succeed.
Delegates… tonight, I also want to speak to you about law and order. We live in a country where far too many people do not feel safe in their own homes or on the streets.
We are responding to this with more Gardaí and more measures to curb antisocial behaviour.
In the Budget we provided funding for 1,000 new Garda recruits. And we are determined to change the law to ensure criminals are apprehended and punished.
So, we will:
- Double the maximum sentence for assault causing harm from five years to ten;
- We’ll increase the maximum sentence for conspiracy to murder from 10 years to life to take on those who direct gangland violence;
- We’ll allow judges impose minimum tariffs for life sentences for the most serious crimes;
- And we’ll continue to fight back against gender based and sexual violence of all forms.
Tonight… we are sending a message to the criminal underworld.
We will do whatever is necessary to protect our homes and our communities… and we will take the fight to you head on.
I know that many of you at home are anxious about the cost of living… about the money in your pocket at the end of the week… about trying to pay for the essentials and wondering what will be left.
Our focus on building an ever-stronger economy is precisely so that we can put more money back in your pocket.
This means cutting income tax… increasing pension payments… lowering the cost of healthcare… and increasing welfare payments for families, people with disabilities and carers.
Our policies are working. We were able to make real progress in the most recent budget.
From January… you will not pay the higher tax rate until you earn over €40,000… €80,000 in the case of a two-income couple. That means you get to keep more of your hard-earned income.
Next year, a middle-income couple will pay €2k less in income tax under Paschal than they would under Pearse… and that’s a fact.
Tonight, at this Ard Fheis, I recommit to Fine Gael leading on this front… and getting to the point where no individual earning below €50,000 will pay the top rate of tax.
It might take us a few more budgets to get there. But get there we will.
Delegates… we know how to work with other parties in Government, to work together on an agreed mission, and achieve
We can make a coalition work and we can make it last.
So, let’s acknowledge tonight that our Taoiseach Micheál Martin has been a good one. Through difficult circumstances, including the later stages of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, he has been a voice for decency, kindness and for common sense. We thank him.
My strong desire is that this Government should last. We have a political system that can be adversarial at election times… but which can also produce coalitions that work.
Fine Gael’s tradition and policies are different to those of Fianna Fáil.
But our parties have the maturity to find agreement… to build a consensus with our colleagues in the Green Party… and to work together in the service of our country.
But we can’t work with everyone, and anyone.
Coming into this campus today, someone asked me would I ever consider going into coalition with Sinn Féin?
I gave them a clear and unambiguous answer from all of us – No… No way… not a chance.
I believe Sinn Féin when they tell us who they are: an ultra nationalist… radical left… populist… euro-critical party. Their policies would be a disaster for Ireland.
Their shaky commitment to democracy and to free speech is extremely concerning. As is the ambiguity towards serious crime.
It is not primarily about their past. It is about the future and what they might do to our country.
They are a high tax, anti-trade, anti-jobs, anti-business party which would wreck the economy. They would take us from the heart of Europe to its euro-skeptic periphery.
At a time of rising populism and nationalism in the world, sometimes of the left, sometimes of the right… they are Ireland’s clearest manifestation of it.
All the hallmarks are there – simple solutions to complex problems… elevating anger over facts… conspiracy theories about elites and the masses… and the demonization and bullying of opponents.
For this reason, the next general election will be the most important in a generation.
We need to make sure the centre holds… and grows… and that they are stopped.
And delegates, I promise you, we will.
As I travel the country, many people ask me about Climate Action,the most pressing long-term global challenge of our time.
We need to take better care of our planet. This generation must be the generation to pass on our planet in a better condition than we inherited it.
We have a long way to go, but there is clear evidence that we are making progress.
We moved from laggard to mid-table. We should now aim to be a leader.
I believe that within a generation we can go from being an energy importer to being an energy exporter with all the benefits that come with it – greater energy security… stable prices… more jobs… and regional development.
This should be our ambition, and I want to help drive it… our generation’s Ardnacrusha… Ireland’s 21st century moon shot.
Delegates… we must also do more to help our rural communities, fishing communities and farmers.
In my first period as Taoiseach, we signed the contract for the National Broadband Plan. I’ll never forget that day in that small school in rural West Wicklow.
To date, almost 100k homes and businesses have access to immediate connections… and by the end of 2024… over a quarter of a million will be able to access the electronic highway of the future.
A highway which will allow people to work, study and run a business wherever they are in the country. This is a Fine Gael achievement and one we can be proud of.
However, we are also very aware of problems… volatile prices for farmers… the sadness of dereliction in many of our towns and villages… the loss of younger people… inadequate public transport and infrastructure.
We are determined to find the solutions…whether it’s more efficient and higher value food production and a better deal for farmers…
fulfilling our tourism potential… developing further our renewable energy… remote working… and industrial development in regional towns and cities.
We want people to have the choice to stay in the county of their birth.
Fine Gael is also the party that looks out for older people.
We recognise the contribution that pensioners have made to this country. After working all their lives they have put in their shift.
We don’t want to see any senior citizen afraid to turn on the heat this winter.
So, in the coming weeks the new Over 70s Fuel Allowance Scheme will open to applications.
It will ensure tens of thousands more pensioners will qualify for the payment for the first time. And it’s not a one-off payment… it’s a permanent change for the better.
It’s also why we have embarked on a once in a generation reform of our pension system to ensure that people can retire with financial security into the future.
From 2024, every worker will have access to an occupational pension to top up their state pension.
This will be of particular benefit to people working in the private sector and small business.
Delegates… we have unfinished business when it comes to children and the costs of childcare.
Our ambition is to build on the 25% reduction in childcare costs in Budget 2023… and ensure the best start for every child. This means continuing our major investment in childcare and early education.
And if the public finances allow… we should reduce the cost of childcare by another 25% in the next budget… saving money for families and enabling more parents to return to the workforce. This will cut the cost of childcare to about half of what it is today.
Fine Gael is committed to making education more accessible and less expensive… whether through free school books… hot school meals… reducing student registration fees… and increasing student grants.
The work being done on apprenticeships will help develop the skills and build the capacity the country needs to fix housing… take climate action… improve our water quality… and retain Ireland’s attractiveness for investment.
We also have unfinished business when it comes to business – itself.
I want to do more for all of you running small businesses who are concerned about the future… for those of you working in tech industries or retail or hospitality and anxious about your jobs… and for everyone facing an uncertain winter.
You can rely on Fine Gael to back business, protect and create jobs like no other party can.
The Government’s multi-billion euro financial response to the pandemic was unprecedented, whether it was help with wage bills to keep staff on… or pay the overheads.
We didn’t do all that so viable businesses and jobs would go to the wall.
We can help now because we have managed the public finances carefully in the past.
Unlike others… we will not write blank cheques or make unfunded promises that can’t be honoured.
We have kept resources in reserve so that we can respond as the situation develops and intervene again if we need to – if this cost of living crisis persists.
Delegates… in Northern Ireland the Assembly and Executive are suspended so we need to redouble our efforts to find a path forward. We succeeded before and we will again.
We need to engage with Northern Nationalists, Unionists and that growing middle ground who identify as Northern Irish rather than British or Irish… and those who identify as both.
Stalemate and the status quo is not a realistic option or an acceptable one.
As we approach the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, let’s be inspired by that new beginning and build on that achievement.
Delegates… continuing our work in Government means building a better society, protecting us from the worst the world throws at us…and providing the opportunities to make better lives.
Our country has suffered serious shocks over the last 15 years. We had a global economic crisis, and a pandemic that stopped the world.
Athógann ár ngeallagair. D’fhulaing ár sochaí. Tá spraga ag tastáil uainn. Ba mhaith linn go mbeidh teaghlaigh agus daoine ag maireachtáil gan strus, gan imní. D’fhulaing muid go leor agus nílimíd ar an taobh eile go fóill. Ach eíroidh linn!
Delegates… at times in our history, Fine Gael stepped in to save the economy and protect our future.
At other times, Fine Gael led the way on how we could build a more modern and compassionate society.
Fine Gael is at its best when we do both.
The problems we face as a country require leadership… stability… and vision.
A strong economy gives us the freedom and opportunity to make people’s lives better… for all of you here… for your families… and for all of you watching at home.
Making your lives better and doing what’s right for the country.
That’s what drives us in Government and as a party.
And that is our solemn promise to all of you tonight.