Tonight I want to speak to you about my vision – Fine Gael’s vision – for Ireland’s future in the second century of our independence. A vision for our future post-pandemic – how we can build a brighter, better, more modern, more inclusive country in the years ahead.
A vision guided by our values – equality of opportunity, rewarding work, enterprise, security and above all, hope.
As a party, one of Fine Gael’s core beliefs is in the ‘social market economy’. It’s the right model for Ireland to follow. It is the philosophy of the European, centrist and Christian Democrat family to which we belong.
The belief in a social market economy is grounded in the knowledge that a market economy is the best way to generate employment, resources and wealth alongside the understanding that we need a strong state to achieve our social objectives, an active state, a state that cares.
As a country we have endured 15 extremely difficult months. Together, we battled COVID-19, together we suffered, and together we prevailed. We remember those who we lost, more than seven thousand people, north and south. Families and friends who still mourn, individuals with stories we will never forget. We commit, in their memory, to build a better Ireland that is worthy of them.
Tá tionchar mór ag an bpaindéim orainn arfad. Tá ionsaí déanta ag an gCoróinvíreasar ár meabhairshláinte agus ar ár sláintefhisiciúil, agus tá fulaingthe ag an t-uafásagainn ar go leor bealaí éagsúla.
Thug an misneach a bhí agaibh agus an teacht aniar a bhí ionaibh cúnamh dúinnteacht tríd an tréimhse uafásach seo. Táábhar misnigh anois arís againn.
I believe, our response to the pandemic was Ireland at its best. We learned that we can achieve the impossible when we work together for a common cause. As a team of 5 million. Let’s make this the new normal.
Having led Ireland through the financial crisis, Brexit and the pandemic, as we celebrate a century of statehood, let’s embark on a new mission.
A mission to build a Just Society, one in which everyone has the opportunity to grow and prosper – to get a good education, to find a job and get promoted, to own a home, to raise a family, to build a successful business, to be looked after when sick, and grow old in security and dignity.
The pandemic has caused us all to re-evaluate what really matters to us the most. The value of community, solidarity, care, our natural environment, our personal health, our home, our family and friends.
We have redefined essential workers. Not just nurses and doctors, Gardaí and paramedics, but also supermarket workers, drivers, cleaners, and people working in food production and service.
I believe a legacy of the pandemic must be better pay, terms and conditions for all workers, public and private sector. Fine Gael will take the lead on this through the introduction of statutory sick pay, the move to a living wage and access to an occupational pension for all employees to supplement their state pension. Reforming our social welfare system to provide a better safety net for people who lose their jobs or take time out to care for others.
When it comes to the workplace, I don’t believe we should return to the old normal. We need a new normal in which people are facilitated to work from home or work from a hub near to where they live. It’s about choice.
I don’t think anyone now doubts our decision to invest in the National Broadband Plan which will bring fibre to hundreds of thousands of homes, farms, schools and businesses across Ireland. Combined with remote working, we have a once in a generation opportunity to transform Rural Ireland for the better and Fine Gael will make sure we seize that opportunity. The future of work must be more family friendly, women must have equal opportunities to men when it comes to pay and promotion, and the gender pay gap must be closed.
Owning our own home is in our DNA as a people but this dream is out of reach for far too many. This dream, this promise, must again become a reality. We must renew the social contract and make owning your own home a fundamental part of it. Tonight, I want to set a target of getting back to 70% homeownership by the end of the decade. This will require getting up to forty thousand new homes built every year, double where we are now.
This will be done through public and private investment, and we will champion the building of new communities and new homes – social, shared ownership, cost rental, student accommodation, homes to rent and above all, homes to purchase.
Housing is a human right but it means nothing just to say it or to write it into law. You have to mean it and make it happen. This means voting for new housing not against it, it means stronger protections for renters, encouraging investment not chasing it away and helping first-time buyers to get a deposit and a mortgage. That is what Fine Gael does. Others talk. We build.
Delegates, the pandemic has reminded us of the power and beauty of our environment. When I became Taoiseach, I said it was our ambition to take Ireland from being a laggard to a leader on Climate Action. With the changes we are making, like the new climate law passed by the Dáil earlier this week, we are well on our way, putting the environment, biodiversity and sustainability at the heart of all that we do.
I want to see our towns and cities become more liveable and people friendly. Protecting the family farm model and farm incomes by working with our farmers to reduce the impact of intensive farming on our soil, climate and water. In urban areas, let’s make the idea of a fifteen-minute town or city a reality, with all the services you need within a fifteen-minute walk or bike ride.
During the pandemic we saw how good our health service can be. Unlike other countries, we did not run out of hospital beds, oxygen or ventilators, our testing and tracing system worked well and our vaccine programme has been a huge success. Systems were changed and reforms made quickly – and we need to keep this speed and efficiency to take people off waiting lists and provide a better service.
I believe the additional staff, resources and billions in extra funding that we have provided to the health service to respond to the emergency should be retained and redeployed.
We must implement the Sláintecare promise of affordable healthcare for all by reducing out of pocket expenses for medicines and hospital charges and expanding medical card eligibility. Let’s make it our mission to build a public health service that can be ranked amongst the best in Europe by the end of this decade.
I know the pandemic has been hugely difficult for young people who have had their lives, relationships and education disrupted. Education from pre-school to post-grad is the great leveller, a giver of opportunity and a driver of equality. An investment in education is an investment in the better future we need to build.
A Just Society, of course, can only be built on the solid foundations of a growing and competitive economy. Fine Gael is – and has always been – the party you can trust to keep our economy strong, to create jobs, and manage the public finances well. We believe in backing business and supporting enterprise, particularly our small and medium enterprises which provide most of the employment in the State. So, the financial supports introduced in the pandemic will remain in place for as long as they are needed so that every business gets a fighting chance to recover and grow.
We will also care for the sectors hit hardest for longest like tourism, hospitality, aviation, entertainment and the arts. We repeat our commitment that there will be no increases in income taxes by stealth or by design because we believe in rewarding work through better pay and fairer taxes.
Delegates, our prosperity is built on the goods and services we produce and sell to the world. That’s why we believe in seeking out foreign direct investment and welcoming free trade. It’s why we stand by our sovereign right to set our own tax rates – a crucial tool for small countries to compete. And why we believe that Ireland’s place is at the heart of the European Union as founder members of the single-market and eurozone. We are proud to be European.
As a Government, we have set the ambition of restoring all of the jobs that have been lost due to the pandemic and to have 2.5 million at work in Ireland by 2024, a new record.
This will require a huge expansion of higher and further education, skills development, lifelong learning and apprenticeship as we prepare our people young and old for the jobs of tomorrow. Fine Gael will see this done.
After the pandemic we will never go back to the old way of doing things. We showed the world what we could achieve in the worst of circumstances. We showed each other what we can be at our best. We proved that politics can be about achieving what was once thought impossible. In the years ahead, this must be our guiding light and our inspiration, as we build a better future for all.
Thank you and I look forward to your questions.