Speech by An Taoiseach and Leader of Fine Gael Leo Varadkar T.D. at the Fine Gael Think In

-   An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD

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At the start of the summer we had a passionate and re-energising contest for the leadership of our party.  That contest showed how much excitement can be generated by a debate about ideas.

Looking back at that time, what it demonstrates most to me is the strength of Fine Gael.   No other party would even consider having such searching examinations of its policies, its values and its future direction.  Most other parties would prefer to make their decisions behind closed doors, in secret, and without public debate and scrutiny.

Today Fine Gael is stronger as a party.  It has always been a hallmark of our history in Fine Gael to be fearless, to welcome robust debate.

So, in the months and years ahead we must be willing to critique our proposals and assumptions, because if an idea cannot stand up to examination among friends and colleagues, then it will not stand up to scrutiny by others.

This is where we begin.

Looking ahead to the next two days here in Clonmel, we need to ensure that everything we propose has been road-tested and politically-proofed to the greatest extent possible.

I am struck by the fact that this is the first time in fifteen years that we are holding a ‘Think-In’ without Enda Kenny as our party leader. So many tributes have been paid to him over the past few months – and deservedly so.  But today I will again repeat what I have said many times before – as a country and a party – he gave us back our future.

His only regret as Taoiseach is that he did not get to see Mayo lift the Sam Maguire when he was in office.  

Maybe he will be in better luck on Sunday!

Last week Fine Gael celebrated its 84thanniversary and its long and proud history in the service of the state.  The achievements of our founders go even further back to the formation of the state and the creation of its key institutions.  

It is precisely because we played such a major role in the setting-up of An Garda Síochána that we are determined to restore morale within the force and public confidence in the force.  We know what needs to be done and we are in the process of doing it and we will prevail.

The Fine Gael leadership campaign allowed me to articulate and develop a vision for Ireland – how after a lost decade for many of our citizens and our country, we must take Ireland forward to realise the ambitions of our people and build the Republic of Opportunity.

There are three broad principles that underline that ambition.

One – that everyone has an equal opportunity to be the best person they can be, that everyone gets a fair go and, in particular, that every child has the chance to grow up to be the best person they can be.

Two – that every part of the country has the opportunity to share in our recovery and prosperity.

And three – that there are second chances for all those who need them.

This ambition to build the Republic of Opportunity is in many ways the modern iteration of the Just Society.  It combines the best ideas from the right with the best ideas from the left.  It is the politics of the new centre.

It is also the politics of progress and change.  So, when we say the centre must hold, we do not mean that things should stay the same.  We mean that we will lead change not from the extremes but from the centre.  Giving people, families and businesses the certainty with which they can plan for the future.  

The Just Society had at its heart the idea of providing equality of opportunity for all. The Republic of Opportunity I speak of is underpinned by the idea of creating a society that fair and compassionate.  

It is underwritten by an economy that is strong and competitive, with prudently managed public finances and a world view that embraces free trade, managed migration, Europe and multi-lateralism as the best means to solve the world’s problems.

So, how do we build this Republic of Opportunity and what do those words mean in practical, day-to-day, terms?

Examples of the Republic of Opportunity in action are all around over the last few months.

It includes the fourth increase in the minimum wage for people who get up early in the morning, work late at night, work weekend and shift work – workers in restaurants, petrol stations, shops and care-givers, because we believe that work should pay.

We have already seen educational access improve under Fine Gael in government and it will improve further.  Because we believe that education is the single best route to a better lifethat is why we are giving new bursaries to increase access to higher education for people with disabilities, lone parents, and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

We want everyone, including the middle class, to gain from the benefits they fund through their taxes and that is why we have introduced subsidised childcare for all families with no need for a means-test. Because we believe in making life easier for families.  

Fifty thousand new jobs have already been created this year because of our pro-enterprise economic environment.

For those working hard we have extended social insurance benefits like dental and optical benefits, and the invalidity pension,to the self-employed and farmers.  And we have brought in reductions to the USC and increases to the pension.

We increased payments to carers and those with disabilities because we believe in a compassionate society.

You can tell a lot about a society by how it treats its most vulnerable.  We have provided medical cards to all children with severe disability irrespective of their parents income, because we know they will need more regular access to health care, and parents shouldn’t have to worry about the costs.

And every working day, we provide housing for 80 individuals and families.  There are 20,000 new tenancies a year because we believe everyone should have a home.  

So when people mention style, I think of all that substance.  

The Republic of Opportunity is not a slogan or empty PR.  It is a way of thinking about how to improve people’s lives and we’re only getting started.

Of course, none of this could be done without the support and endeavour of our Independent colleagues in Government.  I thank them, salute them and assure them of our commitment to make this Government work and make it last.  

Next month, for the first time in ten years, we will publish a budget that will balance the books.

We do this because we have not and will not repeat the mistakes of the past – not our mistakes, but the mistakes of others.  

As Minister Paschal Donohoe has made clear we will do what is necessary to keep Ireland secure in a risky world. So we will keep public spending increases modest and sustainable.

Where we have scope in the budget, it will be used to reward work and enterprise, and will benefit those on middle incomes who pay the highest rates of tax on far too modest incomes. 

We will back business, farmers and enterprise. 

High taxes on the middle classes are a barrier to opportunity and to work. They are a cap on aspiration and there should be no cap on aspiration in the Republic we wish to build.

We also want to develop a new social contract based on the contributory principle – the principle that everyone who can should make a contribution, and everyone should benefit in return.   To do that we want to expand and improve social insurance related benefits.

This is why we have taken the decision to amalgamate USC with PRSI.  It is a complex and challenging task that will take many budgets but, when completed, it will mean having a new European-style social insurance system in Ireland. We’ve made a good start already with paternity benefit and new benefits for the self-employed.  

For this Government and for Ireland to succeed, we must think long-term and plan for an Ireland in 2040 which will be home talmost 6 million people.  

Key to this is the new National Development Plan that the Government will approve before the end of the year.

We will not introduce a planning framework, as Fianna Fáil did with the 2002 National Spatial Strategy, and then abandon it more or less immediately. We will not repeat the expensive mistakes of the past.

So, we will bring the National Planning Framework and our ten year capital plan together and publish them at the same time, ensuring that both complement and reinforce each other. In this way we will be able to plan meaningfully for the next twenty years.  In doing so, we will ensure that our investment in education and higher education, and in roads and public transport, is timed and targeted appropriately into the future.  And the same is true for housing, healthcare, broadband, and investment in culture.

This approach is essential to ensure that all parts of our country share in the recovery and our growing prosperity. Dublin will respond to its own obvious challenges and will continue to compete for Ireland internationally, but not at the expense of the rest of the country.  

With this plan, our aim is to encourage balanced regional development so that cities like Cork, Waterford, Galway and Limerick can grow by 40-50%. That’s faster than the capital in the decades ahead.

I want to say something about Healthcare.

I’ve stood in the Minister for Health’s shoes.  I know the determination and frustration on a daily basis of trying to improve patients’ experiences of our health service, and I know how incredibly difficult it is to change a system that is so enormous and has so many conflicting and vested interests.

Earlier this summer, a cross-party Oireachtas Committee report imagined the health service we would all like to see in 10 years time.  It is the first time that all parties have backed such an approach.  I support the principles of the report: that of Universal Health Care, separating public and private practice, providing much more healthcare in the community, reducing out-of-pocket expenses and charges for patients, greater decision making at regional level, and a focus on public health.  Minister Simon Harris is working on how best to move forward with it and will publish a roadmap for implementation before year end.  He has the full support of Government in doing so.

It’s worth pointing out that we are spending €15bn this year. The biggest budget for health in the history of the State and one of the largest per head in the western world. As we invest more into health services, we must ensure more accountability for how this money benefits patients. 

There is no perfect health service in the world, but we certainly can have a vastly improved one.  

A country with the fifth highest level of health spending deserves to have the fifth best health service.  That is our ambition.

The same philosophy underpins our approach no matter what the issue.  That every child deserves a childhood.  Every man and woman deserves a future.  And that every older person deserves to be treated with dignity.

This government understands the stress faced by people without a home as well as those struggling to buy one.  In 2012 some people said we would never get on top of the jobs crisis, as unemployment hit 15%, but we did.  We will bring the same determination and focus to solving the housing crisis.  Minister Murphy continues to work on solutions and as he comes to those decisions he will announce them.

Another key priority is to ensure that we rise to the challenge of Brexit. We have set out our objectives and they are supported by the 26 other Member States

We will continue to act responsibly in Northern Ireland. As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement we will encourage all parties to come together and provide the leadership and voice that the people of Northern Ireland need, now more than ever. 

We are a party that is proudly Irish and European.

I see Ireland not as an island at the edge of the continent but as an island at the centre of the world – at the heart of the common European home we helped to build – confident about our place in the world at a time when so many other countries are not.

Later this month I look forward to going to London to present Ireland’s Rugby World Cup bid. It is a big ambition, but we are confident of success. What better way to showcase this island at its best than by hosting an international sporting tournament, with the eyes of the world on us, and display wonderful examples of co-operation between north and south.

This self-confidence about our place in the world is why I announced last month in Canada that we will double our global footprint over the next seven or eight years. This plan – Ireland’s Global Footprint 2025 – involves examining the entirety of our national presence overseas, and considering in which countries and regions we need to increase our diplomatic, trade, tourism and enterprise presence. In many cases that will involve ramping up our engagement in traditional markets, especially in North America. In others it will involve a deeper engagement with Europe.  While in some, it will involve a dramatic increase in our activities in Asia and Latin America, for example.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, has begun consideration of what this means for our diplomatic missions, and later this year government will approve the specifics of what Ireland’s doubled presence overseas will look like in 2025.

Our engagement with the outside world is very much about trade and our Diaspora, and it is also about projecting the values of our people.

Now that we have emerged from a lost decade and have a growing and prosperous economy we should be confident about our leadership role in the world. We are reaffirming our commitment to increasing our Overseas Development Aid budget.  This sends out the message that we understand that the problems of the world are our problems as well. That we are optimistic about the future, and believe that the opportunities in the world are our opportunities also.  

Today I have set out some elements of how we are working to build our Republic of Opportunity, particularly in the months ahead. But more work needs to be done, and more elements developed and fleshed out.   Above all, I need your input

I have asked Richard Bruton to chair a group to develop this ambition, to set out the further steps that we need to take.

The work starts here today with the Fine Gael parliamentary party. It will continue over the months ahead with detailed consultation with the membership of our party.

At the Fine Gael National Conference in November, it will be presented for endorsement by the party membership.

The document, our roadmap to the Republic of Opportunity, will serve as a touchstone, guiding Fine Gael’s approach to the major issues of the day, and giving the public a clear understanding of our long-term perspective on the country.

This is a new departure in Irish politics.

Heretofore, the only time a party set out its platform, its vision, and subjected it to any level of scrutiny, was half-way through an election campaign when it launched its manifesto.

These manifestoes are largely a long list of promises to the vested interests that shout the loudest, and are launched too far into the campaign for the public to meaningful engage with them.

We are moving to something new.

It will be a living document, which will be updated incrementally to respond to developments, and substantively at future party conferences

Some US newspapers recently published the private letter which Barack Obama left on the desk of the Oval Office for Donald Trump. There was a line in it which resonated with me.

He encouraged the incoming president to ‘build more ladders of success for every child and family that’s willing to work hard’.

Like Obama, we embrace hope and aspiration, a better life as something to aspire to, something to rise up to. It’s not something that can be handed down by someone else. Aspiration shouldn’t be a dirty word. Nor should ambition. The State should encourage and support people by helping them to reach their potential

Some political parties – especially those on the left – believe in a culture of dependency and victimhoodThey like it when people are down and dependent.  They want the system to fail so they can build influence and support.

Fine Gael will never talk down to people.  We will always try to offer people a way up and way forward.

Committing to build a Republic of Opportunity means that we are proud of our ambition to create a culture of aspiration. Where people are encouraged to be the best they can possibly beEncouraged to reach their potential and to make a better life for themselves and their children.

That is why I joined Fine Gael, and I’m sure why you did too.

For me, Fine Gael is not and has never been a party of privilege. 

We are the party of aspiration.

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