Speech by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, Leader of Fine Gael

-   An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD

A dhaoine uaisle, a Chomhgleacaí, oíche mhiath agaibh go léir. Delegates, I am proud to be standing here tonight as your leader – and as Taoiseach of this country. Is cúis áthais dom go bhfuilimid ag tionól ár gcruinniú náisiúnta anseo inniu i gContae an Chabháin. An chéad uair riamh sa Cúige iontach seo – Cúige Ulaidh. I am delighted that we are holding our national conference today here in Co. Cavan – for the first time in the great province of Ulster.

When I was elected leader of Fine Gael, there was an understandable focus around the world about what that said about the Ireland of today. How the son of a father from India and a mother from Co. Waterford – without any family or political connections – rose to become the leader of the largest party in the state. What it said about our respect for diversity, our disregard for prejudice, our willingness to see people as individuals, and our fundamental fairness as a people. I also took something more from it. It told me what my mission must be as leader and as Taoiseach.

Fine Gael has never been, and never will be, a party of privilege. Fine Gael is a party of aspiration, a party of enterprise, a party of opportunity, and a party of hope. These are our values. And these values guide my ambition for this country. I want to give hope to individuals and families. I want to reward work and enterprise, encourage aspiration, and remove barriers to progress. And I want the Republic that we founded to provide opportunities for all our people.

I learned these values growing up from my teachers and friends. From my mother who worked so hard, running the family business as well as our household. And from my father, the local GP, who kept the community healthy and well. From my sisters who always encouraged me to be the best person that I could be. I learned the value of hard-work, the importance of community, and also about responsibility. So, as Taoiseach, I am conscious of the enormous responsibility that I now hold. And that’s why – every day – I think about giving everybody the same opportunities and chances in life that I had. It is what inspires and drives me forward in my work.

I want to ensure that everybody in this country has an equal chance to be the best person they can be. That every child can grow-up to be the best adult they can be. I want our growing prosperity to be shared in all parts of the country. And I want there to be second chances for everyone who needs one. So that’s what building a Republic of Opportunity is all about. I know, that those to whom much has been given, much is expected. Much is expected of this Government. And I promise you tonight, we will prevail.

A Chomhgleacaí, a few weeks ago we paid our respects to a man whose entire life was devoted to the service of this state. Tonight, as a party, we are able to make our own heartfelt tribute to one of our greatest Taoisigh, Liam Cosgrave. We honour his memory by being true to the principles by which he lived his life– cuibhiúlacht, dínit, agus tírghrá. Decency, dignity, and patriotism. Earlier in the summer, another great Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, stepped down after leading this country out of the worst crisis in a generation. As a country, he gave us back our future.

We thank him for it. And so the torch has passed to a new generation of leaders, born European, steeled by a hard and long recession, and ambitious now for our future. Not so long ago some people claimed that our country would never get back on its feet– that we would never get people working again. Well, they were wrong, completely wrong. Thanks to the hard work and sacrifices of the Irish people… and the right policy decisions we made and you supported… we achieved what seemed impossible at the time. So when the same critics and cynics now claim that the housing crisis can’t and won’t be solved, I don’t believe them. Yes, there are major challenges with housing and homelessness, and no, they won’t be solved overnight. But we 2 have a plan, the plan is working, and we won’t stop until we succeed. Because we believe that everyone should have a home. And we believe that every working person should be able to aspire to own one.

These are Fine Gael Values, and we won’t stop until they become a reality once more. A major strength of Fine Gael is that we are working so well with our partners, the Independent Alliance and Independent Ministers. Without them, we could not achieve what we have achieved in the past year. I thank them for it and assure them of our commitment to making this government work and making it last.

Delegates, Fine Gael is a party that listens to people. We also listen to other parties. What marks us out as different is that we are willing to work with others in the Dáil. The Agreement with Fianna Fáil is working and the recent budget is testament to that. We also took onboard the Green Party’s proposal to extend maternity leave to mothers who give birth to premature babies. And we are now working with the Labour Party to reduce the gender pay gap. In 2018 as we mark the centenary of women getting the vote, and the election of Constance Markievicz to parliament, it is high time that we had equal pay for equal work, and equality of opportunity in all things.

We work with others because a good idea is a good idea, and a good policy is a good policy. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from the left or the right. We believe in putting people first, and we always will. But there are some things that we won’t compromise on.

In Fine Gael we will never compromise on ensuring that we manage the public finances responsibly, that we keep our economy competitive, and foster an environment in which jobs are created, and new businesses born.

It’s on these strong economic foundations that we enable progress in all other areas. The experience of the last thirty years shows that we are the only party that can be trusted on the economy, trusted to put the long-term national interest over short-term political gain. And delegates – let me promise you one thing – we are never going back!

So, to the people watching at home, this is my message: tá an Rialtas ar bhur dtaobh! This Government is on your side. In everything that we have done so far we have been guided by a single principle: our desire to create opportunities, and build a better and fairer Ireland.

To build that new Republic of which we speak. It is why we passed a budget which balances the books for the first time in ten years, and reduced income tax.

It is why we have worked to restore pay for public servants – nurses, teachers and Gardai – and implemented a new deal for the self-employed, including farmers – with better tax credits, new benefits. It is why we have supported our businesses and entrepreneurs to create jobs across the country. It’s why we’ve increased the state pension three times in three years and the minimum wage on four occasions. It’s why we introduced free pre-school and subsidised childcare to help parents pay the bills. And it’s why we increased educational resources for children with learning difficulties. And tonight, because of this government, every child with a serious disability now has a medical card as a right, regardless of their parents’ income.

Our philosophy is clear. It is that every child deserves a childhood. Every woman and man deserves a future. And that every older person deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. So let’s talk about the future and some of the things we want to achieve next.

Over the past few years, we have had enormous success in creating new jobs. We can now aspire to full employment, a job for everyone who wants one. But that’s not enough. We want better jobs, secure jobs that pay the bills, and allow people to raise a family and aspire to home ownership.

So that means improving the quality of employment. It means continuing to increase the minimum wage and enhancing employment rights. It means ensuring that every worker is enrolled in an personal pension fund so that they will have more than the state pension when they retire.

It means up-skilling people who 3 are already in employment so that everyone can aspire to a promotion or a better job. On tax, we’ve already taken 3 in 10 earners, the low paid, out of the tax net altogether. We will now focus on reducing taxes for middle income earners.

It’s not fair that people on middle incomes pay income tax at the highest rate. That means the state takes almost 50% of everything you earn above that threshold, including any overtime you get, any pay increase you earn, or any extra hours you work. That’s not fair, and we’re going to change it. Fine Gael believes in rewarding work. So in the budget we raised the standard cut-off point, and we will do so again in the next one – and the one after that – and the one after that.

For Ireland to succeed, we need to plan long-term. We must imagine what an Ireland in 2040 should look like – home to 8 million people, north and south. Our new National Development Plan will setout how we will invest €100 billion over the next ten years and prepare us for the future. That plan will build an Ireland that is future-proofed: balanced regional development, climate action, quality of life, continued capacity to grow, making Dublin the tech capital of Europe.

In planning for the future, we must prepare for major changes that are coming. Robotics, artificial intelligence, driverless vehicles, renewable energy and smart grids will change our world in the next twenty years in the way the internet and mobile phones did in the last. Ireland should be an early adopter of these new technologies.

Making life easier for families is a priority for me and for this party. I believe in greater work-life balance and work-place flexibility. That must be better supported, particularly in the early years. That is why we introduced Paternity Leave and now we want to go further.

Our aspiration is to have paid family leave that can be shared between parents in the first year of their child’s life, and we are determined to make it a reality. Because the family is the basic unit of society, we want to improve how we care for seriously ill or dependent relatives. A reformed social insurance system will provide sick pay for people who have to take time off work to care for loved ones who are seriously ill.

The recent Budget provided a record allocation for health – €15 billion. This will help reduce waiting times, and improve our hospitals, primary care, mental health, and services for older people. But the next decade must also be about reform as well as resources. Based on the all-party Slaintecare report, we will implement a ten year plan to modernise and streamline our health service. Because a country that spends the fifth highest in the world on healthcare deserves to have a top-tier health service.

Delegates, we meet tonight less than 4 miles from the border. And it brings home to us the need to ensure that the free movement of people, goods and services on this island is protected. A shared space is not a lost space.

So on this island, let’s build bridges, not borders. There can be no return to the border on our island. In my conversations with European presidents and prime ministers I have received considerable support for the challenges we face.

And tonight, I want to reassure all border communities that we are listening to you, we hear your concerns, and we promise you that we will safeguard your rights, and all that we have achieved. I know this won’t be easy, and that all these matters are not entirely under our control.

But remember this: four times in our history we decided as a country to take a different road to the United Kingdom. We did it in 1921, when we became independent and we were the first country to leave the Empire. We did it in 1948, when we became a Republic.

We did it again in 1979 when we broke the link with sterling and floated our own currency. And then we did it again in 2001 when we joined the Euro without Britain.

While there were challenges, on every occasion we overcame them and emerged stronger and more prosperous as a result, and we approach the challenge of Brexit with the same spirit. There may be tough calls and hard decisions ahead. But one thing is certain. Ireland will always remain at the heart of the common European home we helped to build.

We will also continue to work with the parties in the North as they seek to ensure that devolution is restored and Northern Ireland’s voice is heard again at this crucial time. We are committed to this work no matter how many set-backs may arise, no matter how long it takes.

Is cuid suntasach, tábhachtach í,. dár stair, dár gcultúr agus dár saol, anois agus sa todhchaí. Ceiliúrfaimid Bliain na Gaeilge i dhá mhíle is a hocht déag. Tabharfar deis dúinn go léir chun saibhreas ár dteanga náisiúnta a cheiliúradh, agus níos mó daoine a mhealladh chun í a labhairt ar bhun laethúil. So 2018 will be the year of the Irish language.

Almost one hundred years ago, one of our nation’s forefather’s said that ‘the freedom, strength, and greatness’ of our new nation was dependent on our economic well-being. Michael Collins was right then. And he was also right when he predicted that with peace, security and unity, no one could limit the greatness to which our country could aspire.

Today a new page of Irish history is being written. If we make the right decisions, if we pursue the right policies we can drive our country forward in a way that is lasting and genuine. Michael Collins believed that with courage Ireland could be a ‘shining light unto the world’.

Fine Gael has the courage to take us forward. We have the courage to succeed. So join with me, and let’s build the Republic of Opportunity together.

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