Speech by the Leader of Fine Gael, An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD at the Fine Gael Presidential Dinner

-   An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD

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A theachtaí, a sheanadóirí, an Íar-Thaoiseach, a comhlachaí.  Óiche maith agaibh.

Fáilte chuig.

Welcome to the 16th Presidential Dinner.

Thank you, Maria, for the wonderful introduction.  One of our new MEPs already blazing a trail in Europe!  One of 5 Fine Gael MEPs elected in May – our best European elections in 30 years.

We are joined tonight by another new MEP, Lídia Pereira from Portugal, also the first female President of Youth EPP.  This is a critical time for Europe and we are fortunate to have MEPs of the calibre of Maria and Lidia, Frances and Mairead, Sean and Deirdre, and the rest of our EPP political family representing our interests in Europe.  In particular, congratulations to Mairead on being re-elected as Vice President of the European Parliament with over 90% of the vote.

Thank you to our Party Vice President, Minister John Paul Phelan, for all his hard work over the past year, particularly in the local elections where we gained 20 seats, more than any party with the exception of the Greens.

I also want to pay a tribute to our former Chairman of the Exceutive Council, Gerry O’Connell, who stepped down after many years of service.  We thank him for the passion he brought to the role and for his energy and enthusiasm.  And we wish nim the very best in his new role in the public service.

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Friends and colleagues,

As we gather tonight we remember all those in Fine Gael who died in the past year. 

In March we lost three giants of the party, Eddie Collins, Richie Ryan and John Browne, who dedicated their lives to public service.

Eddie Collins’ career could be summed up in a single sentence: he always believed in putting our country first.  He served the people of Waterford with distinction and was a strong advocate for peace on our island.  He believed Ireland would achieve lasting prosperity and a new place in the world through our membership of the European Union and tonight we renew our promise to defend that vision. 

Richie Ryan was fearless in serving our country and he managed our country’s finances through some of our darkest times.   No matter how many times he was satirised for his policies he never wavered in his mission to save our economy.  He epitomised everything that Fine Gael stands for.  Courageous when others were cowardly.  Tonight, we renew our promise to always do what it right when others choose what is expedient.

We also remember our friend, John Browne, a Clare man who served the people of Carlow for many years and was much loved by all those who came into contact with him.  He helped develop our policies on justice and health and enriched our public debate on everything from European affairs to the Irish language.   Tonight, we renew our promise to serve all communities across our country, guided by that same spirit of public service.

In the last thirteen months we lost four of our sitting councillors.  John Carey, Johnny Fahey, John Bailey and Oliver Tully all believed in community, they believed in helping others, and they lived lives of public service.  Tonight, we remember them, and their families and we promise to continue their work to make our own communities better places to live.

Fine Gael members are found in every community and parish across our country.   Women and men who believe in our values and want to help build a better future.   Tonight, we remember all of those who passed away since we last met and we promise to honour their memory.

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha.

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Friends and colleagues,

This is my 3rd Presidential Dinner as leader and my final one before the next general election.

We are coming on the back of the local and European elections in May where we gained 20 councillors and won 5 out of the 13 seats in Europe. 

We reaffirmed that we are the party of Europe.   And we broke the decades old pattern of a party in government losing seats in local elections.

By the time of the general election we will have secured a Brexit Deal or, if not, will have guided the country through the worst of No Deal.  

When the next election comes I believe we can win it.  In fact, I am sure of it even though it may not become apparent until the last week or ten days of the election campaign.

The country is on the right track.  The economy is strong with full employment and rising incomes.  We have the best team and the best plans.  That is shining through.

If we had a Fianna Fáil-led Government now and they were involved in Brexit negotiations now who could they send who could match Simon Coveney or Helen McEntee?

When it comes to managing the economy and the public finances, dealing with really difficult industrial relations issues with politeness, competence and firmness – who do they have as good as Paschal Donohoe?

I could say the same for all our Ministers, but you get the point.

When you look at the front benches of other parties they just don’t have the teams to match ours.  For some, they are lining out the same team they had in the 1990s – we refresh and renew. 

We have the team, we have the ideas, and we have the track record. 

Tonight, we should remember the difference between our party and Fianna Fáil.

Fine Gael stands for something.  You might not always agree with it, but you know what it is.

Fianna Fáil stands for everything.  So far this year, they’ve made promises costing €4.5bn when there is less than €1bn to be allocated on Budget Day. 

By promising something to everyone, everywhere, every week, it’s probably because you don’t mean any of it. 

Almost four weeks ago Peter Burke published a critique of Fianna Fáil financial plans and drew attention to the gaping black hole in them.   Since then they haven’t come clean and told us how they are going to fill it – whether they will increase taxes or increase borrowing or both. 

Fianna Fáil have no solutions.  No policies.  No plans.  And they do not have the team to match ours. 

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Meanwhile during the week, the leader of the Green Party, Eamon Ryan, announced his great plan on Twitter to repopulate rural Ireland.   With wolves.   I would have thought the Greens’ experience of being in government with Fianna Fáil would have warned them off dangerous predators.

Fine Gael’s plan for rural Ireland is to repopulate it with people and families, bringing jobs, broadband, roads, infrastructure, and prosperity to all parts of our country.  Today, the population of rural Ireland is at its highest point since independence.  We need the jobs and businesses to match that though.

And then there’s Sinn Féin.  Sinn Féin approach Brexit the same way they approach all political issues.  They see Britain’s difficulty as Sinn Féin’s opportunity.   They don’t seem to mind that Britain’s difficulty is Northern Ireland’s difficulty and ours as well.

Decisions are made by those who turn up.  Sinn Féin doesn’t – either to the House of Commons or Stormont. 

And, I’d sooner bring back the wolves then let Sinn Féin into Government. 

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Friends and colleagues,

On Tuesday we will present Budget 2020.  We are designing it around certain core principles:

It is based on a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, 0.7% growth next year in contrast to 5.5% growth this year. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean that we think a No Deal will happen.  But we think it’s the most prudent thing to get ready for one.

That way we won’t need an emergency budget because this is the budget that will protect us from the worst of No Deal.

In the last three budgets we reduced USC and income tax and increased the pension and social welfare payments.

That’s worth about €1,500 to the average family every year.

In a five-year term, we can do better again, putting even more money in people’s pockets.

But this Budget, because of Brexit, has to be different.

So, we will not be able to afford tax and welfare packages on the scale of our last three Budgets.  There will, however, be a modest and targetted welfare and a minimal but targetted tax one. 

However, I don’t want anyone to think for a second that this will be an austerity budget.  Or that there will be cutbacks.  We don’t need to take that journey again. 

In fact, spending will rise by roughly €3bn.

At least an extra €900 million for public infrastructure – new schools, primary care centres, housing, roads, buses, creating jobs all over the country to compensate for some of the ones lost.

We will honour the commitments we’ve made to restore, and increase pay for hard-working public servants – about €400 million set aside next year for – teachers, Gardaí, defence forces, nurses and other public servants.

It will also provide for demographic changes.  We will be able to provide for increased demand for health, education and disability services due to our rising and ageing population. 

And there will be targetted measures to help families with the cost of living.

It will also be a climate budget.  We will use the Budget to step-up Climate Action.  We must do that in every Budget from now on.

And there will be a very substantial package to helps business and jobs that are viable into the future but vulnerable because of a hard Brexit, especially in sectors like tourism and agrifood. 

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When it comes to Brexit, our position has been clear and consistent.  We are determined to protect the Good Friday Agreement and peace on our island and we will protect our place in the Single Market, the bedrock of our jobs and prosperity.

We have adopted a twin track approach.   First, to get a deal.  We want a deal and believe it is possible. And we’ll work to get one until the very last moment, but not at any cost. 

Second, if a deal is not possible, we are preparing to get the country through the worst of No Deal. 

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Friends, our future as a country also depends on balanced regional development.   Balanced regional development is at the centre of so much of what Fine Gael in Government is doing.

For decades, our development has been unbalanced.  Too much of our growth has focused on Dublin and the east coast, something that is not good for Dublin or the rest of the country.

But you can’t overturn decades of development with soundbites. You do it with a plan and investment.

Fine Gael has the plan.

Project Ireland 2040 alongside the Action Plan for Rural Development which Minister Ring is working on to update and renew in the months ahead.

Project Ireland 2040 is being delivered with infrastructure projects now underway all over the country.

One of the most important elements of Project Ireland 2040 is the National Broadband Plan. The Plan ensures that rural Ireland has a 21st century future. The future of work is home working, the future of healthcare is remote medicine and the future of education involves giving our young children access to a wider array of subjects and opportunities through video links to other schools. None of this is possible without high speed broadband.

Back in May, the Opposition said there was a cheap and quicker way to deliver Broadband.  After five months of hearings we know there is not and all they have come up with is a plan for more delays, more consultants, more reviews, yet another Cost Benefit Analysis.

My message to them is simple; rural Ireland needs this, and Fine Gael will deliver it.

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Housing, as you know, is an enormous challenge for our country.   So is homelessness, which is a stain on our society.  

The housing crisis has its origins not in any ideology but in the crash that occurred eleven years ago.  The banks, construction industry and government all went bust and no new homes were built for 7-8 years, a period during which 250,000 should have been built.   So, we are playing catch-up but catching up we are.   Look at what’s happened in the three years since we took on the housing brief.  50,000 new homes built.  10,000 First Time Buyers – helped to buy.   House prices have levelled off and are still 20% lower than the peak under Fianna Fáil.    Rent controls and enhanced tenant rights.  The biggest social housing progamme in decades is underway. 

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So, friends, we have a busy few months ahead.  Brexit, the Budget and the small matter of by-elections.

Winning by-elections is very difficult for Government parties.  It has only happened three times in 35 years.  But it can be done.  There are four by-elections and only one of the seats was held by Fine Gael.  We have selected strong candidates and we have a strong message to bring – James Reilly, Colm Burke, Emer Higgins, Verona Murphy. 

Tonight, I ask for your support and backing to help them deliver it.

 

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Last year at this dinner we marked the 85th anniversary of our party.  Tonight, I want to conclude by remembering a different date, one we don’t usually mention.  75 years ago, there was a general election and Fine Gael lost.  It was our fifth defeat in a row.   What stands out for me from that period is that Fine Gael never lost heart, we never lost confidence, and we never stopped believing that we had the right vision for our country and our people.   Four years later we formed the first Inter Party Government – a Government that declared the Republic, created the IDA and the Arts Council, and sought a greater role for Ireland on the world stage through the United Nations. 

The situation going into the next election is very different.  Fine Gael is looking to do something historic and win three in a row, but we don’t want to win for the sake of winning.  It’s because we want to continue our work rebuilding our country at home and enhancing our reputation abroad.  We have a vision for the future and we’re only getting started.

Fine Gael isn’t used to being in this position, and I think it’s a little disconcerting for some people.   We almost prefer being the underdog.  So, we have to change our perspective and our ambitions.

Opinion polls show that we are neck and neck and in the fight of our lives to lead the next Government. 

I know that we will.   I know that we will because we have the same heart, the same confidence, and the same belief that we had during the dark periods of our history when we more used to losing elections than winning them.  

And this time our confidence and our belief comes from knowing all that we have achieved in office, and all that we still want to do.  

Our heart comes from you – our members and supporters – who have been with us through good times and bad.  Who help us make history. 

And together we will.

Thank you.

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