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Speech by Bertie Ahern at a Fianna Fáil conference, (17 September 2007)

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Text: Bertie Ahern ... Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

Speech by Bertie Ahern, then Fianna Fáil leader and Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), at the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party meeting, Druids Glen, County Wicklow, (17 September 2007)

[Speech in which Ahern announced that Fianna Fáil would develop a strategy for organising on a thirty-two county basis.]


"I would like to welcome you all to our annual Parliamentary Party seminar. We face many challenges in the next year and for our full term and I would like to talk about a few of them today.

A New Government
The reality of politics in most countries is that different parties have to come together to form stable governments and Ireland is no different. The programme for government which has been agreed came following tough negotiations and respects the different mandates of the parties. It is a good and ambitious programme which we can work to implement with enthusiasm. It addresses the interests of all sections of the community rather than adopting the dated ideological approach of trying to segment our society. It understands that we have responsibilities to each other and that economic and social progress should go hand in hand. It also addresses the fundamental importance of Ireland playing its full role in meeting the unprecedented environmental challenges facing the world today.

We will work collectively and constructively with our partners in the Green Party and the Progressive Democrats to deliver this programme in full across our term. I am proud that this is a government focused on taking Ireland forward with a positive and inclusive agenda.

A Responsible Approach
Over the last ten years Ireland’s progress has been achieved in the face of many challenges. One of the biggest came at the start of our last term when the world went though its biggest recession in twenty years. We suffered less and came through stronger than most countries because we kept our eye on the long-term – understanding that nothing causes more damage than failing to take the tough decisions for the sake of short-term popularity.

Economic cycles cannot be abolished by wishful thinking or government regulation. In fact, one of the most important reasons for Ireland’s progress has been an understanding that government cannot and should not try to control everything in the economy. We have to keep an eye on the fundamentals.

We have to have a responsible fiscal policy. This means not saying yes to every demand and avoiding a slide into unsustainable deficits. We have shown that being responsible delivers significantly more in terms of tax cuts and service. We intend to maintain this policy.

We also have to invest in increasing the capacity for our economy to grow and compete. This is what is at the core of the National Development Plan and it is why we will continue to have an investment programme which is twice the European average. We will push on with the transformation of our roads and public transport. We will expand the level and quality of funding for research programmes which will create the jobs and industries for the future. We will implement a regional development programme which is supporting the first growth in the population of rural Ireland and the West since the middle of the 19th century.

The Continued Strength of the Economy
Some voices have been raised over recent weeks and months confidently predicting economic recession and the end of our strong performance of recent years. Some appear to have taken a strange delight in a return to the bad old days.

Now, it is clear that housing output is going to be significantly below the record levels of recent years. But even at that lower level of activity, it will still represent dramatically high rates of housing construction by Irish standards and, in relative terms, by international standards. This will, of course, have an effect on the performance of the economy and the revenues received by the Exchequer.

However, I want to take this opportunity to state loud and clear that the Irish economy is strong and growing. It is a cliché to talk about the fundamentals being sound, but the fact is: they are!

For example, employment is continuing to grow strongly in this society. In the second quarter, the numbers at work grew by almost 4%, marginally higher than the growth rate in the first quarter. That means almost 80,000 more people at work.

Unemployment is falling. On a seasonally adjusted basis, the Live Register total fell by 1,000 in August.

That strong employment performance is reflected in industrial output. Manufacturing output in July this year was up over 14% on the previous year, with the bulk of that strong performance coming from the modern sector of the economy, among high technology and chemical firms.

And this strong performance builds confidence in the future. For example NCB’s chief economist, commenting on the latest Purchasing Managers’ Index, said “the latest survey shows continued and, indeed, strengthening growth in manufacturing activity with output rising at its fastest pace in a year, supported especially by buoyant export orders”.

Outside manufacturing, the very significant services sector is also showing strong performance and high levels of confidence for the future. The NCB survey of the Irish services economy produced a Business Activity Index which, at 57, reflected increased activity and a continuation of the strong confidence in this sector which, month after month, has been unchanged since June 2003.

This strong performance in the real economy is reflected in the Exchequer’s performance. The yield from income tax in the year to end-August was up 12.5% on the same period last year, while PRSI was up over 13%, and VAT – despite the developments in the housing sector – was up more than 10%.

No wonder, then, that the OECD last May predicted that Ireland would have a GDP growth of 5.5% this year and over 4% next year. At the same time, the European Commission was predicting GDP growth for the Union as a whole of less than 3%.

So let us be clear: the Irish economy is strong and growing. It will face adjustment pressures, as will the Exchequer, as a result of any return to less frantic activity in housing construction. It will face continuing competitiveness challenges across all sectors of the economy. But there is no place for negativity. No need for any pessimism. Above all, there is no place for politically motivated attempts to talk down the economy and the achievements of our people across all sectors. The challenge for Government is to continue to provide the policy framework which enables this strong performance to continue in the face of continuing change.

In this term we will undertake at least two significant referendum campaigns which will be important statements about Ireland today and the type of country it wishes to be in the future.

The Government has set out in clear terms in the Programme for Government its intention to hold a referendum on Children's Rights. Following on from the excellent work of Brian Lenihan, our new Minister for Children Brendan Smith is already acting on this commitment and is working to establish an all party committee to discuss the proposed wording to be put before the people.

There is almost universal agreement among the political establishment that a referendum is required to allow the Oireachtas to legislate safely on a range of areas which will enhance the rights of our children, as well as implementing a more robust regime of protection. It is most desirable, that the committee, which it is intended will be established in the new
Oireachtas term, will produce a consensus position that can be put forward as early as possible to the people.

Although no decision has been taken on a referendum date, there is no doubt that the Government wishes to see this dealt with as early as possible. The people are sovereign when it comes to our Constitution and do not change it lightly. However, as legislators we must present a plausible case to the people on why they must again change the guiding text of this nation. We owe our children no less.

We will also bring to the people a referendum to ratify the European Union’s Reform Treaty. This treaty draws heavily on the changes negotiated under the Irish Presidency in 2004. I remain of the opinion that the Constitutional Treaty would have been more accessible for the public and appropriate in meeting the needs of the Union, however we are a Union of 27 and we must move on. In truth, the constitutional tag confused some people, obsessed others, and did neither to any useful effect.

The importance of the Treaty is that it modernises and updates the way the Union does business. This is essential for a Union which has expanded so dramatically. It will allow Europe to act more efficiently and more decisively and that's good for Ireland. Much of our prosperity is built on the single market. The Union has to be able to adapt to changing circumstances in order to sustain success.

Ratifying this Treaty will mean Europe can concentrate on areas where it can make a real difference such as climate change, trade negotiations, or completing the single market. It will enshrine the Charter of Fundamental Rights in European Law and it will strengthen Europe's role and contribution globally. Ireland has contributed centrally to the shaping of this Treaty. It reflects our view of a Union that works in the interests of its member states and it fully respects the specific interests we have, particularly in relation to neutrality.

The text of the new Treaty is being finalised and the likelihood is that we will hold a referendum next year. We can be positive about this and welcome that our public will have their say. It may well be the only country to hold a referendum. In that case, we can fully expect people who dedicate their lives to finding new and more creative ways of attacking the European Union will come here from all over Europe to join those who have spent the last thirty five years predicting that Europe was about to destroy us.

Our citizens appreciate the benefits of EU membership very well and that we are more than capable of securing our interests among our partners. But the public must be engaged in the debate and we must encourage a high turnout. A low turnout is that major objective of those who would prefer to ignore completely the reality of our interdependance with other countries. We must not take the public for granted. This Treaty is quite simply good for Europe and good for Ireland.

Fianna Fáil is proud to be the party that led Ireland into full membership of the great European project. We are positive about the Union and all that it represents for us as a self-confident, outward looking European nation. We believe that Europe is as important to our future as it has been to our past and we must fully mobilise to deliver a high turnout and a strong "YES" vote on the treaty.

Northern Ireland
More than twenty years ago, against the backdrop of economic stagnation, increasing militarisation and political hopelessness, our Party embarked on the Irish Peace Process.

For more than twenty years we worked so hard;

  • To hold out the hand of friendship to unionism;
  • To advance the cause of constitutional nationalism;
  • To convince militant nationalism to forsake violence; and,
  • To transform the relationship between Ireland and Britain.

We have worked hard – and we have succeeded.

Right now, right across this island we are building a new economy. Where all our young people – be they nationalist or unionist– can stay to fulfil their full potential. And we are building a new society, where peace and partnership are the norm.

An island-wide culture of hope and a determination that the coming generations will never know the depths of sectarian violence or the alienation which we witnessed together down the years.

And crucially – we are also building a new politics.

A politics without violence.
A politics where nationalist and unionist are co-equal partners in the common fight against poverty, exclusion and deprivation.
A politics where the constitutional issues no longer paralyse
And where the burden of history is lifted by the shared determination of Orange and Green to create the shared future our ancestors could only dream of.

It is time now for this Party to play its full role, to take its proper place, in this new politics - in this New Ireland.

Only now, with the Northern Executive and Assembly in place. Only now, that we have convinced all but the dissident fringe of nationalism to embrace peace. Only now, that the two great traditions on this island are reconciled, can we take this historic move.

To that end, today I am announcing that Fianna Fáil, the Republican Party, will now move to develop a strategy for organising on a thirty-two county basis.

This move reflects the dramatic changes we have seen across the island.

In the period ahead Dermot Ahern will lead efforts to develop that strategy for carrying through this policy, examining timescales and structures.

We will act gradually and strategically. We are under no illusions. It will not be easy. It will challenge us all. But I am confident we will succeed.

From its foundation, Fianna Fáil’s policy was based on developing all communities and all areas of our nation. In Government we have built up community facilities across the country through schemes such as the Sports Capital Grants, the Community and Voluntary Grants, the National Playgrounds Initiative, the Community Services Programme and the Rural Social Scheme. We have prioritised disadvantaged areas through the CLÁR and RAPID programmes.

Since 1997, with this party at the helm, Ireland has had immeasurable success. We are, however, aware that despite this great achievement, some communities have lagged behind others in terms of social and economic opportunities. Some of these are urban disadvantaged communities and others are isolated rural communities that have lacked basic services. Ireland is not unique in this regard and this pattern is followed in virtually every country throughout the world. Where we are unique is that we have set a positive plan in place to try to deal with these inequalities and we have a dedicated Government Department who look at things on the basis of economic and social justice.

Fianna Fáil has a very clear vision for our community. It is a vision where a child growing up in any part of the country has an equal opportunity of education, housing, employment and high standard of living, regardless of where they’re from. As part of this seminar, we have scheduled what I believe can be a very interesting session with leaders in the field of community activity and regeneration. I look forward to a very constructive debate on this and other key issues over the course of this gathering."


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