Ours is a country to be proud of. We have the chance now, in a way that was denied to every previous generation, to build a New Ireland.
A place where every individual has the chance to realise his or her potential, a community where people look out for each other. A truly fair society.
Thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of our people, we live in a country alive with promise, a country that can hold its head high. We are, as a nation, rich beyond the dreams of those who brought us nationhood. Wherever there is trouble and oppression in the world, Irish people are helping to make it better. Irish soldiers are keeping the peace. Irish aid workers are feeding, educating and housing the poor of the world.
Irish diplomats are helping to forge a new contract among the 25 members of the European Union - and yes, our Taoiseach, despite earlier reluctance, is playing a leading role in that effort.
And Irish sports people, musicians, artists and film makers are fine ambassadors for the proud country we are.
Nobody can truthfully claim that Ireland is a poor country but nobody can truthfully deny that it is poorly governed. After years of waiting we can’t manage to connect up two tramlines or make up our mind about the height of the Port Tunnel. Our Tanaiste says she will prance out of government if we don’t break up Dublin Bus! We broke up Telecom Eireann and who were the beneficiaries? Certainly not the consumer and certainly not the country.
It takes longer now to travel from Galway to Dublin than it did 20 years ago. You have a lesser chance now of owning your own home than did your parents’ generation. You can’t walk some of our streets in safety after seven years of zero tolerance. Some of our estates are pockmarked by drug abuse while residents, including senior citizens, are tortured by anti-social behaviour. Access to a hospital bed is dependent on income. We encourage greater participation by women in the workforce but do nothing about childcare. Parents can’t rest easy when their children go out at the weekends.
Infrastructure, policing, hospital waiting lists, enhanced eligibility for medical cards - these were some of the principal issues where the bogus promises of Fianna Fail and the PDs fraudulently won them the general election. At the first Cabinet meeting of the new Government, a memo that had to be in preparation before the election sought savage cuts of O900 million “in the existing level of service” and, at a stroke, cynically reversed their election promises. We didn’t get the 2,000 extra gardai, or the extra medical cards, and hospital queues were not abolished.
It beggars belief that they are now trying to repeat that fraudulent performance. Suddenly, after seven years in government, Fianna Fail and the PDs have discovered that insurance costs are too high, that land prices are sky-high and that we need to care for our elderly.
Decentralisation and one-off rural houses are conjured up as certain vote-getters. Not even the Good Friday agreement is safe from the frantic search for votes as Mr McDowell and Mr Ahern cynically reach for a referendum on citizenship in the hope of shoring up support for their tawdry alliance.
We have in government 15 people of no vision and little imagination, but 15 people nonetheless dedicated to staying in power.
The strength of a recovering economy is to be manipulated again to win the next general election. In the interests of building the fair society to which Labour is committed, in the interests of building the true potential of this island and this proud people, I say that our primary objective in the months and years immediately ahead must be to stop them.
Mr Ahern can’t even remember which side he took on the invasion of Iraq. First he claimed in the Dail that 100,000 anti-war protesters were on the streets of Dublin in support of his Government’s policy. Then he turned up in the White House bearing a bowl of shamrock as if it were a much sought after weapon of mass destruction. He reassured the world’s media that he had done his bit for the war effort.
We have a Minister for Justice who flits from problem to problem and whose latest frolic is a bridge to Spike Island when his government can’t build a bridge over the Red Cow roundabout. Incredibly, the Fianna Fail director of elections is entrusted with the integrity of the electronic voting system, on which he has spent more than O60 million of taxpayers’ money. And we have a Minister for Health who has walked away from more health strategies than we have nurses in A&E departments.
And the Taoiseach can’t remember. Well, there are thousands who remember that when employers were signing their P45s in the late 1980s, Mr Ahern was signing hundreds of blank cheques for his mentor, Mr Haughey. When our young people were queuing around the American embassy for visas, #50,000 would buy two houses in Castlebar. When hospital beds were being closed in 1987-89 and green field sites were being turned to gold, the celebrations in the Coq Hardi were at their peak.
The Taoiseach can’t remember - but the people will remember.
These government parties have presided over a boom where inequalities in personal income and between different regions of the country have grown wider.
Mr McCreevy’s version of decentralisation is not about tackling regional imbalance but is designed to win votes in the local and European elections. Sensible, planned, negotiated relocation of administrative sections of the civil and public service is necessary and desirable. Mr McCreevy’s crude political stroke, announced without consultation or consideration, will end up costing the taxpayer a fortune. It will damage our civil service and it will undermine the coherence of governance. But what matter if it wins votes for Fianna Fail around the country? This is the same Minister McCreevy who has converted the Department of Finance into a made-to-measure designer tax break boutique for the wealthy and well connected. Except you may shop free if you are a tax exile or stallion owner. Contrast Mr McCreevy’s treatment of wealthy tax exiles with the exiles described earlier by Father Paul Byrne. McCreevy cut the miserly budget to those who have fallen on hard times in the cities of Britain and elsewhere but who in the 1950s and 1960s returned their hard-earned money to this country when we needed it.
This is the same Minister McCreevy who poured scorn and ridicule on the notion of tax evasion and who ever since has been spending the proceeds on political gimmicks. Thanks to the DIRT inquiry and other investigations by the Revenue Commissioners, more than O1 billion has been retrieved for the Exchequer. And the new offshore investigation promises another billion.
The PDs boast to their well-heeled supporters of how they have cut their taxes - and they have - but why are 52 per cent of all those paying income tax paying at the top rate for the first time in the history of the State? This is the biggest stealth tax of all. No indexation for two Budgets and the employee on average industrial earnings is paying tax at the top rate. Even the leader of that one-trick pony, the PDs, pledged to tackle this injustice at her fashion parade in Killarney - as if someone else is responsible.
Tax breaks for the richest 400 people in our society in 2001 cost O69 million while acute hardship is inflicted on the weakest in our society in order to save O58 million in the Government’s savage 16 welfare cuts. I am proud of the work of Willie Penrose and the Labour Party in the Dail and of the National Widows’ Association outside the Dail in forcing the Government to back down from robbing the widows, but what about the other 15 cuts? I want to see this Government replaced with an alternative that is genuinely committed to a fair society based on social democratic principles, equal rights, liberty and the rule of law. So, I shall work with other democratic parties in Dail Eireann to build a movement - let us call it a democratic alliance - in pursuit of that alternative. I shall seek to ensure that the ideas and vision Labour puts forward will be capable of shaping and driving that alliance. I will seek to build and sustain credibility for the proposition that there is a better way of driving our enterprise economy forward to even more enhanced sustainable prosperity - while ensuring that no one suffers from neglect or penny-pinching.
I will work with every ounce of energy, every intellectual resource I can muster to build a fair society in Ireland for the people of Ireland.
In the local and European elections I will be urging Labour voters to carry on their preferences, after Labour candidates, against this Government.
The local and European elections are of course a vital step in making a difference in the march towards a social democratic fair society, our new Republic.
Later this year I intend to publish a set of radical ideas based on principles of social justice to underpin that march. It is my aim that everything we do from now until the general election will be based on the fair society alternative.
When we meet them on the canvass on the doorsteps over the coming weeks, people will ask us what Labour in government would mean for them. The people I meet at doorsteps are not asking for something for nothing. They know what it is to have responsibilities and worries: the roof over your head, the security of your job, the health and wellbeing of your children. What they want is a better life for themselves and, more particularly, a brighter future for their children.
At a minimum they want a government that is competent, accountable, and tells the truth. They want continued prosperity and improving living standards. But they also want a government that listens to them and behaves like they actually matter to it.
They want a government that delivers solutions to basic but important, day-to-day problems, like childcare and transport and doctors’ bills, and that doesn’t bog itself down, like this current Government, in meaningless waffle and ideological dogma.
As a country we have lived through more than a decade of extraordinary economic change. But people are entitled to ask, “What kind of country have we created?” Has government made it easier for people to work hard and get ahead? Have we made this a better and safer country in which to bring up children? Does government acknowledge the special contribution of carers for our elderly, for people with disabilities, for autistic children? People want to know that government will ensure they will be able to access quality and affordable childcare, excellent schools, efficient hospitals and their teenagers and young adults will be able to go out, this Saturday night and every Saturday night, without being caught up in violence on our streets, without being caught up in some seven minutes of hell at the end of which there is, even, death and deep personal, community and family distress.
The message from this conference is that Labour stands ready to offer that kind of government.
Let me give you just one example of what I mean.
Our country can now afford to, and our State must ensure that, every one of our citizens has a decent start in life, through better education, better housing and healthcare, better childcare, better family support systems.
I believe that we should set out to ensure that society makes a tangible investment in every Irish citizen. If Labour is returned to government at the next general election we will establish a trust fund to endow each new-born Irish citizen with a “baby bond”. Under this national endowment we shall set up an account for each new baby and deposit €1,000 in it.
The National Treasury Management Agency will manage the investment and the interest will accumulate until the child reaches 18 years of age. The initial cost of the trust fund will be approximately 10 per cent of the current State subsidy to the holders of SSIAs each year. So we can well afford to do this and we can begin the process of profound change.
In the intervening years families will be able to add to the account as they choose up to a specified limit.
For children with disabilities we will double the initial payment into the trust account in order to reflect the additional challenges they face.
We will also top up the accounts of children who are brought up in care so that, unlike at present, the State does not simply wash its hands of them when they turn 18 but gives them some endowment with which to start their adult lives.
Each young citizen will embark on adult life with an endowment to use as they see fit, whether to support themselves in education or training, to start a business, to travel and learn about the world or whatever. And I repeat: the cost is approximately one-tenth of the current Exchequer subsidy each year to the Special Savings Accounts.
Colleagues, tonight we must dedicate ourselves to an all-out effort in the local and European elections. The local elections in particular will be fought the old-fashioned way - door by door, estate by estate, street by street, church gate by church gate. It will be hard graft but the quality of our candidates will shine through. And as you wear down your shoe leather, remember this, too - our immediate task is to put the Government on notice that it has reached its sell-by date. That will be the first stage of a great task, that of building the fair society, the social democratic vision, in a new Ireland, a new Republic.