A GENERATION FOR CHANGE

Presidential Address, YFG National Conference 2010

Party Leader, Deputies, Senators, Members of the Young Fine Gael National Executive and fellow members of YFG. It gives me great pleasure to stand before you to deliver my outgoing address as President of Young Fine Gael

During my eight years as a member of YFG, with six years on the National Executive and nearly three years as President, I'm proud to have witnessed – from the ground up – the complete rebirth of our organisation. The Fine Gael and YFG organisations which we have today are virtually unrecognisable to the organisation that I joined in 2002. That's a credit to the people who have preceded me in this position, a credit to Enda Kenny, and a credit to each and every one of you. The work that has been done over that time has secured the dominance of the YFG organisation into the future.

YFG is the biggest and the best youth organisation in Ireland at the moment. You don't need me to tell you that – you see it yourselves in the work you're doing every week of the year in villages, towns, cities and colleges across the country. 4,000 members, 70-plus branches - no other organisation even comes close.

Labour Youth had their national conference two weeks ago. It consisted of a grand total of 80 people in a lecture theatre in Maynooth. Does that sound like a party that's going anywhere?

Contrast that with what we have here this weekend! One of the biggest hotels in Munster booked solid. While others are standing still or withering on the vine, our organisation is booming and thriving. That's something which we should all be immensely proud of.

Fine Gael is by far the youngest political party in the Oireachtas and I want to applaud the young members of our Parliamentary Party who have shown such courage of conviction over the last two years. Simon Coveney, Damien English, John Paul Phelan, Leo Varadkar, and Lucinda Creighton - agree with them, or disagree with them, their courage and their integrity is something that has to be admired. They got involved in politics for the same reason that I did, and the same reason that you did – to speak their minds, stand up for what they believe in, and above all to try to change Irish politics and to rid it of the gombeenism and me-feinism that has infested it at every level. They deserve our support now more than ever.

But just as we applaud our current generation of Young TDs, we have to do our best to ensure that we add to their numbers at the next General Election. Our huge success at last year's Local Elections has given us a whole new crop of candidates who can do this. People like Simon Harris in Wicklow; Pa O'Driscoll in Cork East; Liam Quinn in Laois/Offaly – all of them proud YFG members. They know that being elected to the Dáil Eireann isn't just about the nod and the wink – its about service to the people and of having genuine ideas on political issues. It's incumbent on the incoming YFG National Executive and of all of us here to see that they are on the ticket for the General Election tickets, and that they're elected whenever the day comes.

And in Barry O'Neill in Donegal, we have another candidate who ticks all the boxes. Articulate and intensely hard-working, he's exactly the type of candidate that we need and that Donegal needs. As I see it, the by-election is very much a two horse race – either the people of Donegal can elect Barry O'Neill to the Dáil to sit as a Government representative after the next election, or they can elect a do-nothing Sinn Fein TD who will sit on the Opposition benches no matter what the outcome of the general election is. That's the choice facing the people of Donegal.

And there's no equivocation on where Young Fine Gael stand on this – we've already had legions of members from across the country travelling to help on the campaign, led by our Vice President Stephen Behan. I'm pledging here and now that YFG will be back hitting the campaign trail from next Monday onwards.

Further proof of the strength of our organisation lies in the quality of the debates we had here this morning on a range of policy issues and I want to thank all of you who took part in those debates. It's given us some great policy ideas to add to the range of important issues we've been campaigning on for many years, including:

Education
Mental Health and youth suicide,
Jobs and the economy
It was great to see such passion and energy among our members on such a range of topics. If Fine Gael is to address the problems Ireland faces we need ideas put forward with that kind of passion.

We particularly need a strong policy base for our Party, to contrast it with the narrow, virtually non-existent and union-driven policies of the Labour Party.

The Labour Party got €100,00 from SIPTU this year - that's €1,000,000 over the last ten years. All of their leading members – Gilmore, Burton, Rabbitte, Quinn – all received political donations for €2,500 each from SIPTU before the last General Election.

Michael Collins funded the Provisional Government by collecting shillings from supporters while he was on the run. We sell tickets for dinners and the National Draw to loyal members and supporters. Meanwhile, Labour get huge sums from Liberty Hall slush funds – and sneer at us about ethics.

But of course, the Eamon and Joan show doesn't end there. Remember Joan's magical Wealth Tax for everyone earning more than €100,000 a year? The silver bullet that's going to magically raise €1 billion and eliminate the need for cuts? What they haven't told the voters is that they would have to introduce a tax rate of 84% to raise that amount! That's the kind of nonsense Labour are spouting at the moment. Who in their right minds would want to work or create jobs in a country if daft policies like that were to be implemented.

Meanwhile, we've been hearing about the so-called "flood" of new members and candidates into Labour. Why, then, are all of Labour's new candidates West of the Shannon people who were either dumped out of their previous party, or dumped out by the electorate? Contrast that with our candidates – people like Simon Harris, Pa O'Driscoll, Liam Quinn, Lucinda Creighton, Leo Varadkar – huge votegetters, quality candidates. We have rising stars, Labour have losers and has-beens. That's why we have nothing to fear from them, whenever the election is called.

Twenty two months ago, we gathered in Athlone for our last National Conference. None of us would have believed that the economic health of our Nation could have declined so much even since then. Politically and economically, Ireland is a different nation to the one we lived in two years ago. That's the price we've paid for two more years of Fianna Fáil.

Like it or not, there are three certainties facing us:- Firstly, a budget will need to be passed very soon making huge cuts. Secondly, if we arrive at February of 2011 and no Budget has been passed, the country may well go bankrupt by March. Thirdly, a general election is virtually certain to happen by April of next year.

If the bye-election goes the way we think it will, then the fate of the Budget – and of the country – rests on the shoulders of two Independent TDs – Jackie Healy Rae and Michael Lowry. The spectre of Ireland being held to ransom by these two men has led me to believe that a different approcach is needed.

As things stand Fine Gael faces two options:-

Watch as a bad Budget gets voted through, compromised by Independent TDs and vested interests; or

Do our best to ensure the defeat of the Budget, forcing an election, and taking over the reigns of a country which, by that stage, may be virtually ungovernable.

Neither of these alternatives are appealing, to say the least. So is there an alternative?

Fine Gael will be publishing it's alternative budget proposals shortly. The differences in approach between Fine Gael and the Government re certainly not trivial – but we have a common bottom line in terms of what ultimately needs to be achieved.

Surely even at this late stage, Fine Gael can go to the Government and present them with our bottom line, mapping out clear priorities for any Budget:-

A proper jobs strategy
A proper growth strategy
Decent measures to stem the tide of emigration
We could put it up to the Government, and say as Enda bravely said since on his first day as leader: "Do the right thing, and we'll support you".

When faced with a choice between a bad Budget, no Budget at all, or the chance – no matter how slim - a Budget with a strong blue tinge to it, I don't think there is any competition.

Which is better – Healy Rae and Lowry blackmailing the Government to change the Budget for their own benefit? Or Fine Gael wrestling changes to Budget for the benefit of the country? No matter how slim a chance we have of achieving this, I feel that we have to try.

Fianna Fáil are going down in flames. We all know that, and it's only a matter of time. The only question is whether they should be allowed to bring the country down in flames with them. Our party has always been at its strongest and most popular when we tell the truth. When Fine Gael speaks honestly, acts honestly, we shine. This is something which our Party is going to have to reflect on as the Dáil makes difficult decisions over the coming weeks.

The coming year, the coming months, and indeed the coming weeks, will prove to be make-or-break times for Fine Gael and for our country. Does Fine Gael have what it takes? Do we have the necessary courage and conviction to make it happen? I believe we do, because we absolutely must.

WT Cosgrave viewed his task, and that of the Governments he led, as not just rebuilding the physical infrastructure of the country or balancing the books to keep the country afloat. They saw their primary task as being to rebuild an image of Ireland as a nation which was reborn, a country which was open for business, a new Ireland confident in itself at home and abroad. He viewed his party as a party of "nationbuilders, who would rear the new Ireland in the light of old ideals".

Very soon it will again fall to us, the inheritors of Cosgrave's political legacy, to show that Ireland is still open for business with a young talented population that is second to none.

For the reasons I've already made clear in respect of the Labour Party, an overall majority can be our only goal. To hope that we can share office with such a Party, and make the sort of changes that this country needs, would be fantasy at best. We need to win and win big.

But politics isn't the pendulum that many seem to think. Governments are not elected or defeated by gravity, or because their time has come. If Fine Gael wants the pendulum to move in our direction we're going to have to push it, and push hard. To do that, Fine Gael needs to offer a genuine change: a change not just from one set of politicians to another, and not simply from one set of policies to another. Fine Gael has to offer a change of what exactly it means to be a Nation and what it means to be Irish.

If we do that, we can ensure that the next election can be totemic in the history of our country – because the permanent Government of this country can be swept aside and replaced with leaders who truly believe, as Cosgrave did, "the country is more important than any political party".

Ladies and Gentlemen, it's been an absolute pleasure to lead this great organisation for the last three years. Our generation have been massacred by this recession, if the country is to rise again it falls to our generation to make it happen.

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