Taoiseach, President of Young Fine Gael, Ministers, TDs, Senators, Councillors, friends in Fine Gael – present and future.
I say present and future because the people in this room today are the future of our party and our country and I hope you will remain friends of Fine Gael for many years to come.
For 40 years this great organisation has helped to define the future of Fine Gael – and of Ireland, just as Garret Fitzgerald knew it would when set up Ireland’s first independent political youth wing in 1977.
When this organisation was founded I was living in London. I went there to do my masters and spent five years living and working in the city. I hadn’t found politics yet, or perhaps it hadn’t found me. But during those years I started becoming political through my work and experiences.
So, at the same age as some of you are now, I was working as a social worker in inner-city London. There were about twenty of us working together from different backgrounds.
We had very different views and perspectives on the world and the work we did. I was working with the new west African and Indian communities in places like Peckam and Lewisham. London was still struggling to come to terms with the influx immigration that had occurred over the previous decades. It was so different to the world I left behind in Ireland and from my upbringing.
We were living close to Brixton where the riots broke out in 1981 because of deep social and economic problems. This happened at a time when I was already aware of the corrosive and dangerous effects of disadvantage and exclusion.
It was around that time that the issues I was encountering through my work began to really affect me and make me want to do something about them. I didn’t have the clarity of purpose that you all have, the certainty that the best way to effect change is through politics.
But I started to get involved.
I got involved though my social work and through campaigning on women’s issues.
Then I got involved in Fine Gael and ultimately electoral politics.
Having no political background or connections, I looked around, as I am sure many of you did.
I liked what Fine Gael stood for – a socially progressive, inclusive party, with a collaborative approach to Northern Ireland and a proud, pro-European Union outlook.
So much of what attracted me to Fine Gael were the issues that Young Fine Gael campaigned for and advanced in those early days.
So in a sense, I am here today because of you.
Young Fine Gael has a proud track record of advancing progressive issues within our party and ultimately within our country.
The first policy manifesto passed at the 1979 National Conference called for greater family planning options, repeal of the homosexuality laws and the abolition of illegitimacy.
The 1986 National Conference saw YFG launch its appeal for a 'Yes' Vote in the Divorce Referendum. Again in 1996 – and I remember it well – YFG were instrumental in that successful campaign that led to the introduction of divorce.
Young Fine Gael established strong links with our sister parties in the European Union that deepened the party’s commitment to the European project. The innovative and provocative campaigns in favour of many European referenda particularly stand out in memory.
This strong tradition carried through to the two referenda related to my own portfolios - the Children’s Rights Referendum and the Marriage Equality Referendum.
YFG also has been a path of advancement for women within the party. Getting that critical mass of women into positions of power and decision-making has been disappointingly slow. I notice that at all levels of politics more women than men seem to get dispirited and ultimately disillusioned with the whole process. My own entry into politics was as a campaigner on women’s issues. I remember sitting at the back of the one of the first Women’s Council meetings I attended and began to understand the scale of the issues facing women in Ireland back then.
When I got to Leinster House it was full of men. The fact that it still is disappoints and frustrates me. However, it is inspiring to see so many young women here today and hope that many of you aspire to leadership positions and ultimately reach that goal.
What is less inspiring and, in fact, deeply troubling is the sexism, misogyny and revival of patriarchal attitudes that we saw in the recent US election campaign – attitudes that we thought we had dealt with, but are resurgent today.
Feminism, the practical feminism of advancing women’s opportunities, must be reclaimed by young women who want to push back against the backlash which made feminism a dirty word for too long. Feminism is more relevant than ever to women, to men, and to the sustainable future of our whole society. Indeed feminism is becoming dangerously fashionable. When Amy Schumer says that “Anyone who is not a feminist is an insane person”, you know that feminism is becoming hot. What better time, therefore, to redouble our efforts towards a better future for women and girls?
Time and time again YFG indentified necessary change before many believed it was necessary.
This organisation campaigned for change when many shied away from controversy.
For much of the last forty years YFG has been the social and progressive conscience of this party.
Forty years is a milestone and you are entitled to reflect on your proud record.
But you are also the future. And the future has rarely been more uncertain.
The centre, the moderates, our way of politics is under threat.
A simple post war assumption has been that the centre – be it left or right - holds against extremism. We cannot assume that anymore. We have to fight to defend it.
And let’s be very clear – fighting to defend the centre is not fighting for the establishment or the status-quo.
It is fighting for decent wages and living standards, good public services and infrastructure, funded by an economy that works for everyone.
It is fighting against the three card tricksters who exploit fear and exclusion to pedal false hope.
It is fighting for the politics of involvement and inclusion and against the politics of extremism and exclusion.
It is fighting to defend the social progress we have made and ultimately advancing it.
And it is fighting for a present and a future where the language of hate has no place.
We defend the centre by fighting against exclusion and disadvantage.
You are the ones best placed to lead this fight, because in a party that sometimes can focus too much on economic theory, Young Fine Gael has a record of focusing on the social reality.
You know that economics are important – very important. The economy generates the money. But the economy cannot be treated in isolation. An economy that generates resources is not an end in itself.
What you do with those resources is what really matters. Or to put it more simply, focusing on how to generate the most resources in the most productive way, without being equally as enthusiastic about how you want to use those resources to benefit people, has ultimately led to their alienation because of the perception that they are being left behind.
This is fuelling the feeling of exclusion and the temptation is to turn away, to turn inwards, to reject the outside world and outsiders.
But walls, physical or metaphorical, cannot halt human nature, the desire for protection, safety and opportunity. We know this from our own history.
It is right to always question who benefits from globalisation and to expect that the state must be the ultimate guarantor of the people’s best interests. But we know better than most in this country that opposing globalisation means opposing opportunity. Isolated economies lead to unhealthy societies.
If we turn in on ourselves squander the opportunity that economic recovery presents. An opportunity to define the kind of society we want to be.
You have taken that opportunity in the past and you must take it again.
Together we must take the opportunity to create a fair and compassionate society which people can feel part of and proud of, a society for everyone, at every stage of their lives.
Providing equality of opportunity to everyone is how we can make society just and fair.
It’s how we reduce disadvantage and down the barriers to people achieving their full potential.
We in Fine Gael believe also strongly that law and order – the safety of the people – is a fundamental foundation block upon which a democratic society stands.
The Week after next I will publish a Bail Bill which provide for stricter bail terms for repeat serious offenders strengthen Garda powers to deal with breaches of bail. It will increase the use of curfews, and introduce electronic tagging for those on bail where requested by Gardaí.
It will keep criminals who are determined to continue being criminals off our streets.
Over the last years this party has also supported our Gardaí with recruitment and investment. I am particularly proud that Templemore is now operating at full capacity again, after Fianna Fáil closed it down.
Delegates, on your fortieth anniversary we in this room face choices about the future we want to share.
We must choose to pursue the politics of collaboration and inclusion.
A politics that believes the state should stand for social justice and for equality of opportunity.
A politics that pursues economic success in order to improve the lives of people.
A politics that always promotes opportunity over fear.
That is what we stand for and that is what we must fight for – together.