I want to welcome you all here this evening to the Social Democrats Conference.

I also want to warmly welcome the people watching at home on their TV and everyone tuning in on social media.

Thank you, to my Deputy Leader, Cian O’Callaghan, for his kind introduction.

Anyone who knows Cian will be aware that he is highly uncomfortable with all forms of public praise, so I’ll leave it at this – I really couldn’t ask for a better Deputy Leader, thank you for all your hard work for this party.

Conference, it is a huge honour and privilege to address you all for the first time as leader of the Social Democrats.

It’s almost one year since I put myself forward to become leader of our party.

At the time I predicted it was going to be challenging, exhilarating and exhausting.

12 months – and a lot of grey hairs – later, I can confirm that it has been all of those things and more.

But above all – it has been such a privilege.

When I became leader last March, I was well aware that I had my work cut out for me.

I didn’t just have one pair of shoes to fill, but two – those of my friends and colleagues, Catherine Murphy and Róisín Shortall.

It’s not an easy thing to start a political party. It took a great deal of dedication, grit and ambition. They founded this party because they wanted to help create a better Ireland – and I am so proud to continue that work alongside them.

I live about 5 hours away from Leinster House, so I spend ten hours of my week minimum in my car, it gives me two things, a sore back and a lot of time to think.

Lately, I have spent a lot of that time reflecting on that idea of a better Ireland.

And more specifically, I suppose, about the increasing number of people out there who have lost hope in the possibility of that.

Who feel the country is no longer working for them.

I think this disillusionment comes from a profound disconnect – between where we are as a country, and where we  should be.

A disconnect between a GDP per capita that makes us one of the richest countries in the world; and 4,000 children growing up in emergency accommodation.

Between full employment; and half a million adults living in their childhood bedrooms.

Between an €8 billion surplus; and over 600,000 people living in poverty

Is it any wonder people feel disillusioned?

Too many people are being left behind and too many people can’t see a way out that isn’t via the Departures Lounges in Dublin, Cork, or Shannon airport.

It wasn’t so long ago that I sat in that Departures lounge myself.

Forced to emigrate after the crash, because like so many others, I didn’t see a future for myself here.

Ireland is a rich country. We should be able to provide a future for our young people.

But we are stuck in a decades-old cycle of shoving generation after generation onto boats and planes to the UK, Australia, America and Canada.

Because government after government after government have failed to provide even the very basics – like a roof over people’s head or a health service that is fit for purpose.

And without those very basics, how can people see a future for themselves in Ireland?

We deserve better.

We can achieve better.

And that is why we are all here today.

The upcoming elections can’t come soon enough.

Because, the tide is turning in Irish politics. I can feel it. I think we all can.

For the first time in 100 years, it is no longer a given that the next government will be led by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael.

And that is seismic.

It means people are open to alternatives and they are considering all of their options and I believe that social democracy offers the transformative change we need in this country.

Let me explain what I mean by that.

Essential public services like housing, healthcare, disability services and childcare are fundamental rights.

For too long, the State has outsourced its responsibilities to the private market.

These essential services must be provided by the State, they shouldn’t only be available to those on the highest incomes.

At its core, that is what social democracy is all about.

Our vision for a better Ireland is based on strong principles of equality, sustainability, and honesty.

We will not compromise on these principles.

So, we may not always say the most popular thing.

But, on the important issues we face as a society – you will always know where you stand with the Social Democrats.

I am so aware that the people of Cork South West took a leap of faith when they voted for me.

They voted for me even though on paper I didn’t stand a chance.

They voted for me even though commentators assumed it was a Fine Gael seat.

They voted for me even after hearing this accent.

And I believe they chose to do so because of what this party represents.

People want to vote for a party they can trust, with strong core principles of honesty and transparency.

Because so many of us are sick-and-tired of the same old politics. Of corruption, scandals, of broken promises, and politicians talking out of both sides of their mouths on every issue.

There is no area where broken promises are more blatant than in housing

Since this government took office:

House prices are up by 25%.

Rents are up by €4,200 per year.

And child homelessness is up by 55%.

Is it any wonder that people are losing hope?

For those of you out there wondering if things will ever change – I want to assure you that they can.

The wrong political decisions got us into this crisis but the right ones can get us out.

We have a clear plan.

We will deliver 50,000 homes per year during our term in office.

And to get there we must focus on affordability.

In the middle of an affordability crisis, the Government have consistently missed their affordable housing targets.

We will change that.

We will have a laser focus on the delivery of affordable and social homes.

We will deliver 10,000 affordable homes and 12,000 social homes per year.

And immediately, we will introduce:

A three-year rent freeze.

A ban on no-fault evictions.

A tax on vacant homes with real teeth.

And an end to the bulk buying of homes by investment funds.

In Ireland, it feels like far-flung dream that you wouldn’t have to spend €60 to visit your GP; that you wouldn’t be met with a waiting list; or be left on a trolley when you’re sick.

But actually, that is the bare minimum the State should provide, and it is the standard across western Europe.

The most frustrating thing about the problems that plague our health service is that we have a plan to address them. Laid out clearly, step by step.

This plan to deliver universal healthcare – Sláintecare – was agreed in 2017 by every political party.

It means healthcare that’s free at the point of need – no GP fees, and no fees for therapies – and much shorter waiting lists.

But seven years into a plan that should have taken 10 years to implement, we are nowhere near achieving universal healthcare.

And that is why the full, accelerated implementation of Sláintecare is a red line issue for the Social Democrats in any programme for government.

When I first got elected, I thought that even in Opposition I’d be able to do something to help people whose lives are being destroyed due to inadequate or non-existent disability services.

Instead, when we raise issues like children’s disability network teams, personal assistance hours, and respite services we are met with a combination of evasion, excuses, and empty promises.

The reality is that so many disabled people are not just being failed – they are being actively harmed by the State.

Government cannot claim to be committed to the Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, while refusing to ratify the part which would mean those rights become a reality.

And then, they have the neck to run a €1.5 million ad campaign to promote these rights. The very rights they are blocking disabled people from exercising.

I now know that there is only one thing that will change the provision of disability services in this country – and that is a change in government.

And I can tell you today that in Government the Social Democrats will ratify the optional protocol.

There is a tendency in Irish politics towards short-termism and when governments only think in five-year election cycles – long term plans for climate action fall very far down the list of priorities.

But we cannot afford to continue on this path of half measures, incomplete plans and missed targets
Climate change is here and it is causing devastation.

We only need to look at the recent flooding in Midleton to get a glimpse of what the future holds.

Doing nothing is not an option.

And not doing enough isn’t an option either.

It is a betrayal of future generations.

We need climate action that is ambitious enough to meet the enormous scale of the task.

And it will not be easy.

But we have the resources to do it right.

That is why the Social Democrats want to see the budget surplus used to create a €6 billion climate transformation fund.

We could have warmer homes.

We could have pristine waters.

We could protect and rejuvenate biodiversity.

We could become a net exporter of energy by the end of the decade.

Ireland could be held up as the example for the future of agriculture.

And when we have to justify our actions to future generations, do you want to say that we could have, or that we did?

Last night, the Palestinian Ambassador stood on this stage and delivered a powerful address to our conference.

The scale of the death and destruction in Gaza is unprecedented, it is disgusting, it is beyond words. Witnessing the unchecked cruelty of the Israeli government – while the majority of the western world turns a blind eye – has been horrifying.

In these moments, as a society we have to stand up and be counted, we have to be brave.

From candlelit vigils in small villages across the country, to tens of thousands of people taking to the streets of Dublin – the Irish people have sent a clear and unequivocal message of support for the Palestinian people.

The Government has echoed many of those words of support and has been a strong voice on the international stage.

But for months now I have stood across from the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, week after week, and suggested actions Ireland can take to match those strong words, and every time this Government has chosen inaction.

They refused to make a referral to the International Criminal Court.

Refused to enact the Occupied Territories Bill.

Refused to officially recognise the State of Palestine.

And for months refused to lobby for EU trade sanctions.

We must stand with the Palestinian people today, tomorrow and always.

Because in the face of genocide, inaction becomes complicity.

I mentioned earlier that I emigrated after the crash. I spent years abroad.

My sister emigrated at the same time and still lives in New Zealand. My gorgeous nephew was born there recently.

My family isn’t unique. There isn’t a family in Ireland that doesn’t have some history of emigration.
That’s why Irish people have always been so welcoming.

But there are a small number of loud voices who say we should not look outward as a nation. That say we need to isolate ourselves, close borders, and turn our backs on people fleeing war, famine and persecution.

You have probably heard those voices shout that Ireland is full – that all of the problems we face in housing and health are the cause of a small number of vulnerable migrants.

I want to assure you that this is completely and utterly untrue.

Ireland is not full, it’s just not working properly.

And that can be fixed.

Because the problems that we face as a country are within our own power to solve.

We have the resources; we have the capacity; we just need the political will.

We can deliver affordable housing; a high-quality health service; and reach our climate targets.

We can have a better work life balance; strong unions; and gold standard workers’ rights.

We can be a country where you can live a dignified life with a disability.

We can do all of this and more.

We just need the opportunity.

And Conference, that opportunity is fast approaching.

We are facing into a year of elections.

A year of possibilities.

The locals, Europeans, and potentially a general election.

Choices will be made in each of these elections, and in each of your homes.

About the kind of society we want to build.

About what we value – and what we want to protect.

I am unashamedly ambitious about the future of this country, and the role the Social Democrats will play in building that future.

But I know that this ambition will only be realised if, as a party, we can offer a credible alternative.
To do that, we don’t just need to offer solutions to the many problems we face as a society.

We need to offer as many of you out there as possible the chance to vote for us.

So, with the support of my colleagues, we have been working flat out to build the Social Democrats up to a point where we can reach our full potential.

And that is why we are running more candidates all over the country than ever before.

Because in this crucial year in Irish politics, we want to put social democracy on the ballot.
I want to say a huge big thank you to each of our election candidates. Many of you are in this room today.

Standing for election takes courage, determination and the highest step count you’ve ever seen.

I’m asking you to get out there, into your communities. To knock on as many doors as you can and have as many open and honest conversations as you can.

Because take it from me, as someone who won my first election by a single vote – every door knocked on, every conversation started, every voter registered can be the one that makes a difference.

To everyone watching at home, addressing you today has been a privilege. It’s also an opportunity. To talk to you directly. To ask you to give us a chance.

If you are unsure of who to vote for – or wondering if you’ll vote at all – I am asking you to vote for the Social Democrats.

We won’t engage in auction politics – and promise the sun, moon and stars.

But we will be honest.

We will work hard.

And we are determined to never lose your trust.

Now is the time to effect real and lasting change. We need to seize this opportunity.

If you want change, please get out there and vote for it.

Thank you.

February 17, 2024

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