Friends, I want to welcome everyone here today. The last time we met like this it was 2019.
We didn’t think it would take quite this long to get back into a room together again.
I also want to warmly welcome all those watching at home.
We believe the potential, and desire, for change in Ireland is huge.
But people want genuine change – not a repackaging of stale parties, or policies, as something new.
Even Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who have shared power for 100 years, claim to lead a change agenda.
So, what makes the Social Democrats any different? What does social democratic change look like?
It can be summarised in one familiar phrase – ní neart go chur le chéile.
There’s no strength without unity.
Social democracy, at its core, is about human dignity.
Protecting those fundamental elements that provide every member of society with dignity and opportunity.
Things like housing; healthcare and childcare should never be mere commodities – only available to those on highest incomes.
This is why the State must play an active role – consistently and decisively.
But, for too long, the State has outsourced its responsibilities to the private market.
This generation of young people will the first who will be worse off than their parents.
Housing costs are out of control; childcare costs are equivalent to a mortgage and energy prices are skyrocketing.
Interest rate hikes on mortgages in the coming months will increase the squeeze on families even further.
Inflation is now at 7.8% – a 38-year high.
It does not impact everyone equally.
Those on low and middle incomes spend a disproportionate amount of their income on necessities.
People are increasingly going into debt to pay for necessities and more and more people are at serious risk of poverty.
We must therefore target measures at those who need them most.
And we need to take action – with an emergency budget – now.
The Social Democrats would:
Put €300 into the pockets of workers, earning up to €50,000, using a refundable tax credit.
Create a hardship fund so those at risk of fuel or food poverty can access emergency payments quickly.
And, increase core social welfare rates, like pensions – which have only increased by €5 in the last three years – by €10.
In our alternative budget in October, we will be proposing other measures:
Childcare must be transformed so that it is publicly funded – the only way costs will come down.
Primary and secondary education must be made genuinely free – and university fees, which are the highest in the EU, must be cut.
Crucially, workers should not have to struggle just to get by. They need a living wage
Workers must also have security of employment, the right to collective bargaining and the right to flexible work options.
Our small and medium businesses – our main employers – must be supported.
We know our corporate tax returns are volatile. We must do more to grow our indigenous businesses.
There have been winners – as well as losers – from this crisis.
Energy companies have been profiteering on the backs of ordinary people.
We can, and must, act to stop that from happening – with the introduction of a windfall tax.
The State has also benefited. VAT receipts are surging, in part due to increased energy costs.
VAT and excise duty decreases, on energy and fuel, are due to expire in October. They must be extended into next year – and there must be a further excise duty cut.
One of the most basic requirements in a functioning society is the provision of secure and affordable housing.
It is supposedly the biggest priority for government. It’s also its biggest failure.
In previous decades, single-income families with one worker on an average wage could aspire to lead a decent life.
They may not have been rich – but many owned their own home; they could educate their children; and they had secure jobs.
Today, single people are forced to continue to live at home; house share or rent tiny apartments at exorbitant costs until they are in their 30s, 40s and even older.
Older people worry about where they’ll live when they retire – and how they’ll pay for it.
Even couples, on what were once considered decent wages, are locked out of home ownership.
Many are again considering emigration.
This is not just about bricks and mortar.
The price of the housing crisis is paid by the thousands of children losing childhoods as they grow up in emergency accommodation;
By the relationships that break down because of the stress of housing insecurity;
By the couples who postpone having a family;
and by the disconnected communities that result when people are unable to put down roots.
What kind of society are we building – when affordability is now defined by the government as being €450,000 in Dublin and €400,000 in Cork and Galway.
Do they know a mortgage at those amounts requires incomes of at least €114,000?
What planet are they on?
At the heart of the housing crisis is an affordability crisis.
The government should be doing everything it can to drive down prices – so people on average incomes can again aspire to own their own homes.
Instead, it’s pursuing policies that inflate house prices even further.
Throwing money, and tax breaks, at private developers and vulture funds is not just wrong – it’s wasteful and it’s not working.
Nearly a decade into this crisis, we need radical action.
Because there are solutions.
We must immediately introduce a tax to bring the 90,000 vacant homes across the country back into use.
We must end the greed of land speculation – a major driver of housing costs – by finally controlling the cost of development land.
And if it takes a referendum, let’s have it.
We must end the favourable tax treatment of REITS and vulture funds.
We must regulate short-term letting platforms, like Airbnb, which are cannibalising the rental market.
And, we must introduce a three-year ban on rent increases and improve security for renters.
We currently spend more than €22 billion on our health service – but it’s in a state of perpetual crisis.
One-quarter of our population – 1.3 million people – are now on waiting lists for health services. A truly shocking figure.
It’s becoming more and more difficult to retain our excellent healthcare workers in a system that fails them too.
For too long, the Irish people have endured a situation in which health care is delayed, deferred and often denied.
Sláintecare can change that.
It was designed to take the political wrangling out of Health.
That was five years ago.
Even before the pandemic, there had been minimal implementation.
Why is there such resistance to reform? Who stands to benefit? Because, it’s not the Irish people.
The Sláintecare plan is not actually radical.
It sets out a blueprint to bring the Irish health service into line with almost all other EU countries – free at the point of delivery.
People can attend the doctor; a speech and language therapists; mental health services; or access homecare when they need to – without worrying about the cost.
If that sounds revolutionary, it shouldn’t.
Ireland’s current two-tier model of healthcare is an outlier – not an exemplar.
Better health outcomes, and lower healthcare costs, will only come after the system has been reformed.
And, to be clear, the full implementation of Sláintecare in the term of the next Government will be a red line for our participation in that Government.
We also make another commitment today.
The Social Democrats will never gift valuable public infrastructure – like a €1 billion new national maternity hospital – to a private company, be it religious or otherwise.
It will never happen. Not on our watch. You can count on that.
Disability supports, which are vital to help disabled people live full lives, are fragmented and threadbare.
It is not acceptable for the government to blame recruitment problems for a failure to provide essential services.
If services were properly planned, and prioritised, then critical staff would be in place.
Children with disabilities and their families must battle from the day they are born.
It is shameful that their biggest battle is often with the State – to try to get basic services, like an assessment of need, essential therapies or a school place.
This abject neglect has disastrous consequences. Children’s development is limited and they are prevented from reaching their full potential.
Once children turn 18, whatever meagre supports that do exist often disappear.
We need a government that pays more than mere lip service to the rights of disabled people.
In our first month in office, the Social Democrats in government, would sign the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities – which allows disabled people make complaints directly to the UN when the State fails to provide services.
We have just 8 years to stop the worst impacts of the climate crisis – an irreversible climate catastrophe.
The challenge is immense – and we are being set up to fail.
Our emissions are going up, not down.
If we want to meet out targets, large-scale structural changes are urgently required that only the State can make.
Changes like restricting the development of new data centres;
Facilitating the speedy development of off-shore wind energy;
incentivising sustainable farming;
investing in major public transport infrastructure;
and introducing a retrofitting scheme that is actually affordable for the people who need it most.
These are all measures that require State intervention.
And the Social Democrats, in government, would prioritise them.
At the core of our climate policy, must be climate justice – the assurance that those least able to afford the transition to a zero carbon economy will not bear the heaviest burden.
This commitment must be more than hollow words – it must be enshrined in law.
If we commit to climate action, it will be transformative.
It will lead to new employment opportunities; warmer homes; cleaner air and water; more sustainable farming; more liveable towns and cities; and a better quality of life – for everyone.
We must get this right. The alternative is unthinkable – and time is running out.
The war in Ukraine has underlined our energy insecurity – and the urgent need to ramp up investment in renewable energy production.
We in the Social Democrats want to again make clear our revulsion at Russia’s illegal war.
Putin’s dangerous despotism is a threat, not just to Ukraine, but to the world.
We stand with Ukraine now – and into the future.
There have been some who have used the war in Ukraine as a pretext for abandoning or diluting our-long held position of neutrality. That would be a mistake.
Ireland, as a neutral country, has never been an aggressor or an oppressor on the world stage.
Our role has always been one of peacemaker and peacekeeper.
This is where our strength lies – and our neutrality is the foundation stone that anchors it.
We have seen the devastation and destruction caused by conflict on our own island.
We cannot allow the Good Friday Agreement, which put an end to the violence, to be endangered by unilateral decisions taken by a minority of partisan politicians.
The DUP cannot continue to hold the region to ransom – the power sharing institutions in Northern Ireland must be allowed to function.
The British government cannot rip up international agreements and use the threat of political instability in the North as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with the EU.
Its approach is tawdry, short-sighted and dangerous.
Friends, in much of Irish politics, and Irish public life, we see the corrosive politics of the golden circle.
A fast-track for insiders whose connections confer unfair advantage.
Civil and public service pay rates have been spectacularly breached in the hiring process for individual senior staff.
High-profile jobs have been awarded to friends and colleagues of government ministers in the absence of an open recruitment process.
Appointments to State boards and institutions are still made to party political allies….. while important State projects routinely go massively over budget.
In scandal after scandal the same culprit is identified – “Systems Failure” – usually after a lengthy and expensive review or inquiry.
Conveniently – systems can’t be sacked, demoted, jailed or otherwise censured.
As long as there are no consequences for failure, there is no real incentive to reform.
We need accountability in every facet of Irish public life – the government, public service and the corporate world.
We will only get change if we properly protect whistle-blowers and make legal accountability a term and condition of employment in the public and civil service.
We must go further. We need an independent Anti-Corruption Agency – with the remit, and the resources, to provide meaningful regulation and oversight of our institutions.
We must have a State watchdog – with real teeth.
We saw, in recent years, the best of what our society is capable of – the outpouring of support, empathy and solidarity as we faced unimaginable difficulties.
Having seen what is possible, we cannot now go back to business as usual.
We must think about the society we want to see – not just in the immediate future.
But, in 10, 20 and 30 years’ time – because, the decisions we make today will shape that future.
We set up the Social Democrats in 2015 – to provide people with a real choice about what that future will look like.
The Social Democrats is a party for a new era – not defined by old loyalties, old politics, old policies, cosy business connections or jobs for the boys.
We stand for change. We stand for equality. We stand for accountability.
A better type of politics.
By doing things differently, by making social democratic change, we can achieve a better Ireland – for all.
11 June, 2022