We live in an Ireland that is changing, and changing fast. It is an Ireland that has got into its stride. An Ireland that is brimming with confidence.
An Ireland overflowing with opportunity.In the past emigration drained us of our young people.Today, we are close to full employment and the fastest growing economy in Europe.
Ireland today is striding confidently forward. It is doing so because, when called upon by the people, Fianna Fail was there to provide the leadership that turned this country around. Back in the bleak days of the 70's and 80's there were those who shrugged their shoulders. There were those who said there was no way out of Ireland's economic and social morass.
But in Fianna Fail we didn't accept that defeatist attitude. We in Fianna Fail rolled our sleeves up. And slowly and soundly we charted the route that took Ireland out of despair.
This country has been transformed by Fianna Fail. Our economic success is the very bedrock on which Ireland is thriving and expanding.We must never endanger that prosperity. Instead, we must strive to sustain that once seemingly impossible goal of economic strength and stability. But economic growth on its own is only part of the bigger picture that is 21st century Ireland. Now is a good time to consider how the generations that follow will look back and judge us. They will look on us as the people who had a grasp of the Holy Grail of economic success, prosperity, full employment and endless opportunity. Somehow I don't think they will judge us on how many millionaires, even billionaires, we created during our time in that economic oasis. Instead, they will judge us on how we reached out and reached down to those left behind, for whatever reason, by our buoyant economy. They will also judge us on how well we hung onto the decency and humanity that is so central to all that is best about Ireland and being Irish.
How well we in Fianna Fail respond to those challenges will be our legacy.
And I am confident that legacy will stand the test of time.
It will do so because Fianna Fail in Government is harnessing those fruits of economic success. It is doing so on a scale never before seen in this country. This Government is delivering the largest sustained increase in social and welfare services in our history. This year, alone, welfare benefits and vital supports increased by three times the rate of inflation.
Since 1997 all the main benefits have been increased by at least twice the rate of inflation. It is a testament to Fianna Fail's social commitment that this year my Department of Social Affairs is spending over €12 billion on welfare entitlements. That is double what it was no more than four years ago. That €12 billion means that for every €3 of taxpayer's money the State will spend in 2005, €1 will go directly towards welfare supports.
Every week, the length and breadth of this country, almost one million welfare payments are reaching those who need them most. That means that well over 1.5 million men, women and children are provided with financial lifelines that allow them to live with greater dignity and certainty. It means that those rearing children have seen a four fold increase in Child Benefit in just 10 years. It means a sizeable lift for over 550,000 people on lower welfare rates. It means our pensioners are far better off. It means that up to 30,000 carers are having their valuable work recognised with an increased and extended Respite Grant.
And it means that those in job seeking situations, those on maternity leave, our widows and those with disabilities are benefiting from substantial increases.
Let's not forget that against that Fianna Fail is a party that stands for progressive change.
So our focus should not only be on what we have achieved, important as that is to the lives of so many people. Our focus must be on what we have yet to achieve. Fianna Fail in Government is committed to increasing State pensions to €200 by 2007. It is committed to bringing the lowest welfare rates up to €150 inside by 2007. This is a success story in itself. But, of course, it is not enough. The easy way is to make the welfare payments and then hope the social problems go away.
Let me assure you that is not the Fianna Fail way. It never was. And it never will be.
Fianna Fail has always been a party to embrace change. A party not afraid of reforms when they were needed. A party always bubbling with new, and often, radical ideas. A party driven by the desire to ensure that the great rising tide of Celtic Tiger success lifts all boats. That is why we must go on reforming. Why we must look behind the welfare payments.
Why we must confront the social issues that consign too many to lives of welfare dependency. And we are doing just that. I can assure you today that social policy reforms are urgently being worked on. Reforms that will transform lives. Reforms that will break the shackles of welfare dependency. Reforms that will offer new hopes and opportunities. I am talking of the children who must be lifted out of the clutches of poverty.
We must always put the children of this nation first. In a 21st century Ireland awash with money we can no longer accept the blight of child poverty. It must end. And you and I together will end it.
I am talking of our pensioners. They must be given greater equality and real choice on how they want to spend their later years. They helped keep this country afloat through the decades of recession and stagnation. They are the people who fed, nurtured and reared the Celtic Tiger.
They deserve dignity and comfort in their later years. And we in Fianna Fail pledge that their contribution will be recognised and rewarded.
I am talking, also, of those for whom retirement is some way away.
Yet many of them are facing totally inadequate incomes in their later years. Right now, out of a workforce of 2 million, some 900,000 people, 500,000 of them women, have no private or work pensions. We could stand back and say "so what if they head into retirement with only the State pension?" But that is not the Fianna Fail way. We will bring about the reforms. We will make the changes so that every pensioner ends up with a decent pension and adequate income.
I am talking of reforms that will liberate thousands of Lone Parents from welfare constraints. Reforms that will open up employment, training and education opportunities for them and their children. This is about helping people to help themselves. I am talking of reforms that will make the transition from welfare to work seamless and accessible, especially for long term unemployed. I am talking of new structures and increased opportunities for those with disabilities. And of even greater recognition for carers. Carers do so much for so many. In return, I am committed to doing more for them.
As I said earlier, Ireland and Irish society is changing. We have a choice to make. The pace of change can either overwhelm us, or make our lives better and our country stronger. We can passively allow the many fundamental issues that now confront us to wash around us. We can allow the currents and cross currents buffet us in all directions. Of we can set out to influence them. As, for example, we are doing with childcare. We can choose the direction we want to go as a society. We can be leaders or we can be dragged along as followers. I think you all know the answer.
Fianna Fail is the party that leads. The party that shows real leadership.
Every time Fianna Fail was called upon it provided solutions to this country's problems. Since I first appeared on this platform as General Secretary, I have seen it. And over the years since, as a Minister in eight separate Government Departments, I have seen it. It is as true today as it was decade after decade all the way back to 1926. Fianna Fail made the difficult decisions. They were not always popular but they were what was right. Time and again Fianna Fail righted the direction Ireland was taking.
And they won the admiration and respect of the Irish people. That is now what this party must do for the future. Look at the issues of the day. Confront the new problems. And provide solutions and a road forward.
One part of our contribution must be as a Government. Driving the country forward. But at the same time keeping the decency. Keeping the humanity. Keeping the balance.
But let's never forget that Fianna Fail is Ireland's largest political party.
Let's never forget what Fianna Fail stands for. It stands for a 32 county 'New Ireland' achieved by persuasion. For strong economic development, for social inclusion, and for a national cultural identity. The very soul of Fianna Fail is about bringing together all strands. It is about reflecting the aspirations of the people. It must hold onto that soul. Hold onto that core of the party. If Fianna Fail does that then we will continue to lead this country. We will continue to be the political movement that shapes modern Ireland. And delegates, there is one resolve we must all make at this Ard Fheis. It is that we must work together to ensure that this country's hard won advances and prosperity is not undermined.
Above all, we must work together so that it is not endangered by letting into Government those who can't even trust the Irish people enough to tell them what their policies are.