Ahern says FF's long search for resolution to Troubles has ended

 

This is an edited version of the address by the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, to the Fianna Fail Ardfheis in the RDS, Dublin on Saturday night:

A chairde Gael, it is a great honour to be re-elected Uachtaran Fianna Fail and to serve as Taoiseach of this country.

When I last stood before you on 19th April, 1997, I promised you that we would be back - back and in Government, and so we are. And hasn't it been a marvellous year and a half: victory in the general election, victory in the Seanad election, victory in the presidential election and the two referenda, and I know we will have a great campaign in the local and European elections of 1999.

Fianna Fail is here for the long run, the very long run.

In Government, we are working well with the Progressive Democrats under the Tanaiste, Mary Harney, and I salute their substantial contribution. Our shared ambition is to make Ireland one of the most dynamic countries in the world, with a quality of life second to none, and to fulfil the potential that all the patriots of the past knew we possessed.

Our vision for Ireland is one that is caring, compassionate, inclusive and very, very successful. Fianna Fail is a modern republican party and we are proud of it.

We are a nation state, not a province or a region, and we will always be. We are profoundly convinced that the best form of government on this island for everybody is self-government.

Fianna Fail in government will put to the people further constitutional amendments and reform that have wide political support in the Oireachtas. We are considering in particular proposals to put local government on a constitutional footing, as well as making the language throughout the Constitution gender-neutral.

The founders of Fianna Fail were wise and clear-sighted. They were statesmen who understood that violence or coercion would never resolve the problem of Northern Ireland or bring together a deeply divided people. So it has proved. Methods were used by certain groups, which were not only inappropriate to the situation but tragically counter-productive. The terrible human tragedy of Omagh shows us that real republicanism, as we understand it, must follow a totally different road.

Since our foundation, successive Fianna Fail taoisigh have engaged in the long and difficult search for a peaceful resolution of the problems created by Partition, in keeping with both our republican values and our democratic principles.

While there have been many false starts over time, the different elements necessary for a new beginning have gradually been identified: North-South structures, a British-Irish framework, power-sharing devolution, balanced constitutional change and the establishment of equality legislation that we can make work in Northern Ireland. At last, everything has been brought together in the Good Friday Agreement.

Great credit is due to the talks chairman, Senator George Mitchell, and President Clinton; British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Secretary of State Mo Mowlam; and the party leaders who had the courage to conclude the agreement - David Trimble, John Hume, Gerry Adams, John Alderdice, David Ervine, Gary McMichael and Monica McWilliams. And we thank them all.

The Good Friday Agreement is a unique chance for all of us on this island, the best chance we will see in our lifetime. It is our determination to make it work and to see the will of the people implemented, on an inclusive basis. There can be no more ghettos, no more second-class citizens, no more trampling down of human rights and dignity, but also no more political or sectarian murders, no more punishment beatings.

The creation of a reformed and impartial policing service, drawn from the entire community, is an absolutely vital requirement for a better future.

Our conception of republicanism has been perhaps too narrow in the past. Today, it must sustain not only an independent Ireland but an agreed Ireland.

The original title deeds of the Irish Republic, from 1798 and again in 1848 when the Tricolour was first raised, belong not just to one tradition, but to all. The people of Northern Ireland want to enjoy the same bright future as ourselves. We must help them achieve that goal, not out of any selfish political interest, but in a spirit of friendship and respect for difference. We cannot determine their future for them.

A peaceful Ireland will be a prosperous Ireland and the spirit of friendship will finally prevail throughout the entire island. That is the dream within our grasp and we are ready to grasp it. Ireland, as we move forward, will be a place of peace and I just want to assure everybody tonight who is watching in that this party will do more than our fair share to make sure that this island has peace in the 21st century.

Europe has been good for Ireland, but Ireland has also been very good for Europe. We have always chosen to participate positively in the main agreed European projects, such as the Social Chapter and monetary union, even when it created potential difficulties for us. We are in many ways the best example for many other aspirants of a smaller country that has spectacularly prospered in the European Union.

Our progress in catching up with our partners has been remarkable. In 1986, our standard of living was only 58 per cent of the EU average, behind Spain and Greece, but ahead of Portugal.

In 1998, after 12 years of new economic policies introduced by Fianna Fail with the support of the social partners, we are 85 per cent of the EU average, ahead of the other cohesion countries, but we are still some distance behind all the other 11 member States of the EU. Even under the most favourable conditions, it will take us well into the next decade to catch up with the European average.

Ireland is not going to allow itself to be spancelled now, just as we begin to approach the goal of income parity. As the fourth-least developed country of the Union, we are absolutely entitled to be net recipients of the EU budget for some time to come, particularly for the regions of the country that fall below the 75 per cent threshold.

There are those, of course, who believe that less for the west is somehow more for the east, but Fianna Fail believes we should be trying to increase the benefit to all, and that's what we will do.

There is no denying that the farming sector has recently been going through a very difficult period. The economic difficulties in Russia, the shortage of fodder and low, low prices for animals have hurt hard.

Fianna Fail will, to the very best of its ability, work to maintain the viability of the family farm. We will try to counteract any fall in incomes, mainly due to global conditions, and where necessary we will provide an acceptable safety net for those without other sources of income.

Our economic policy is designed to maintain strong growth for as long as possible, and to make full employment once again an attainable reality. Since 1987, we have increased employment by a third, with more people now in jobs than at any other time since independence. We have more jobs than we can fill for virtually everyone who wants to work and is willing to travel to work. And let me say this: taking a job long-term is the only way to better one's living standards.

The best route out of poverty is to take a job and training is available for all those who need it, to gain the necessary skills.

The key to further growth and stability is continued partnership and mutual self-restraint. For every year that high growth continues, we can put more people to work, cut taxes and provide money for improved infrastructure and social services.

It also allows us to maintain a healthy margin of safety and reduce the size of our debt, the interest on which amounts to over £2 billion per annum and has to be paid out of taxes. At the present rate of progress, under Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy, we will soon have one of the lowest levels of public debt in Europe, instead of where we were a decade ago when we were the highest in the European Community.

Participation in the single currency, the threat of an international downturn and reduced EU funding all require us to run a tight ship. Not every desirable improvement can take place at once. We have to balance what we need to do to maintain forward economic thrust while ensuring at-risk groups are not allowed to fall behind. We have to husband our resources and spend them prudently.

One of Ireland's great success stories these last 10 years is its tourism industry. We expect to welcome a record 5.6 million visitors in this tourist year, who will bring in over £2.3 billion in foreign earnings.

We must keep up that momentum. That is why, on Minister McDaid's initiative, total funding for tourism in the 1999 Estimates is up 12.6 per cent to almost £47.5 million.

At the heart of our plans for the Ireland of the 21st century is a new vigorous system of local government, based on sound financing, comprehensive modern legislation and integration of the best statutory and voluntary organisations. In this the centenary of local government, Minister Noel Dempsey has laid out clearly government plans and strategies for that new era.

Prosperity has brought serious traffic congestion to our cities. Fianna Fail is fully committed to a comprehensive package of transport initiatives, which will cost over £2 billion in all, involving traffic management, roads, rail, buses and Luas. It will take time, but I can guarantee you that during our term of office, there will be a major and visible improvement.

In the worrying area of housing which Fianna Fail deems so important, we instituted a major study and implemented tough measures to dampen down the market and slow the crazy escalation of prices which was happening, although record numbers of houses are now being built - in excess of 40,000 this year.

We provided £44 million towards the cost of major projects, to service enough land for 100,000 new houses, and we increased funding for the housing programme to over half a billion. And we will do a great deal more to tackle the difficulties which we so clearly understand of young people buying starter-houses.

Fianna Fail has always had an unrivalled record of investing in the future of our country by developing our education system. This is a tradition which Minister Micheal Martin is giving a new vitality to.

We are helping schools to meet the challenges of the modern world through doubling funding for school building and renovation projects and developing the schools' IT 2000 programme. This is one of the most ambitious programmes of its type in the world and we will shortly be one of the first countries to have every school connected to the Internet.

We have also put in place the largest third-level building programme in our history, and two days ago we announced a radical initiative to promote research and development in our universities and colleges.

In area after area, we have shown our commitment to expanding educational opportunity: primary funding has been increased by an unprecedented 20 per cent, adult literacy funding has been doubled and exam fees for poorer families have been abolished. We have also given many special needs children, particularly those with autism, the right to receive educational supports for the first time, and I am proud we were able to do that for people with special needs.

When John O'Donoghue became Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, he promised, on behalf of this Government, that he would make a determined attack on the whole level of crime as an absolute priority.

The results are visible. Crime has decreased by over 10 per cent, many organised criminal gangs are either in jail or have fled the State, the witness protection programme is in place, criminal assets have been seized and drug-traffickers will start getting a 10-year mandatory sentence.

The days when it might have appeared that Ireland was a drug-pushers' paradise are well and truly over.

We are recruiting extra gardai to bring them up to their full complement of 12,000. By next summer we will have increased prison places by one-third, through our prison-building programme. An independent Courts Services Board has been established and legislation is being prepared for an independent prisons authority and other relevant bodies.

Great credit indeed must go to the Minister and to the Garda Siochana who have been so successful in seizing drugs worth, in the period January to November 1998, an estimated £80 million on the streets, and the aggressive targeting of drug-dealers in operations Dochas, Cleanstreet and Mainstreet.

As part of the national drugs strategy, which follows the excellent and successful integrated services approach, local drugs task forces have been set up and will continue to work in the 13 identified areas of greatest disadvantage and drug abuse. There are 220 separate projects now under way in this major national initiative, and tonight I publicly want to praise the communities and every other single person involved.

There are few more important national tasks than to rescue our fellow citizens, young or old, from the awful scourge of drugs.

We have allocated a fund of £30 million over the next three years for a young people's facilities and services fund, and that includes a young people at risk programme. I welcome the bishops' strong support for action against drugs and for powerful community intervention and involvement, in providing better services and facilities for all our young people. This is an agenda which we must front-load, because the need is there now.

On behalf of the Government, I can assure you that we will put in place the comprehensive anti-drug and anti-crime structures we promised in opposition. John O'Donoghue is well on his way to cracking crime and drug crime in this country.

A government's first job is to protect its citizens and no one will prevent us from doing that - not now, not ever. More than ever in these good times, Fianna Fail believes that everyone must have a chance to contribute to the nation and to share in the benefits of social and economic development.

Our first job was to create jobs and it has been a job well done. Unemployed people have taken up jobs in unprecedented numbers. We have created around 52,000 new jobs last year, we have cut the numbers on the live register by over 40,000 since June 1997, with a dramatic lowering in youth unemployment of 13 per cent from '97 to '98, and we have pledged ourselves to the introduction of a minimum wage and we know we were right to do it.

We are well on the way to reach the pension target of £100 per week in the lifetime of the Government. As we promised, we will introduce legislation in 1999 to ensure comprehensive pension coverage for all. We have invested in the family with more money being spent on child benefit and other family supports.

Caring is one of the key roles of the family, but carers often feel isolated and unappreciated. Older people and people with disabilities want to live at home in their own communities. People don't want to have to put their relatives in homes, but for too long support has gone to institutions and not communities. We intend to change that and to put the balance right where it belongs - into support for carers in the community.

The health of a nation is a true yardstick of its real economic development. We are talking about a massive allocation of human resources in a nationwide web of services and structures. This year, 1998, Minister Brian Cowen secured a 9 per cent increase in health spending, bringing it up to just over £3 billion for the first time, and that's an increase of 35 per cent over the past 4 years.

Nurses received a settlement of £87 million to implement the new structures for personal development and promotion within the nursing service. Fifteen major hospitals had major developments completed or approved and a new £25 million blood transfusion centre has been given the green light at St James's.

The Minister gave a 50 per cent increased allocation towards the waiting list initiative and there has been a targeted and sizeable reduction in the cardiac waiting list. That is the sort of progress we want to see, and see more of. It's about time somebody started it and Brian Cowen has been the one who has started it.

We are proud that we have medical and nursing personnel of the highest excellence in this country, and we are determined to support them and their professional work to the very best of our ability. We all accept that there can be no carte blanche for any one sector, because the essence of our successful partnership approach has been negotiated consensus and we must continue to maintain that.

Ta, bhi agus beidh Fianna Fail dilis don Ghaeilge i gconai. Ta meas agus gra againn don Ghaeilge, don Ghaelachas agus don Ghaeltacht. Ce nach bhfuil mo chuid fein Gaeilge chomh liofa agus ba mhaith liom, is brea liom i a labhairt agus cuirfidh me feabh as uirthi. Agus molaim do gach duine eile an iarracht cheanna a dheanamh.

Ta an-dul chun cinn deanta ag an Aire Stait Eamon O Cuiv chun a gcearta a thabh airt do phobal na Gaeilge, na Gaeltachta agus na nOilean. Go luath i naoi deag nocha naoi, beidh Bille nua ann, Bille Teanga, chun Cearta pobal na Gaeilge seirbhis tri Ghaeilge a fhail, a chur i bhfeidhm.

Chruthaigh Udaras na Gaeltachta mile post nua an bhliain seo caite, agus beidh Bille eile ag Eamon chun athru agus leasu a dhean amh ar struchtuir an Bhoird, in am don togh chan an bhliain seo chugainn. Deirim anocht libh: beidh pobal na Gaeilge agus pobal na Gaeltachta i bhfad nios fearr as leis an Rial tas seo, agus beidh sin le feiceail, go soileir, amach anseo.

Fianna Fail has always recognised the importance of the arts and of our heritage in Irish life, now cared for and promoted by Sile de Valera. She has delivered key government programme commitments. Last year's largest-ever annual allocation received by the Arts Council, which allowed the arts plan to be completed one year ahead of timetable, will be substantially increased again this year.

Minister David Andrews, with the assistance of Liz O'Donnell, has played a key role for Ireland in the peace process, in Europe and, with great distinction, at the UN. As we have always done, we recognise the need for emergency aid to countries stricken by famine or disaster, such as in Africa and particularly in Central America.

Our ambition as a government is to raise morale in the Defence Forces and to focus their role in a way that makes best use of their services.

It will not come as any surprise to delegates at this ardfheis that the Government will continue to express our total opposition to the proposed new expansion of Sellafield. There is no justification, economic or otherwise, for reprocessing nuclear waste. Germany is closing down the nuclear industry. So let me state very bluntly here tonight: Ireland objects strongly to any new MOX plant or any continuation of Sellafield. Period.

We face into an Ireland of great promise - an Ireland at peace with itself for the first time in more than a thousand years; an Ireland which is in the process of creating a new golden age of prosperity, open to all the different people of these islands; an Ireland where our natural talents enhanced by quality education and world-class training, can attract and create the best employment opportunities; an Ireland where the State, business and the entire community accept the responsibility to shape a society where we work through partnership and give a bigger share to our disadvantaged citizens, until their quality of life is on a par with ours; an Ireland that believes it has much to offer the world in creative talent, in sport, in humanitarian work, and in sharing our skills of nation-building and conflict resolution.

While we have great ambitions for our country, we do not just want a me fein Ireland that values only material worth and in which the national spirit is dead. We seek a society that is fair, a country of equal opportunity, a nation where partnership, sharing, community and family support are of prime importance, a land of welcome to visitors, and a country of care and respect for young and old.

Cherishing our cultural traditions, we want to be open to the richness and diversity of other traditions. That is the dream that we have for Ireland.

Right at the central hub of national life will be Fianna Fail, the Republican Party, your party and my party, just as it has been since the first tentative days of wonderful independence. Fianna Fail has been there for and with the nation, every step of the way, getting it right, now and again getting it wrong, but always willing to listen, to learn, and act in the best interests of the nation.

In a hundred years time, delegates, another leader of Fianna Fail, a woman perhaps, and by no means the first, will stand in front of our great-grandchildren, just as de Valera stood before our parents and grandparents, and point to the achievement of peace, the investment, the deep desire to be an inclusive society and hopefully speak with pride of our legacy to them.

Partnership with people comes naturally to Fianna Fail, because everything in the party - the structures, the personnel and the elected representatives - all firmly believe that the needs and the concerns of the people come first. And that's the way it will always be.

Fianna Fail is a party of great potential - a party of proven deeds and proud heritage, a party that treasures the best of the old and forges it with the promise of the future. It is the party which will bridge the dreams of centuries and create an island of peaceful prosperity, and you will be there to see it.

Go raibh mile maith agaibh.