Fianna Fáil leader apologises over Irish economic crisis

 

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has made an unequivocal apology on behalf of his party for its role in leading Ireland to seek an international bailout.

In his keynote speech to the party’s 73rd ardfheis in Dublin tonight, Mr Martin made an effort to draw a line under the matter by admitting that Fianna Fáil had made mistakes and that they were “sorry for that”.

Speaking to almost 4,000 delegates in the RDS, Mr Martin said: “It’s not enough to point to the worst world recession in 80 years and the euro zone crisis.

“Nor to point to the fact that other parties were demanding policies which would have made things worse – that’s for them to answer for," he said. “We were in government and we should have acted differently. We made mistakes. We got things wrong. And we are sorry for that. No equivocation. No half-apology. Just the plain, unvarnished truth.”

The passage, which was greeted by a standing ovation and sustained applause, formed the highpoint of Mr Martin’s first address as party leader to an ardfheis, the party's first since 2009.

Key strategists believed that what they described as a very comprehensive apology – which was widely anticipated – was necessary both in terms of the party’s own internal efforts at renewal, and also in reassuring the wider public that it fully accepts responsibility for its role.

Mr Martin emphasised renewal and a new approach to politics during the course of the speech and also referred to party’s own modernisation reforms passed earlier today.

“As we meet tonight, there are people throughout our country who are experiencing very hard times. They are struggling with finding a job, paying their mortgage or losing a loved one to emigration.

“The problems facing people are too serious for tired, old political games,” said Mr Martin, adding the party was determined to play a constructive role in Irish public life.

“This government of broken promises must be held to account for its bad decisions. But we will tackle them responsibly," the former minister said. "When something is right for Ireland, we will support it, when it is wrong we will oppose it.”

Mr Martin also acknowledged the historic scale of last year’s defeat in the general election and argued that it was the reason why the party had to work for a “deep and real renewal of both our party and of politics as a whole”.

He said reform was not an optional extra but was absolutely essential.

Turning to the economy, he conceded the room for action is limited. “I’m not going to pretend that there are easy options. We have always supported a strategy of bringing the deficit down to a sustainable level.”

Despite that, the Government had made wrong choices, he claimed, describing last December's budget  as the “most unfair” in recent years. “You don’t need to sell off State assets at fire-sale rates in order to be able to afford to invest in the economy.”

He also sharply criticised, to standing ovations, cut-backs to education that have affected disadvantaged schools (DEIS) and also small rural schools.

Mr Martin also reaffirmed Fianna Fáil’s commitment to support the European fiscal treaty referendum.

Earlier, Mr Martin received a significant fillip when the party membership overwhelmingly backed far-reaching organisational changes.

All 14 motions backed by the leadership - calling for higher ethical standards and radical organisational changes - were supported during a two-hour closed session at the conference in the RDS, attended by an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 delegates.

And while the debates on some issues were described as heated and animated, no substantive challenge materialised to any of the motions. It was a triumph for Mr Martin and for party modernisers, particularly on the proposal to change the voting system to one-member one-vote.

That motion was backed unanimously by members on a show of hands, although several members spoke against it. Reforms were also passed that will pave the way for members to have a say in future leadership contests, as well as having a role in deciding on entering coalition governments, when such an occasion arises.

In an interview with The Irish Times, Mr Martin emphasised the importance on changing the candidate selection system from one where each cumann (party branch) had three votes, to one in which each registered member would be entitled to vote.

“It will really demonstrate the party is getting away from the business when units were used to create fiefdoms,” Mr Martin said.

Former taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern arrived at the conference earlier today where he mingled with delegates in a very visible appearance. Mr Ahern’s presence caused surprise among some of those in attendance. There is strong speculation that Mr Ahern will be criticised by the report of the Mahon tribunal, which is expected imminently.

Last night, Mr Martin told delegates swift and comprehensive action would be taken against any Fianna Fáil politician whose conduct fell below that which was desired. That was received as an implicit warning by Mr Martin that Mr Ahern may face strong sanctions from the party if criticised. 

Mr Martin, asked today if Mr Ahern’s appearance may have been in response to his speech, replied that that was not necessarily the case. “All former TDs and members are entitled to attend,” he said. 

He also said the Mahon tribunal has not reported as yet and he was not going to pre-empt its outcome. “When it does report, we will respond in a swift and comprehensive way if any member of the party has brought the party and public office into disrepute,” he said. “It will mean taking action that will not shrink from the conclusions if they are negative.” 

The party currently has a disproportionately high number of male public representatives. However, such advances received a setback in an earlier session when a motion backing a 30 per cent quota for women candidates was rejected. 

However, two motions backing same-sex marriage, and same-sex couples adopting, were passed by delegates. 

On the European Union fiscal treaty, Mr Martin said the party would conduct a ground campaign urging a Yes vote in the referendum. “What’s crucial is that people need to get the messaging right and be focused and specific on the issue,” he said.

He backed the Government view on distinguishing between the referendum and the campaign to lower Ireland’s debt burden. “I don’t believe in conditionality in terms of the promissory note,” he said. “I do think it should be dealt with but separate to the treaty. I do think it will be dealt with ultimately.”