Harney speaks of year of success for party


Leader's speech: The following is an edited version of the keynote address of the Progressive Democrats leader, Ms Mary Harney, to the national conference.

The last 12 months have been good for the Progressive Democrats.

We have had a very successful general election. We doubled our numbers. We won seats in constituencies where we had never won before. And we returned to Dáil Éireann with a bright and able team of new deputies.

Post-election, we successfully negotiated the formation of a new administration. This meant that we were part of the first Irish Government in over 30 years to be re-elected to office.

I am pleased that so many people chose to put their trust in us on May 17th last year. I am pleased so many people recognised the work we have done, and the contribution we have made and can make. I would like to thank all those who supported us.

I would like to welcome the 1,000 new members who have joined the party in the last 12 months. I can assure you that life in the Progressive Democrats will never be dull!

Events in Iraq have dominated world affairs for several weeks now.

We have seen the awfulness of war. We have seen the horrors inflicted by modern weaponry. We have seen the terrible civilian casualties. All wars are dirty. And this war is no different.

But it has resulted in the toppling of another tyrant, the ending of another dictatorship.

Saddam Hussein had nothing but contempt for the rest of the world. And he had nothing but contempt for his own people. He tortured them. He gassed them. He murdered them. The murderous regime of Saddam Hussein is finished.

Sadly, we now see serious public order issues arising in the main urban areas across Iraq - the re-establishment of law and order is now the urgent priority for the sake of the people of Iraq.

Starting from there, it is time to begin the rebuilding of Iraq. And that is a project that the international community should approach with optimism. Our objective must be nothing less than the creation of a stable, pluralist democracy in Iraq.

I believe that the United Nations has a major and vital role to play in the reconstruction effort. The Irish Government will play its part in that effort. We will respond generously to whatever demands are made of us, whether it be for humanitarian aid, assistance with the rebuilding of the country or involvement in peacekeeping.

The Iraqi crisis has posed very difficult choices for the Irish Government. I refer specifically to the transit through Shannon Airport of US military personnel.

This party, this Government and this country have always supported the United Nations.

A UN mandate for military action against Iraq would have invested such action with great international authority and would have secured greater support for that action. Circumstances dictated that there was no enabling resolution from the UN. Britain and the United States decided to proceed with the political and military support of several other countries.

We could have adopted a hostile approach towards the two countries to whom we are closest in international affairs. I do not believe that that would have been in the interests of this country or of the Irish people.

All politicians like to make popular decisions, but there are times when governments have to make tough decisions. This was one of them. We made a tough decision but I believe we made the right decision, the responsible decision.

We in Ireland support the United Nations and we will continue to work with the United Nations. We accept that our support will sometimes involve backing for military action. Failure to accept that reality would condemn Ireland to a policy of isolation with no real role to play in world affairs.

The current crisis has also focused attention on Irish neutrality. Ireland is neutral in that we do not belong to any military alliance. But we are not neutral between right and wrong, between democracy and dictatorship, between the rule of freedom and the rule of fear.

We were not neutral on September 11th. We were not neutral when international terrorists attacked America. For that was not just an attack on America but an assault on the democratic way of life which unites the entire western world.

We will work within the UN for the maintenance of peace and freedom in the world. And we will work in whatever we can to rebuild the relationships within Europe and between Europe and America which have been damaged because of Iraq.

The Progressive Democrats entered government in 1997 at a time when very serious problems confronted this country.

The problems of unemployment and emigration were particularly serious. But overcome them we did. We reduced taxes. We improved incentives. We created opportunities. And this country reaped a huge dividend as a result.Our policies helped to make this country a land of enterprise and employment.

The problems today are different. Yes, our first priority is to secure the progress we have made. We must ensure that we do not slide back into unemployment and stagnation again.

Despite the great success of the last few years, there are major issues which remain to be tackled - inadequate infrastructure, poor public transport, and public services, especially health services - which fail to meet the demands of a dynamic, modern economy with an expanding population.

We know what the problems are. We have the knowledge to solve them. It was Einstein who said that imagination is more important than knowledge. And unless we take bold and imaginative initiatives we will not solve those problems.

We are a liberal party. Indeed, it is a remarkable fact that we are the only party in Dáil Éireann which does not claim to have leftward leanings or socialist sympathies of some kind.

And as a liberal party we totally reject the right-wing racism which has poisoned politics in so many other countries. We have sought to implement a reasonable and responsible immigration policy in government.

And let there be no mistake about it: the Progressive Democrats are a radical party, and will always be a radical party. We are in the business of driving change and have been ever since our foundation 17 years ago.

Look at our track record. Look at the whole range of issues on which we have driven change - tax reduction, tax reform, the promotion of competition, abolition of the death penalty, the treatment purchase fund, clean air legislation, taxi deregulation, the introduction of the carer's allowance.

The arrival of the Progressive Democrats has made coalition the norm in Ireland. Every government elected since 1989 has been a coalition. And the voters decided last May that coalition would remain the norm for the foreseeable future.

Great progress was made in the last few years but there is no room for complacency. Full employment has been our greatest achievement in government and we must work hard to secure it. But we will only keep Ireland at full employment if we can keep Ireland competitive. And that will require hard choices, not soft options.

We must squeeze inflation out of the system. We must end the rip-off culture which seeks to fleece the consumer. We must open up whole new areas of the Irish economy to the forces of competition.

Everybody gained from competition in the airline market. Everybody gained from competition in the phone market. Why shouldn't everybody gain too from competition at the airports and competition on the buses?

Too many sectors of our economy are shielded from market realities by outdated laws, by restrictive practices, by anti-competitive activities. It is time to redress the balance in favour of consumers.

My top departmental priority is to deliver real reform in the Irish insurance market.

High insurance costs are a huge burden on household budgets. They are hampering the work of voluntary organisations. They are forcing young drivers off the road. And they are crippling small businesses and putting jobs at risk.

We are implementing the most comprehensive reform programme ever in the Irish insurance market. Costs are being reduced. New legislation will crack down on fraudulent and exaggerated claims. Anti-competitive practices in the industry will be investigated and eliminated.

A modern economy needs a modern transport system. This is a small country. It is not densely populated. Congestion should not be a problem but it is.

The ready availability of land for affordable housing should not be a problem but it is. Regional imbalance should not be a problem but it is. And none of these things would be problems if we had a good transport system.

But roads alone will not solve the transport needs of a modern economy and a modern society. We need massive investment in railways too, particularly commuter rail networks.

But we will not deliver that investment unless we change the way we do business. We must reform institutions where that is needed. And we must embrace new role models where that is needed.

Why is it that on continental Europe they can plan major projects much more quickly than we can? Why is it that on continental Europe they can complete major rail projects so much faster than we can? And why is it that countries like France and Spain can build major rail projects for a fraction of the money we are told they will cost here? We must learn from Europe.

Decentralisation is an integral part of our strategy for regional development.This is the age of the Internet. Modern communications have transformed the business of government. They have transformed the delivery of public services. We no longer need to have so much government activity to be concentrated in Dublin.

As the Minister with responsibility for enterprise, I spend a lot of my time persuading companies to locate in the regions. This is one area where Government has to lead by example.

We have had discussions about decentralisation. We have had reports about decentralisation. But we have always seemed to be one report away from action.

I give you this commitment with regard to decentralisation. We will make a start this year. We will make it happen. We will get things moving.

A decent health service is one of the hallmarks of a decent and caring society.We are committed to building a good health system.

And if money could solve those problems they would be well solved by now. The budget was trebled in just six years. Funding levels were pushed up to and beyond the European average. As a result we are now spending €25 million a day on health. And yet the problems persist.

Yes, a great deal has been achieved. But we have not got anything like a satisfactory return on the investment which we have made in the health service.

Reform is needed and it is needed now. And make no mistake about this - reform means change. And change will affect everyone who is involved in the health service - health boards, politicians, consultants, clinicians and managers.

Political parties have to show that are relevant to the lives of people and responsive to the needs of people.

This party has succeeded over the last 17 years because we were both relevant and responsive.

The Progressive Democrats are in confident mood. We are in positive mood. We are in ambitious mood. We are there to make a difference.

We are there to make things happen. We are there to drive change for the benefit of the Irish people.

We have done it for 17 years, and I am confident that we can do it for another 17.