Martin brands Fine Gael ‘out-of-touch’ elites at ardfheis

Fianna Fáil leader tells members Taoiseach has initiated ‘big move to right’ by Fine Gael

Irish Times political reporter Sarah Bardon talks to Fianna Fáil members about preparing for a general election at the party's ardfheis in Dublin.

 

Fine Gael and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar are “out-of-touch” elites who are seeking to divide Irish society, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has claimed.

Mr Martin used the keynote leader’s address at the Fianna Fáil ardfheis to attack Mr Varadkar and cast his own party as one that would never seek to divide Irish society.

“Their biggest priority has been a push for a more divisive and regressive tax policy,” Mr Martin said of Mr Varadkar’s move to raise the threshold at which people enter the higher rate of income tax.

“And no interest in tackling the deep problems in public services.”

The speech emphasised a theme repeatedly used over the weekend by speakers at the ardfheis, as Fianna Fáil figures attempt to paint Mr Varadkar’s Fine Gael as a right-wing counterpoint to their message of “fairness”.

On the Taoiseach’s stated goal of representing those who get up early in the morning, Mr Martin said: “Only an out-of-touch elite could have come up with the idea of trying to divide society into those who get up early in the morning and everyone else.”

Recent months have seen a “big move to the right by Fine Gael”, he claimed.

“I’m sorry, but we will never accept labelling the sick, pensioners, children with special needs, people with disabilities or people looking for a home as being less entitled to society’s support.

“The decision by Fine Gael to head off on this new divisive road is more about positioning for an election than trying to govern.

“And they’re not the only ones – off on the left the message is that more tax and more spending is the answer to everything. They claim that the people who create jobs and who we rely on to build a strong enterprise economy can be squeezed more and more.

“What the other parties just don’t understand is that it is the duty of a government to work for all of the people – not just a targeted few.

“We will never accept the attempt to divide our society into winners and losers – into the deserving and the dependent. Our country is better than that.”

In the confidence-and-supply deal Fianna Fáil agreed with Fine Gael, Mr Martin claimed his party “stopped the worst of the unfair and regressive policies of Fine Gael”.

“We believe there is a duty to be constructive. So we reached a limited agreement, based on our core priorities and this ensured that the Dáil met its first duty – putting a government in place.”

The agreement allowed Fianna Fáil work for higher pension and social welfare payments, as well as cuts to the Universal Social Charge and investment in public services such as health, housing, and schools.

“And of course we delivered the end of the unfair, loss-making fiasco of water charges,” he added. But the Cork South-Central TD said this did not mean Fianna Fáil was happy “with this Government or that we can achieve anything close to our full programme”.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Spin and communications

The change of leadership in Fine Gael has actually made things worse, he argued. As well as the alleged lurch to the right, there is now an emphasis on spin and communications, Mr Martin claimed. He criticised Mr Varadkar’s new special communications unit, which was allocated €5 million in the budget.

“He has appointed no expert to advise on health, or housing, or Brexit or any other of the most urgent problems – but he has an entire team to shoot videos to sell his image.

“To them the challenge is to get people listening to government – but to us the urgent need is for a government which is listening to the people.” He said Fianna Fáil rejects Fine Gael’s “divisive politics”.

“We believe our country is only strong when we work together. When we look after our weakest citizens. When we see enterprise and public services as reinforcing each other – not competing.”

He claimed Fianna Fáil had used its influence to make budgets more “progressive”.

“The Taoiseach himself repeatedly pushed for the core of the budget to be a major tax cut weighted so that the greatest benefit would go to the highest earners. We ensured that every taxpayer will benefit from a cut in USC.”

Fianna Fáil, he said, wants “a radical programme on homelessness, building social and affordable housing and giving people the chance to rent or buy a decent home at an affordable price” and a “public health system that is accessible to all”.

On Brexit, Mr Martin said: “Ireland will not be following Boris [Johnson] and his self-obsessed Brexiteers on their path of destruction.”

“In the spirit of the great generation which inspired our independence, Ireland is a positive, outward-looking European nation.

“We can only meet and overcome the threat of Brexit if we have clear leadership – and this is something we are not seeing.”