Sunday 25 August 2019

Tax cuts... and more tax cuts : Five main points from Taoiseach Varadkar's first National Conference speech

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

FROM tax cuts to robots, Leo Varadkar has given a wide-ranging first speech to the Fine Gael faithful at their National Conference.

His big moment was moved forward by 24 hours amid fears very few would tune in if he went head to head with the Republic of Ireland’s World Cup Qualifier against Denmark on Saturday.

Around 1,500 Fine Gael members, including the Cabinet, applauded the much anticipated speech in the Slieve Russell Hotel in Cavan.’s Political Editor Kevin Doyle breaks down the five key themes from the 30-minute speech.

1. All About Leo

Mr Varadkar reflected heavily on his election as party leader last June and how "there was an understandable focus around the world about what that said about the Ireland of today...

"How the son of a father from India and a mother from Co. Waterford – without any family or political connections - rose to become the leader of the largest party in the state.

"What it said about our respect for diversity, our disregard for prejudice, our willingness to see people as individuals, and our fundamental fairness as a people.

"I also took something more from it.  It told me what my mission must be as leader and as Taoiseach."

He said Fine Gael has "never been, and never will be, a party of privilege."

"So, as Taoiseach, I am conscious of the enormous responsibility that I now hold.  And that’s why - every day - I think about giving everybody the same opportunities and chances in life that I had.  It is what inspires and drives me forward in my work," he said. 

2. Work, Pay And Taxation

"This Government is on your side," the Taoiseach said in the build up to a section of his speech that is most likely to grab the headlines.

He listed out what he sees as a series of achievements by Fine Gael over recent years including: balancing the national books, reducing income tax, restoring public sector pay, giving more benefits to the self-employed and increasing the minimum wage.

Mr Varadkar noted that three in 10 earners are no longer in the tax net and the Government is now turning its focus to middle income families.

"It’s not fair that people on middle incomes pay income tax at the highest rate," he said.

"That means the State takes almost 50pc of everything you earn above that threshold, including any overtime you get, any pay increase you earn, or any extra hours you work.  

"That’s not fair, and we’re going to change it."

The Taoiseach then promised: "Fine Gael believes in rewarding work.  So in the budget we raised the standard cut-off point, and we will do so again in the next one -  and the one after that - and the one after that."

The party’s ‘confidence and supply’ agreement which sees Fianna Fáil facilitate the passage of budgets is due to expire next October.

3. The Robots Are Coming

Obviously inspired by his recent visit to Silicon Valley, Mr Varadkar struck an unusual note in his speech by saying Ireland "must prepare for major changes that are coming".

"Robotics, artificial intelligence, driverless vehicles, renewable energy and smart grids will change our world in the next 20 years in the way the internet and mobile phones did in the last. 

"Ireland should be an early adopter of these new technologies,”" he said.

The Taoiseach pointed to the new National Development Plan which sets out how the State will spend €100bn over the next decade.

"That plan will build an Ireland that is future-proofed: balanced regional development, climate action, quality of life, continued capacity to grow, making Dublin the tech capital of Europe," he said.

4. Brexit Bites

Fine Gael say it’s no accident that they chose Cavan for their annual conference.

Standing just four miles from the border Mr Varadkar it "brings home to us the need to ensure that the free movement of people, goods and services on this island is protected."

"A shared space is not a lost space.  So on this island, let’s build bridges, not borders."

He repeated that there can be "no return" to a border and claimed European presidents and prime ministers have shown "considerable support for the challenges we face."

"And tonight, I want to reassure all border communities that we are listening to you, we hear your concerns, and we promise you that we will safeguard your rights, and all that we have achieved."

Mr Varadkar said four times in our history Ireland took a different path from the UK: In 1921 we became independent, in 1948 when we became a Republic, in 1979 when we broke from sterling and in 2011 when we joined the Euro.

"There may be tough calls and hard decisions ahead. But one thing is certain. Ireland will always remain at the heart of the common European home we helped to build," he said.

5. A Nod To John Halligan And The Women Of Ireland

It’s been quite the week for the Independent Alliance members of government and in particular John Halligan whose plan to travel to North Korea exploded after he landed himself in a sexism row.

Leo Varadkar didn’t mention either controversy in his speech – but did give a subtle nod to both. He said Fine Gael’s "major strength" is their ability to work "so well with our partners, the Independent Alliance and Independent Ministers".

"Without them, we could not achieve what we have achieved in the past year.  

"I thank them for it and assure them of our commitment to making this government work and making it last," he said.

In relation to the place of women in society, he said: "In 2018 as we mark the centenary of women getting the vote, and the election of Constance Markievicz to parliament, it is high time that we had equal pay for equal work, and equality of opportunity in all things."

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