Speech by Mairead McGuinness MEP, Vice-President, European Parliament, at the Young Fine Gael National Conference
Young Fine Gael in Europe and the youth scene in Europe
Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, Ireland, November 26, 2016
Taoiseach, Tánaiste, Minister for Health, President of YFG, Myra Barry, former FG TD. Delegates and friends from YEPP.
You have set the scene for the next two hours of this primetime session of your conference.
Young Fine Gael celebrates its 40th birthday shortly. As a political organisation you should be looking forward to turning 40.
It is a great age… I remember it well!
It’s an age when maturity and confidence sets in – but not complacency.
It is an age when many achieve great things, freed from the anxiety of the twenties and the burdens of the thirties.
It is an age when you might ‘know where you are going’ and even how you might get there!
I stood for my first election in political life at 45. It was my best decision ever, even if it was not an easy transition from commentary as a journalist to the very real world of politics.
In today’s evolving landscape, opinion is now masquerading as politics and everyone is their own journalist.
The man who had a vision to establish a youth organisation, former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, would be very proud that his vision is still alive and vibrant.
In reviewing the Fine Gael organisation when Dr Fitzgerald took over as leader of the party in 1977, he came up with the idea of establishing a youth organisation, where young people with an interest in politics, society and community could come together; not to accept and build on the status quo, but rather to challenge and to kick the system.
And you have done that down through your 40 years.
Initially there were 100 branches, today there are over 4000 members.
Of course, YFG has a cut off point for membership – in at 16 and out by 35. A sufficient span of years to give the organisation a vibrancy and strength.
You are a political organisation founded on the core values and principles of Fine Gael.
You have challenged Irish society,
You have challenged Fine Gael,
You have been a force for change.
You have helped shape the European agenda, through your role in the Youth of the European People’s Party.
You are a symbol of what people of conviction can achieve, if there is a will, an organisation and persistence.
In Young Fine Gael all of these important qualities have not been found wanting.
In 1977, I was in my first year in UCD (University College Dublin).
Irish society was beginning to debate issues and questions which we had up to then refused to acknowledge or deal with.
The Late Late Show, presented by Gay Byrne – and we wish Gay well as he deals with his recent illness – was beginning to awaken Irish society.
Before there is change, there must be debate.
How quaint, that in 1977 when you were being born, television, radio and newspapers were the agents of information, debate and change.
Today, they are only one small part of that, as social media in all its many forms shapes opinion, attitudes and ideas. And sometimes, knits its own “facts”.
The concept of “fake news” is something I find hard to get my head around.
We used to call it “lies”.
Ireland was a troubled place in the 1970s.
Violence in North Ireland continued unabated.
Inflation was on the rise, as was the budget deficit.
Cuts in public spending were necessary as the coalition government governed.
We had joined the Common Market in 1973, along with the United Kingdom and Denmark.
Earlier in the 1970s, two amendments to the Constitution were passed, lowering the voting age to 18 and removing the reference to the ‘special position’ of the Catholic Church.
The marriage bar persisted until 1973, with women forced to give up their jobs in the public and civil service upon marriage.
But Ireland was also an exciting place, as change was in the air and political debates raged on many of the big questions which no longer exercise us.
Enough about YFG and Ireland, what about YFG and Europe?
It is fair to say that your organisation has been a powerful force in European Politics.
Our party, Fine Gael, was a founding member of the European People’s Party in 1976.
And Young Fine Gael, a founding member of the Youth of the European People’s Party in 1997.
YEPP has developed into the largest political youth organisation in Europe.
It consists of over 50 centre right youth political organisations, extending beyond the borders of the EU into over 35 countries.
As you mark your 40th birthday next year, YEPP will turn 20.
The importance of a youth organisation at EU level cannot be overemphasised.
And I again acknowledge the members of YEPP who have come here to Galway to join the debates.
Earlier today your International Committee addressed the key challenges facing Europe and the world, from migration, to terrorism, to populism.
The founding vision of YFG and YEPP:
- A more open, inclusive society
- A more outward looking vision
- And an economically strong country, based on the social market economy…
…may be under threat.
Today, member states are beginning to look inwards.
Citizens are fearful:
- of migration;
- of terrorist attacks;
- of economic insecurity;
- of unemployment or insecurity in the workforce;
- of globalisation;
- of trade.
One member state, our closest neighbour, the United Kingdom, has decided to leave the European Union after over 40 years of membership.
We can debate how it happened and argue about how things might have been handled differently, but all we can do now is prepare for Brexit – easier said than done, as membership of the European Union is so much part of the fabric and DNA of member states that unpicking the relationship is a mammoth task, with serious consequences for the UK, for the EU and for Ireland. In particular, as our economies, our peoples and our territories are so strongly linked.
In this challenging, uncertain environment, we must and you must keep the vision of an inclusive outward looking Ireland and Europe to the fore.
Therefore, the role of YFG in Europe through YEPP is more important than ever before. At a time when extreme views prevail, it can be hard for the centre to hold – but hold we must.
Yet young people in Europe are allowing their voices to be drowned out.
In the last European elections in 2014, the turnout of young voters was 28pc, compared with an overall turnout of 43pc.
And this against a backdrop where survey after survey shows that young people – young Europeans – are more positive about the European Union than older citizens.
Positive but not pro-active in securing the Union.
All throat and no vote?
Democracy, liberal democracy is under threat…commenting about its demise on Facebook, Twitter, online is rattling its very roots, but it is in the ballot box where we ultimately give politics a direction.
Staying away is not an option, if you really care about your community, your country and your Europe.
Today we are talking about advancing the vision.
But today there is a real possibility of the vision being reversed as nationalism, nativism, and populism take hold.
It is not enough to dismiss those with extreme views. It is important to understand the roots of their support base and the dangers these movements pose to our futures.
The mantra of “take back control”, “better off on our own”, “keep foreigners out” is strong and effective.
The emotional arguments persuaded 52pc of UK voters to choose to leave the European Union. One of the voices calling for Brexit said it represented a victory for “ordinary people, decent people, real people…”, painting those 48pc who voted to stay in the EU as none of the above – neither ordinary, nor decent or real.
The result of the UK referendum has emboldened those who seek to destabilise the European Union and to eventually destroy it.
You face a huge responsibility and a challenge to convince our societies of the dangers that lie ahead and of the importance of a strong European Union in the wake of the many challenges we face near our borders and further afield.
The best way to make sure the vision survives is to recommit to it.
Equally dismissing those who challenge the EU as being unfit for purpose is not a solution.
We need to understand the forces at work, economic, cultural and socia,l which cause people to vote for populism and its clear, simplistic messages.
We need to acknowledge that facts alone will not convince people to steer clear of the populist extremes. Emotions matter in our conversations and our convictions.
Traditional political parties and policies are challenged by this trend.
At the heart of the problem is a loss of trust in existing and established institutions from the Church, to banks, to political parties.
Today, being a member of a political party can be a disadvantage – all of us in this room will be disparagingly referred to as elites, as part of the establishment – part of the problem.
The language of political debate has always been fierce, but in recent times it has grown more coarse and aggressive. There is no debate, there is abuse.
In this climate we must defend our core values of democracy, freedom, respect for the law and human dignity.
We also have to acknowledge that technology has transformed the world we live in.
And that the world is going through a politically troubling phase.
These may be linked.
The world of work is changing. A job for life is neither possible not expected anymore. Precarious work is on the rise.
We need and you must be part of that debate to fully understand the impact of these rapid developments on our societies and to come up with policies that address them.
It is precisely because we do not have all the answers that parties of the centre are seeing support leak away to extreme views on the right and left, a fertile ground for clarity of opinions, few of them palatable but attractive to some in an uncertain world.
We cannot join that race to the bottom where our fundamental values get cast aside.
Instead we have to stand up for those values in the wake of a storm of hostility and criticism.
And young people must be part of this conversation because your futures are being shaped by the political climate we live in today and your children will live through the future which will unfold from this uncertainty.
Our political leaders face tough times.
But sometimes when we face the abyss, we are forced to respond.
Brexit can kill or cure the EU – it is our choice. I believe that, notwithstanding the upset and regret at the outcome of the UK vote, the EU is standing firm and united, respecting the outcome of the referendum and waiting to open the exit negotiations.
The ball in is the court of the UK to kick-start those negotiations.
But the EU stands firm on the four principles – the four freedoms.
We are in for some tough talking. Last week I pointed out to the UK Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, that Ireland’s position in these talks is firmly within the EU27 and the many issues of concern to Ireland will be negotiated in that context.
The European Parliament will play an important part in that process. But as An Taoiseach Enda Kenny pointed out, reaching agreement within the two year timetable may be impossible – with all of the consequences that poses for our future.
It would be highly regrettable if the 2019 elections to the European Parliament were dominated by the unfinished business of Brexit. We need to begin looking forward, not backwards.
We need to find solutions to the big challenges, including climate change.
And this is where you come in.
Forty years ago you began asking questions, challenging, analysing and proposing.
We have come through decades where rights of citizens were articulated, debated for, and improved. Maybe in today’s challenging and ever changing world, we need to start a conversation about responsibilities to ourselves, our communities, our country and to the European Union.
Next year, as you mark your 40th birthday, we will also celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome.
It will be a time to celebrate the achievement of the EU over the 60 years.
It will be an opportunity to recommit to the European ideals, the values held dearly by our political family, the European People’s Party.
It will also be a time to acknowledge that business as usual will not deliver, that the status quo cannot prevail and should not prevail.
Our world is threatened by climate change and by many conflicts. Our societies are fearful, even if the fears are often unfounded. Political forces are capitalising on those fears, fuelling them and presenting the option of the nation state as the solution – when clearly it is not.
The big challenges of climate change, terrorism, migration, food security, environmental degradation cannot be tackled by any one country operating on its own.
As the UK may find out, working together is what makes us stronger, better people. And in a global world the only way to get things done is to talk, to negotiate and to compromise.
To do that we need institutions and structures – like the EU Commission, the Council and Parliament.
These may need reform, but they cannot be done without if we are to achieve a better, more sustainable Europe, where resources and wealth are more fairly distributed.
It is what the EU is all about. It is a work in progress and young Irish, young Europeans must now take the responsibility to build, not destroy.