In recent weeks, I had hoped to be delivering this convention speech from a crowded Aviva Stadium but the growing number of Covid cases meant that we switched back to this online format.
As you will know, the situation has grown more serious in recent days, with the emergence of a new variant of concern. Though worrying, I want to assure you that we will do everything necessary to stop the spread of this new strain.
I know the TV news bulletins might be alarming but please remember that there are several reasons to remain hopeful. While the new variant may prove to be more contagious, our best scientists expect that the vaccines will still provide us with protection. What we need to do now is to accelerate the booster programme here at home and ensure the whole world gets access to vaccines at urgent speed. The only way to stop this disease in its tracks it to have a co-ordinated global approach.
Anti-viral drugs are also coming on stream which will stop the progression of the disease among those who contract it. This will keep thousands of people out of our hospitals and ICU wards. As a nation we have already shown that we are up to the challenge of stopping the spread of this virus.
We will have to do so again now while making sure we keep our schools and colleges open. Young people have lost so much from the isolation of the last 18 months. We know that in the end we will have to learn to live with Covid, pending a successful global eradication campaign. Doing so means allowing people to enjoy a normal social life because that too is vital for our health and well-being.
Despite the limitations caused by covid, I am proud of the work our party is doing at a local, national and international level. At a time when good Government was needed, we were willing to stand up and get involved. Of course, it required learning from mistakes and being flexible as the virus evolves but I think international comparisons will ultimately show that Ireland came together, and we did well in protecting both lives and livelihoods during this trying time.
This has been a period of profound change. Emerging trends in online learning and remote working have accelerated to the point where there will be no going back. The likely source of the virus from trade in wildlife has shown the risks that come from undermining our natural world. Staying at home also taught us lessons about the importance of our local environment. It is also a time of profound change because we know this is the critical decade if we are to stop climate change and restore our natural systems.
Like other green colleagues in Europe, we could not walk away once given a mandate to play our part in taking on these challenges. I look back on what we have done over the last year and it gives me confidence as to what can be achieved in the next.
I am proud of the work my colleague Minister Catherine Martin has done in standing up for the arts and cultural sectors through these hard times. She goes into next year ready to roll out a Basic Income pilot scheme for artists, which could transform how we value and promote creative, cultural and caring work.
I saw similar strength from Minister Roderic O’Gorman, who had the hard task of responding to the commission report on mother and baby homes. He stuck to the task by ensuring survivors will have access to their own records, which they so dearly wanted. He doubled the level of recommended funding to be given as restitution for past wrongs and delivered radical change, so all adopted people now have the right to get proper access to their birth information. We go into the new year determined to tackle the injustices that still exist in our world today. This involves putting an end to direct provision and allowing thousands of undocumented people who have settled in our country the chance to call it their rightful home.
Pippa Hackett took over her role in the Department of Agriculture at a time when our forestry system was also in real crisis. While it was not easy, we can already see that she is turning things around. Next year will be the start of a radical change in Irish farming, as we devise new ways to pay farmers more for nature-based solutions, which only they have the skills to deliver.I was also glad that Minister Ossian Smyth was in place when the cyber-attack hit our health service last May. He happened to have the right digital skills to know what needed to be done and what had to be communicated, at a time of real crisis management.
I am looking forward to him delivering our new circular economy plans next year, including a deposit and return scheme by next autumn, where people get paid for bringing back empty bottles and cans. For those of us of a certain age it is like going back to the future. Again, it will be an example of the real change that can be delivered in Government.
I am similarly proud of the work that Minister Joe O’Brien is doing to ensure that poverty reduction and community development is central to the new economy. In each of the two budgets agreed with our coalition partners we were able to make sure that those on lowest incomes were protected most. Joe is now helping roll out a new programme financed by the Climate Action fund, which will support local community groups making their own low carbon transition.
In the last budget Minister Malcolm Noonan was also able to get better funding for our national parks and wildlife and heritage services, which had been neglected for years. Next year he will deliver the legislation to turn 30% of our sea areas into marine protected areas, which will be the biggest nature restoration project in the history of the state.
These are just a fraction of the many things we have achieved over the last year – and there is much, more on its way.
We were centrally involved in drafting the housing for all strategy and will help deliver it now through both local and central Government.
We have introduced new means of measuring progress in our country, taking into account quality of life indicators and well-being indices and not just figures for economic growth.
Next year we will introduce citizens assemblies, asking how we can strengthen local democracy, restore biodiversity, and devise new national drugs policies which put health care rather than the criminal justice system at the centre of our approach.
We will continue to work as an all-island Party, making sure that Brexit does not tear our island apart and we look forward to working with our German Green colleagues, if they decide to take on their new role at the centre of the largest country in Europe.
There is one other project which will of course define what we have to do in the next year and every year thereafter. It is to halve our greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050.
That is what the science says we must do, if we are to avoid runaway climate change. It is the ambition at the centre of our programme for Government. As Mary Robinson says, it is the one target that is non-negotiable.
I was proud to represent our country and the European Union at some of the climate negotiations that took place in Glasgow two weeks ago.
The last-minute concessions on the phase out of coal were deeply disappointing but that should not distract from the fact that the world is doubling down on the commitments made in the Paris Climate agreement. There was not a single country in Glasgow which said we should not be following the scientific advice. There was a growing sense of momentum that if you are not part of delivering the climate solutions we need, then you will be left behind.
Now, I know there are some people at home who may not share the Green Party’s passion for climate action and who wonder whether it’s all worth it. There are other older but not wiser heads who continue to argue that Ireland should just hang back and let other countries do the hard work. I’ve heard people say it’s too expensive and we should be concentrating on other things. It is time for us to put all those false narratives to bed.
For those listening at home, let me say that the risk isn’t from taking action – the real risk is from standing back and doing nothing at all. For this new green economy is the one that is emerging across the world. It is an inevitable transition because under business as usual, the world will simply burn. The only question is do we want to change now, or do we want to wait to try and catch up later when it will cost us much, much more.
It is a transition requiring such scale and speed that it needs every person and every place to be involved, which is one of the reasons we have to make sure it is a just transition.
We must make sure no community is left behind. Our security will only be assured when our neighbours also feel safe and warm in their own homes.
Across the world, both businesses and ordinary, everyday people are releasing that the time is now to take action.
The great thing is that most of these changes are worth doing anyway.
For far too long the debate around climate change has fixated on what it would cost or what we need to cut out, or to ban. Today, I want you to think about the Ireland we can create if we go about things in a cleaner and more sustainable way.
So, what does delivering this transition mean in a very practical way?
Well, in December we will start by introducing new rules, so households and farms and businesses can put solar panels on their roofs and sell their excess power back to the grid.
The same month will also see the introduction of a new vision for road safety, aiming for zero deaths on our roads. It will create a ‘safe system approach’ so that the priority is creating a safe environment for vulnerable road users.
We will spend a million euros on active travel every day to reverse the change that took place in my lifetime. When I went to school the majority made it on foot or by bike whereas for my sons and daughter’s era being driven there became the norm. Reversing that trend is going to be good for everyone. Less traffic congestion, healthier children and more freedom for their parents.
In the coming weeks, I will bring a proposal to Government to electrify the Maynooth rail line and to order 95 new battery electric train carriages for Irish Rail. In the following three months I will also bring the Bus Connects and Dublin Metro projects to Cabinet.
Rural Ireland is not being forgotten. Last month, we launched the “Connecting Ireland” bus scheme which will see more routes and better connectivity across our beautiful countryside.
We have the €35 billion promised in the National Development plan to roll out all these and many more public transport projects, along with a new emphasis on bypasses in our roads programme, to put out town centres first and restore their public realm.
We are also delivering high speed broadband to every part of the country, which can make remote working a viable reality.
In January we will launch a new national retrofit scheme, which will lower the cost of loans to improve houses and increase the grants to help people switch from old oil and gas boilers to better heat pump alternatives.
We will also introduce new clean air regulations, so that from next September there will be no sale of inefficient solid home heating fuels. It will be a vital part of saving some of the 1300 lives that are lost prematurely each year due to air pollution.
In the autumn we will also start our first auction for offshore wind, to make sure we double our renewable power by the end of the decade. This is only the start of our ambition. We will also be planning the use of floating offshore wind power to tap into the immense resources in the Atlantic ocean.
Converting that power to Hydrogen will bring industry to our ports and western shores. Using new underground and subsea cabling allows us ship power over long distances so our country has an income stream for ever and a day.
The time is now for Ireland to embrace these opportunities.
Forty years ago, the IDA made a bet that computers and information technology were the kind of businesses that Ireland needed to attract, and they were right.
Now, we need to take another look around at where the world is headed and understand that once more the world is changing and that Ireland needs to be brave and choose to be ahead of the curve.
We will create an Ireland of warmer homes, increased employment, and healthier families.
An Ireland, where it is safe for children to walk and cycle to school and public transport is frequent, affordable, and reliable.
An Ireland, where our homes are built near public services and we can enjoy vibrant town centres.
An Ireland where food production in in harmony with nature, where our rivers are pristine again and the air we breathe is clean and pure.
This isn’t all just aspiration by the way, we are already doing this.
We are world leaders at integrating renewable electricity and are well placed to deliver the solar and wind power we have in abundance.
We have agreed a National Development Plan which will allow us to deliver the greenways, bus corridors and new rail services our people want.
We are starting to ramp up the apprenticeships that will enable workers, young and old, to learn new skills to insulate and improve our homes.
We have a social partnership approach that brought industry and environmental campaigners together to agree a waste action plan we are now delivering.
We are talking the talk but increasingly we are walking the walk.
There are challenges ahead, of course. Will there be missteps along the way? Absolutely.
But we will learn as we go and we will emerge as a cleaner, greener, happier Ireland.
We can do this and we will.
The time is now.
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