Last weekend, I visited Ireland to speak to the annual Summer School of Fine Gael’s youth wing. The location, located in the wet and wind-swept west of Ireland could not have been more appropriate. Tiny Lisdoonvarna is a single-industry town: billed as “the matchmaking capital of the world”, where suitable singles from around the world are paired up.
For although Britain and Ireland have known each other for centuries, our current relationship really is a new match. Relations between our countries – symbolised by the state visits of HM the Queen to Ireland in 2011 and the President of Ireland to the UK in 2014 – never been better. I could not be prouder to say that’s occurred under a Conservative government in the United Kingdom and Fine Gael government in the Republic of Ireland.
I was invited to speak to their party about how to win a second term in office. Fine Gael have never been re-elected to government in the party’s 82-year history. And having come to office in 2011, Fine Gael’s trying to make history in the general election that’s expected in early 2016.
The Republic of Ireland, of course, suffered horrendously during the recession. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs and unemployment hit an excruciating 15%. The stock market fell 80%: wiping off 14 years of gains under the Celtic Tiger. And in 2010, the budget deficit was a jaw-dropping 32% of GDP.
It was in that context that Fine Gael were elected to government, with the singular aim of restoring sanity to Ireland’s finances and stability to Ireland’s economy. Since 2011, Enda Kenny and David Cameron have pursued similar paths, making the tough decisions that were required to turn our countries around.*
And when you listen to Kenny talk, you can hear almost identical messages. Not repeating the mistakes of the past. Giving people the dignity that comes with having a job. Spreading growth across all regions. He’s even referred to a choice between ‘competence over chaos’. Like in the British election, the spectre of Gerry Adams causing chaos looms large.
Despite that, it’s not a foregone conclusion that we’d be allied parties. From afar, the first thing you’re told about Irish politics is that it’s not about ideas or ideologies. It’s about pavement politics on an intergenerational scale – “Your Grandda fixed my Grandda’s potholes, so I’ll vote for you.”
But in Lisdoonvarna, that could not have been less the case. At the heart of their Summer School is a series of debates on policy issues that matter to their members: from government spending to supporting Israel to abortion (well, it is Ireland, after all). And although I’m not going to pretend I understand the debate about the Angelus (as I said – it is Ireland), it was a really great sight to see.
Here, in one of the least ideological countries on earth, young people were debating issues passionately, forthrightly, and maturely: reminding people why they care about politics and giving them a chance to put forward why they’re part of their party. That’s a really valuable part of being involved in politics. Young people are really captured by the battle of ideas, and the sense of belonging that comes from that debate, discussion, and discourse is a really valuable contribution to Young Fine Gael’s life as an organisation.
Although Fine Gael and the Conservatives sit in different groups in the European Parliament, due to our differing policies on the EU, we are otherwise sister parties. Throughout its history, Fine Gael has been the party of free enterprise and free markets, fiscal rectitude and responsible spending, law and order, and peaceful reconciliation with the UK. Hopefully, those shared values mean our bonds between us as parties will strengthen, too – whether between our Prime Ministers or our youth wings.
I hope, too, that we can rekindle some of Young Fine Gael’s passion for politics and commitment to our ideas. Without them, we can’t keep people engaged, and we won’t make the most of the five more years in government that the Conservatives have won and that the Irish people dearly need Fine Gael to secure next year.
* So close are they that in the run-up to last year’s European election, Cameron even suggested Enda Kenny as an alternative to Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission. Almost anyone would have been better than Juncker, but Kenny would have been an indispensable ally.