Address to Association of Irish Local Government

Minister for European Affairs, Thomas Byrne

15 September 2022

Councillors, Ladies and Gentlemen, A Chairde,

It is particularly fitting that today’s conference should take place in Meath.

In a speech in Strasbourg, President Mary Robinson equated the Council of Europe to the mythical ‘fifth province’ or ‘cúige’ of Ireland.

It was, she said, a place that allows us to be open to ‘‘the other’’.

A symbol of tolerance, inclusivity and empathy.

A ‘‘meeting point between East and West, the centre of humanist values’’.

Of course, Meath was long ago this island’s fifth province, seat of Ireland’s High King.

With Colm O’Rourke here, I feel we’re in the company of Gaelic royalty again today!

And I can confidently say that at this gathering, the values Mary Robinson alluded to – a commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law - are on clear display.

Meath is fitting for another reason – it inspired the logo of Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of Europe, which I see gracing many of your lapels.

The logo echoes the spiral motifs found at Newgrange.

Spirals that are found at other Neolithic sites across the continent, reflecting our shared and ancient European heritage.

Another part of that heritage, although far more recent, is our shared commitment to democracy and human rights, to that mythical ‘cúige’.

That commitment is why Ireland was one of the founding members of the Council of Europe in 1949, in the wake of the Second World War.

And why we have taken up the Presidency of the Council for the seventh time this year.

I congratulate the Association of Irish Local Government, in particular Liam Kenny, the Executive Committee, Cllr Jimmy Moloney and the rest of our delegation to the Council’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, for their active promotion of our Presidency throughout this year, and for the success of today’s seminar.

In fact, Liam is the longest serving delegation secretary of all 46 delegations at the Congress – no small feat!

I know that he was in the role the last time Ireland held the Presidency in 2000.

And, given his energy and enthusiasm, I suspect he will be going strong when we next take the chair a quarter century from now.

Liam and his small team are responsible for framing today’s conference around our Presidency’s priorities.

Because he understands that, in Strasbourg, as in Trim, all politics is local.

And that local politics and democracy are at the core of the Council of Europe.

Twice a year, the Council’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities convenes local and regional representatives from all 46 Members States.

Together, they ensure that the European Charter of Local Self-Government, which protects the rights of local authorities, is applied throughout the continent.

Ensuring that, from Reykjavik to Rome, from Cork to Kyiv, Europe’s citizens shape their communities.

That they feel they have a stake in wider society.

And that democracy is delivering for them.

Reflecting this commitment to the local, our Government has ensured Ireland’s Presidency programme has been spread across the country.

Already, we’ve held important conferences in Cork, Kerry, Galway, Donegal, and Dublin.

After today then, we’ve hit each of the five provinces!

A particular highlight of the calendar was the meeting of the Council of Europe’s Congress Bureau in Tralee, hosted by the AILG and Kerry County Council.

I would like to thank Cllr Jimmy Moloney for his work on that visit. And for doing such a fine job in leading Ireland’s delegation to the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.

After the past few months of Liam’s championing of the Council of Europe, I’m sure that when applications for our next delegation to the Congress open, his inbox will be flooded!

A chairde,

As you’ve heard today, our Council Presidency has set out to renew ‘the conscience of Europe’ at a time when Europe has seldom needed its conscience more.  

Within that framework, we have had three key priorities.

First, as a founding state of the Council of Europe, we are working to reaffirm ‘Our Founding Freedoms’, reinforcing human rights protection for civilians across Europe.

Second, drawing from our national experience, including with Citizens’ assemblies, we are promoting participatory democracy and, above all, the engagement of young people in the democratic process.

Finally, under the rubric of ‘Fáilte’ and, again, drawing on our own experience of societal change, we are striving to foster a Europe of welcome, inclusion, and diversity.

You Councillors live these three priorities throughout your daily work.

In particular, I want to commend your efforts to ensure that Ukrainians displaced by this cold and callous war find a warm welcome in your communities.

In this, you and those you represent are championing the values of openness and inclusion the Council of Europe represents.

I thank you all for the passion you bring, each and every day, to serving the Irish people.

To ensuring that, a century on from our state’s independence, the flame of democracy continues to burn bright.

I want to pay tribute again to those honoured this evening with the AILG long service award.

As you may know, my own father, Tommy, served for almost thirty years on Louth County Council.

From him, I know the dedication the job takes.

The long winter evenings spent in committee rooms.

The weekends devoted to calling on constituents.

Or to writing letters to local Ministers.

I know how hard the job can be.  

But I also know how rewarding it is to be at the core of your community.

To know you are making a difference in peoples’ lives. 

A chairde,

Members of all political parties and none have gathered here in Trim today.

Politically, we have our differences.

And, whether in the Dáil or Council Chamber, we have our disagreements too.

But we are all proud Irish citizens.  

And we are all committed democrats.

It is therefore fitting that this seminar, where we reflect on the value of county and city councils, should take place today, the International Day for Democracy.

Another proud Irishman, another committed democrat, John F Kennedy, said of democracy that it is ‘‘Never a final achievement… it is a call to untiring effort.’’

It is through your untiring effort, friends, that our communities thrive locally.

That our democracy is renewed nationally.

And that our values – the values of the cúige – are reaffirmed and protected internationally.

Know that your efforts are recognised.

By Government, yes.

But, more importantly, by the citizens you serve. 

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.