Minister Simon Coveney Address to the Institute of International and European Affairs

Reaffirming the ‘Conscience of Europe’

10 May 2022

Thank you David.

In you and Marija, I’ve the honour of speaking today with the former Secretary General of the European Commission, and the current Secretary General of the Council of Europe. 

But let me start by quoting a third Secretary General.

From another vital organisation of which Ireland is a proud member.   

Once, at the height of the Cold War, following a debate between the two blocs at the UN, reporters surrounded Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, pressing for a comment.  

The Swedish diplomat was evasive - as Secretary Generals can sometimes be.

At length, the reporters grew exasperated at his replies.

“Could you say, at least,” one of them demanded, “whether the compass points left or right? East or West?”

Hammarskjold paused before replying.

“It points forward”, he said.

Today, amidst war in Ukraine, our continent, stands at a crossroads.

At such times, we should hold our compass close.

And orient ourselves by first principles.

Ireland’s compass is the multilateral system we have helped build.

Our first principles are democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

Principles first codified on this continent by the Council of Europe.

And promoted and protected by it still.

Fifty years ago, today, the Irish people voted to join what is now the European Union.

But a quarter century before we did so, we lived – and shaped – European values.

In London, in 1949, we were amongst the ten original signatories to the Statute that created the Council of Europe and the European Convention and Court of Human Rights.

It was on Ireland’s initiative that a commitment to ‘‘the pursuit of peace’’ was added to the preamble to the Statute. 

And it’s that ‘‘pursuit of peace’’ - and accountability for its violation - which occupies our minds today.

Secretary General Buric met my Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, in Kyiv yesterday. Dmytro was an Ambassador to the Council. And is a firm believer in its values.

Last month, I visited Bucha at his invitation.

Together, we saw the truth of what the Kremlin still calls its ‘‘special operations’’. 

Through rubble streets, we walked a flattened, blackened city.

We stood by trenches in which hundreds of innocents lay buried.

And listened to those who had survived the onslaught.

Mere months ago, the idea of such carnage unfolding on our continent seemed unthinkable.

Mere months ago, the pursuit of peace on which the Council of Europe is predicated seemed inviolable.

No longer.

The world has changed utterly.

The Conscience of Europe

On 20 May, at this point of profound challenge for our continent, Ireland takes the helm of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers for a seventh time.

In the same month we celebrate our 50th anniversary as an EU member, in the same year we serve on the UN Security Council, we are honoured to steer an institution that inspires not with examples of power, but with the power of example.

The Council has Court have long served as ‘‘the conscience of Europe’’.

And across our six-month Presidency term, our goal - working with the Secretary General and others - is to reaffirm that Conscience.

As Presidency, we will strive to serve the Council as it adjusts to the expulsion of one of its largest members.

And as it refocuses its resources to respond to the plight of another. 

Within this context, we will pursue three clear, complementary priorities.

Let me consider each in turn.    

Our Founding Freedoms

First, as a founding state, we will use our mandate to reaffirm the Council’s founding freedoms, renewing our focus on the protection of vulnerable civilians through the effective functioning of the European Court of Human Rights.

The Court is where the conscience of Europe truly lies.

We were the first state to accept its jurisdiction.

And we’ve always abided by it.

Through the decades, we’ve had our share of judgments.

Some were historic.

Several were, at their time, contentious.

But all were respected.

Accepting our state was in the wrong wasn’t always easy for Irish Governments.

It’s not easy for others today.

But it was always right.

Because a ruling ignored is a human right infringed.

And if we’re selective in applying the rule of law, rest assured, before long lawlessness will be the rule.

By protecting individuals’ rights, the judgments made by the Court, the standards set by the Council spurred our state to reform. And our society to evolve.

We need only look at the case Senator David Norris took to the European Court of Human Rights in 1988, which resulted in the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Ireland.

The joy our nation shared when the marriage equality referendum passed so resoundingly in 2016 can be traced to that Strasbourg courtroom.

To the bravery of Senator Norris.

And the barrister who represented him – our future President, Mary Robinson.

To the wisdom of the judges on that bench.

And the principles of the Convention they are bound to interpret – and we are committed to uphold.

I’m here today to speak of Strasbourg, not Stormont.

But, of course, the Convention forms a foundational part of the Good Friday Agreement also.

In the wake of the Troubles, the human rights obligations it guarantees were crucial in building and bolstering public confidence in policing and political structures across Northern Ireland.

They remain so today.

So let’s be clear - whatever the UK Government may consider in respect of its Human Rights Act, under the Good Friday Agreement, the protections guaranteed the people of Northern Ireland by the European Convention and Court of Human Rights must be retained and cannot be diluted.  

Hear Our Voices

In January, we marked the centenary of our state’s independence.

We understand how hard the struggle for democracy can be.

And how, being an act rather than a state, it must be renewed by each successive generation.

Our second Presidency priority is rooted in an abiding belief in the power of deliberative democracy and the necessity of youth participation.

The Council of Europe has long led in promoting the rights of children and youth, pioneering vital training and inclusion programmes across the continent.

Through our term, Ireland will draw on this expertise to engage with and listen to young voices, the future of our democracies.

In the face of rising illiberalism, we will draw from our national experience, above all with Citizens’ Assemblies, to promote participatory democracy.

And we will look to learn ourselves from others, recognising the Council of Europe’s critical role in setting standards that steer us along the path to progress.


Under the rubric of the Irish term Fáilte, our final priority will draw upon the changes our society has undergone since Ireland last held the Presidency in 2000, as we seek to foster a Europe of welcome, inclusion and diversity.

We now face the largest refugee crisis Europe has witnessed since the Second World War. Already, more people have fled Ukraine since February than live in our entire state.

The Council and its conventions affirm why we need to play our part in responding.

But, for the Irish people, this goes beyond politics or principle.

Our collective cultural memory understands what it means to be forced from home.

To arrive in distant land carrying little more than the clothes on our back.

For us, then, fáilte is less a greeting, perhaps, than a creed.

Already, we’ve welcomed over thirty thousand Ukrainians to our shores.

We will continue to, I know, for however long is needed.

But we recognise also the great challenges these tremendous flows of vulnerable people present to polities across Europe.

And the need for states to work with, and learn from, each other to protect all those who’ve sought shelter with us.

Ireland’s Presidency Programme

To further these three priorities, Ireland will make additional voluntary contributions of almost one million euro to the Council this year.

Across our six-month term, we will chair more than a dozen meetings of the Committee of Ministers in Strasbourg.  

Convene more than thirty conferences and seminars there and across Ireland.

We will invite the continent’s Justice Ministers to Dublin to strengthen European standards on combating Domestic, Sexual & Gender-Based Violence.

Gather scholars and policy makers in Galway to chart a path to enforcing the European Convention on Human Rights in areas of protracted conflict.

And decide on how, through Global education, our states can reinforce societal commitment to democracy.

We will do all this, and more, conscious of the great challenges facing our country, our continent and our Council of Europe.

But fully dedicated to addressing them, together.

And determined that, over our busy six-month Presidency term, our compass - Europe’s conscience - shall point, not left or right.

East or west.

But forward.