Meeting of the Standing Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
Address by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney TD, Chair of the Committee of Ministers
31 May 2022
President Kox, Deputy Secretary General Berge (Ber-yeh),
Senators, Deputies, Friends,
Fáilte go Baile Átha Cliath.
Welcome to Dublin.
The Standing Committee’s meeting is the first Presidency event in our capital.
But it’s not the first event in Ireland.
Last week, just after Tiny (Tee-nee), Björn and I left Turin, we opened our term with a conference promoting children’s participation in democracy.
Held in what some consider Ireland’s real capital – my home city of Cork.
Cork is home too to Nano Nagle Place, on whom President Kox last month bestowed the Council’s prestigious Museum Prize.
So let me start, Mr President, by commending you for your excellent judgment!
As we say around here, all politics is local.
And in this quarter of Dublin, all that’s local is politics.
On Westmoreland Street, our political history surrounds us.
Just outside is the great Henry Grattan, who brought parliamentary democracy to Ireland in 1782.
Across the Liffey stands Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator - who, over half a century, fought for the emancipation of Irish Catholics, then a religious minority in the British Empire. And, inspiring a young Frederick Douglass, campaigned himself tirelessly for abolition in America.
Finally, if you stroll a little further along the quays, you’ll meet a lady a quarter of a millennium years of age. Not Molly Malone. But the blindfolded Lady Justice, atop our Supreme Court.
Democracy. Human Rights. The Rule of Law.
These three statues embody the values that shape this city.
That animate our republic.
That are protected by the Council we now help steer.
And promoted by this Committee which it’s my honour today to address.
Fifty years ago the Irish people voted to join what is now the European Economic Community.
But a quarter century before we did so, we lived – and shaped – European values.
In London, in 1949, Ireland was amongst the ten original signatories to the Statute that created the Council of Europe.
It was on our 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.
With us today is Maria Mezentseva, a member of the Rada and a proud representative, I know, of her native Kharkiv.
Maria, you, above all others, are most welcome here today.
Last month, at the invitation of your colleague and my counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, a former Ambassador to the Council, I visited Ukraine.
Together, we saw the truth of what the Kremlin calls its ‘‘special operations’’.
In Bucha, we walked a flattened city.
Stood by trenches in which hundreds of innocents lay buried.
Listened to those who had survived the brutal onslaught.
When this Standing Committee last convened in Rome, the idea of such carnage on our continent was unthinkable.
As William Butler Yeats, a member of our Senate a century ago, had it: “All changed. Changed utterly”.
When the world changes, we must change with it.
Already, the Council of Europe has begun to do so.
The decision to expel Russia was unprecedented in the organisation’s 73-year history.
I regret that, through their actions, the Russian authorities have deprived the Russian people of the world’s most advanced human rights protections.
But the Kremlin’s disavowal of the Council’s values and commitments left no alternative.
I commend this committee and your colleagues across the Assembly for the conviction with which you acted in March.
And, critically, the unanimity with which you voted.
Here, we’ve always considered the Council ‘‘the conscience of Europe.’’
In expelling Russia, it has acted as such.
We now need to show the same conviction, the same conscience, in supporting Ukraine.
President Kox, your visit to Kyiv in early April was a vital affirmation of the Council’s deep commitment to Ukraine.
Commissioner Mijatović and Secretary General Burić’s visits this month were similarly important.
As is the revised Action Plan the Secretary General unveiled there.
As Presidency, Ireland will support and help fund its delivery.
Just as we will work tirelessly to ensure the sustainability of the Council’s budget over the coming years.
But this must only be the start.
The Council of Europe was founded in the wake of war on our continent.
And in the wake of war, it’s time for our Heads of State and Government to reconvene.
To reaffirm their shared commitment to Europe’s conscience.
To spur the EU’s ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights.
To write the next, peaceful chapter in our continent’s long history.
This afternoon, before you leave Dublin, many of you will visit Museum of Literature Ireland.
There you will see the first copy of Ulysses, our city’s great novel, written in Trieste, Zurich, and Paris, a century ago.
In Turin, with the pressures of the Presidency now behind him, and a long Italian summer ahead, I gifted Minister DiMaio a new Italian translation.
But I quoted there from another masterpiece.
Primo Levi was born in Turin, just as Joyce was finishing Ulysses.
An Auschwitz survivor, Levi’s life reminds us why this Council was established.
His final novel drew its title from an ancient rabbinical wisdom.
And, for me, it provides the best and only answer to those who question whether it’s time to convene a fourth summit.
If not now, when?
I know President Kox’s answer.
And I know my own.
In Turin, in statement after statement, I was heartened - as I know you were Mr President - to hear how very widely shared our conviction is.
As chair of the Committee of Ministers, I’m determined to build on this momentum.
We will support Secretary General Buric in swiftly establishing a group of eminent people to reflect on the Council’s future.
And encourage that group to conclude their deliberations and report as early as possible - in time, at least, for PACE’s October meeting.
Left to me, we would not delay that long.
But, while the PACE moves quickly – if you’ll forgive the pun – I know decisions elsewhere in Strasbourg can take time.
Given that, I recognise a summit may not be possible during our Presidency term.
But let me assure you, we will do all we can to ensure that one is, at least, confirmed and announced during it.
Because, as Tiny(Tee-nee) put it in Turin, ‘‘concrete action is needed now’’.
Not in twelve months’ or two years’ time.
And whether it be Kyiv, Reykjavik, Dublin, or Strasbourg, it matters not where our leaders meet.
What matters is that they meet.
Clearing the path to a fourth summit is but one of our Presidency objectives.
Across our six-month Presidency term, Ireland’s goal - working with the members of this Committee and others - is to reaffirm the Conscience of Europe.
Serving the Council as it adjusts to the expulsion of its largest member, and refocuses its resources to respond to the plight of another.
Within this context, we will pursue three clear, complementary priorities.
Let me end by reflecting on each in turn.
First, as a founding state, Ireland will use our mandate to renew what we consider the Council’s founding freedoms.
That means focusing on first principles – above all the protection of vulnerable civilians and minorities through the effective functioning of the European Court of Human Rights.
The Court is where the conscience of Europe truly lies.
Ireland was 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 rulings against our state was not always easy for Irish Governments.
It’s not easy for us, or others, today.
But it is 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 Strasbourg 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 2015 can be traced to that courtroom.
To the bravery of Senator Norris.
And the barrister who represented him – our future President, Mary Robinson.
It stemmed from the wisdom of the judges on that Strasbourg bench.
And, above all, perhaps, from the principles of the Convention they were bound to interpret – and we are committed to uphold.
We’re here today to discuss Strasbourg, not Stormont.
But I must add that the Convention has a special significance for this island. And indeed for our neighbouring island.
For it is an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement, our proudest, shared achievement.
In the wake of the Troubles, the human rights it guarantees were crucial in building and bolstering public confidence in policing and political structures across Northern Ireland.
With Brexit, they’re just as essential today.
I know that colleagues from Westminster are here today. And, as ever, you are most welcome.
Let us be clear, however - whatever the UK Government may consider by way of a future Bill of Rights, under the Good Friday Agreement, the protections guaranteed the people of Northern Ireland by the Convention and the Court must not be diluted.
Our concerns, unfortunately, are not limited to that proposal.
The Legacy Bill presented by the UK Government two weeks ago is similarly problematic.
To our reading, its compliance with human rights obligations under Article 2 of the Convention is doubtful.
That aside, as Commissioner Mijatović noted in assessing similar proposals last autumn, impunity and the absence of justice it risks proving a serious impediment to lasting peace and reconciliation.
As I told my British counterpart, Liz Truss, in Turin, unilateral action – or the threat thereof – is no substitute for dialogue.
We will continue to engage with her and her colleagues on these matters.
Confident that the Council of Europe remains as committed as ever to the Agreement you helped underpin.
In January, Ireland marked the centenary of our state’s independence.
We understand how difficult the struggle for democracy can be.
But what’s hard won is often all too easily lost.
Like peace, democracy is an act, not a state.
It must be renewed by each successive generation.
Our second Presidency priority is rooted in that understanding. In our 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 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.
Finally, with our third priority, I return to where my remarks started. With Fáilte. Our word for welcome.
Here, we seek to draw upon the transformation our own society has undergone since we last held the Presidency in 2000, in fostering a Europe of welcome, inclusion and diversity.
We now face the largest refugee crisis Europe has witnessed since the Second World War.
More people have fled Ukraine since February than live in this entire state.
The Council and its conventions affirm why we need to play our part in responding.
But for the Irish people, as for others, this goes beyond legal principle.
Our collective cultural memory understands what it is to be forced from home.
To arrive in distant lands carrying little more than the clothes on your back.
For us, then, fáilte is perhaps less a greeting, than a creed.
To date, we’ve welcomed over thirty thousand Ukrainians to our shores.
Neighbouring states represented here have accommodated many more.
Like you, we are determined to do our part for however long is needed.
But we recognise also the great challenges these tremendous flows of vulnerable people present to all our polities.
And the need for states to work with, and learn from, each other to protect all those who’ve sought shelter with us.
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’ll chair more than a dozen meetings of the Committee of Ministers in Strasbourg.
And convene more than thirty conferences and seminars there and across Ireland.
We’ll invite the continent’s Justice Ministers to Dublin to strengthen shared standards on combating Domestic, Sexual & Gender-Based Violence.
We’ll gather scholars and policy makers in Galway to chart a path to enforcing the European Convention on Human Rights in areas of protracted conflict.
We’ll host not one but two major conferences to consider how civic education can reinforce our societies’ democratic foundations.
We’ll do all this, and more, conscious of the daunting challenges facing our continent and the Council of Europe.
But confident that, with the support of the Secretariat, the solidarity of our fellow states, and the passion of this Parliamentary Assembly, we can surmount them, together.
Go raibh maith agaibh a chairde.
Thank you friends.
I look forward to your questions.