‘’Upholding Democratic Security in Europe’’

High Level Panel at PACE

Remarks by Minister Simon Coveney

[Approx. 10 minutes]

Thank you President Kox.

In this week, fifty-nine years ago, another President addressed our Parliament in Dublin.

John F Kennedy spoke of our nation’s values – our commitment to human rights and multilateralism, democracy and rule of law.

He observed that while ‘‘Ireland pursues an independent course in foreign policy… it is not neutral between liberty and tyranny and never will be.’’

What was true then is true now.

Ireland has been unequivocal in our support for Ukraine’s liberty.

And condemnation of the Kremlin’s tyranny.

Fifty years after our own accession to the European community, we firmly endorse Ukraine’s candidate status for EU membership.

Because we recognise the people of Ukraine are doing more than defending their state’s territorial integrity, vital as that is.

They’re protecting the values Kennedy spoke to. Reminding us at once how fragile our freedoms are. And how precious.

In my few words this morning, I want to touch on three factors I consider critical to securing democracy on our continent:  

·        how we protect the integrity of our public institutions;

·        how we promote the prosperity of our citizens;

·        and how we understand the ‘demos’ in democracy -  the psychology that motivates us.

Protecting Institutions

First, our institutions.

We must be clear what it is that we strive to protect.

Democracy demands more than majority rule.

It is a three-legged stool. To stand, it needs not only free elections, but adherence to an impartial rule of law, and respect for human rights.

Understood this way, illiberal democracy is a contradiction in terms.

An illiberal politician may be a majoritarian. They cannot be a democrat.

Securing democracy demands that we protect the tapestry of institutions that collectively hold states to account.

It means safeguarding freedom of expression, association, and assembly.

It means promoting independent, impartial and efficient judiciaries.

It means guaranteeing the absolute integrity of our electoral systems.  

Democracy is a most precious metal.

But it tarnishes easily.  

Without a free press, without vibrant civil society, without independent courts, democracy corrodes.

And, over time - gradually, then suddenly – can collapse into autocracy.

If we are to avoid this trend, as democratically elected leaders we must recommit to the first principles the Council of Europe embodies.

That is why, in the wake of war on our continent, I believe it’s time to convene a fourth summit of Council leaders. 

Why Ireland has made support for the Council’s core institutions – above all the European Court of Human Rights – the first priority of our Presidency term.

And why I welcome - and hope to see implemented - so many of the recommendations in Senator Bogdan’s Klich’s excellent report on ‘Recent Challenges to Security in Europe’, including his proposal to establish a Democratic Resilience Initiative.

Delivering Prosperity

One of democracy’s great virtues is its inherent capacity for self-correction.

In the long run, this unique mechanism means democracies are better placed to deliver stability and prosperity for our citizens.

But, as Keynes put it, in the long run, we’re all dead.

If democracies are to thrive today, we need to convince citizens – young people, in particular - of our capacity to deliver over shorter time horizons.

Key to that is improving the quality of governance, public services, and decisions taken in the exercise of public authority.

How do we do this?

There are many steps. One is to listen more directly to our citizens, above all our young people.

More than that, to make them heard. To empower them.

Ireland’s experimentation with citizens’ assemblies over the past decade has been hugely positive in this respect.

While far from a panacea, for us, at least, it has proved a way to deepen democratic engagement, bolster trust and improve public policy.

Collectively, I believe, we need to learn from such experiences – and share them widely.        

Understanding Human Psychology

Equally, and finally, we must strive to better understand the essence of democracy – the ‘‘demos’’ or people that we represent.

Here in Strasbourg, human rights and the rule of law are concrete terms..

But for most of the Council of Europe’s 675 million citizens, they are abstract.

If we’re to convince a new generation of their value, we need to communicate them differently.

Through a decade and a half of democratic decline, autocrats have understood this well.

And acted on it – at home and abroad.

Communicating concretely.

Shaping stories, however false.

Promising simple solutions to complex problems.

Appealing to emotions – most often and, most powerfully, fear. But also our desire for connection, self-worth and identity.

Much of this might be dismissed as disinformation.

And certainly we need new and better tools to counter untruths, above all on digital platforms.

But we must also understand why those appeals resonate.

And draw lessons when we come to make the case for inclusive, diverse democracies.

Because we will not defeat falsehoods with fact checking alone.

We need to counter them with positive and compelling narratives. 

History & Her Story

Populists and autocrats have no real vision for the future.

Their defining narratives are rooted in an imagined – often imperialist – past.

In such hands, history can be a terrible weapon.

A year ago, we read Vladimir Putin’s long essay on Russia and its ties to Ukraine.

His version of history was demonstrably false.

But for him, it provided a pretext for invasion.

It falls to us, as democrats, to counter such false histories.

But we must also celebrate great truths.

So let me finish now, not with history.

But with her story.

All here know the bravery of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, ([Sveet-lah-nah Tee-kon-ov-sky-ah], leader of Democratic Belarus.

What some of you may not know is her connection to Ireland.

As a young man, before I entered politics, I helped raise funds in support of Chernobyl’s Children Project, which has come to be the single largest contributor to the consequences of  the Chernobyl disaster.

Sviatlana (Sveet-lah-nah )was a Chernobyl Child.

One of thousands of Ukrainian and Belarusian children to come to Ireland for respite in wake of the disaster.

She was hosted in Roscrea, a rural town in Tipperary, by Marian and Henry Deane.

And returned to them summer after summer - in time, helping to mentor other children, many of them traumatised.

One of the qualities we value most in Ireland is hospitality.

Indeed, one of our three Presidency priorities – to foster a Europe of inclusion and diversity – is framed under the title ‘Fáilte’, our word for welcome.

Her story reflects some of what makes our democracies great.

The capacity for empathy, connection, kindness.

Values shared across the many miles that separate Minsk and Tipperary.

Or Cork and Kyiv.

And that carry over ages.

‘‘Democracy is never a final achievement,’’ Kennedy said. ‘‘It is a call to untiring effort.’’

Let us never forget – and let us better explain - what makes this effort so very worthwhile.

Go raibh maith agaibh.