Democracy Here, Democracy Now


Minister Thomas Byrne

June 2022

Some of you may have seen the programme Derry Girls.

If you haven’t, watch it. For one thing, because it’s brilliantly funny.

But also because it will teach you more about modern Ireland than any history book is likely to.

It captures some of what the conflict on our island – The Troubles – was about. And what the peace we secured a quarter century ago meant for people – above all young people.

I’ll return to Derry Girls.

But I might open my few remarks to you this evening by quoting a great Derry man.

John Hume spent his life fighting for Democracy and civil rights, here and now.

He served a quarter century here in Strasbourg as an MEP.

The architect of the Good Friday Agreement, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1998, alongside David Trimble.

Accepting the award, John recalled his frequent walks across the bridge to Kehl. A symbol, he marvelled, “so simple yet so profound and so applicable to conflict resolution anywhere in the world”.

In that same address, he also observed that, ultimately, ‘‘all conflict is about difference’’.

But while some see difference as a threat, John recognised it instead as ‘‘the essence of humanity’’.

And said that ‘‘the answer to difference is to respect it.’’

John Hume was seldom wrong.

But in this, he was never more right.

Respecting difference - that is the essence of true democracy.

And the core principle on which the Council of Europe is founded.

Fifty years ago, last month, 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.

In fact, it was on Ireland’s initiative that a commitment to ‘‘the pursuit of peace’’ was added to the Statute’s preamble. 

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

In Kyiv, Kenon, and Kharkiv these past months, the world has witnessed war crimes.

The unconscionable targeting of civilians.

The indiscriminate use of cluster munitions.

And thinly veiled threats of nuclear action. 

Across our screens, we’ve watched terrified children huddle in makeshift bunkers.

City centres crumble under sustained shelling.

We’ve seen the drawn faces of pensioners forced from their homes.

And the stoic dignity of the sons and daughters who’ve stayed behind to defend them.

We’ve marvelled at the measured calm - and immeasurable courage - of President Zelensky.

A leader who inspires people, where his Russian counterpart only inspires fear.

And watching this, it’s been clear that, while bombs are raining down on Ukraine, in an important sense, we’re all under attack.

Against that backdrop, a month ago, Ireland assumed the Presidency of the Council of Europe for a seventh time.

In the same year we serve on the UN Security Council, it’s an honour for us to help steer an institution that inspires not with examples of power, but with the power of example.

We’ve always described the Council as ‘‘the conscience of Europe’’.

And across our six-month Presidency term, our goal is to reaffirm that Conscience. Above all by supporting Ukraine. And by holding Russia to account.   

Within that framework, we’ve set three clear, complementary priorities:

·        First, as a founding state, to reaffirm the Council’s ‘Founding Freedoms’, protecting human rights across the continent, above all in areas of conflict

·        Second, to counter illiberalism and answer autocracy by doubling down on democracy, promoting, in particular, youth participation in deliberative democracy

·        And, finally, under the title Fáilte – the Irish word for welcome – to foster a Europe of inclusion and diversity.

Having spoken about the right to peace, let me say a word or two about our second priority - democracy.

To start, we must be clear what it is that we strive to protect.

Democracy demands more than majority rule.

It’s 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, we need to do many things.

One is to better engage the ‘demos’ in democracy.

Our citizens, above all our young people.

The means listening, yes. But more than that, it means making you heard.

Over the past decade, Ireland has experimented with citizens’ assemblies.

Convening randomly selected groups of people to consider vital, often particularly contentious social questions. 

Our experience has been hugely positive.

And has delivered real social change – leading to a huge vote for marriage equality in 2015 for example.

A vote that was driven, above all, by the young people of Ireland.  

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

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

Which is one of the reasons I think Democracy Here Democracy Now so vital.

This week, 59 years ago, President John F Kennedy visited Ireland, the land his great-grandparents had left America for in the wake of our great famine.

Of democracy, Kennedy famously said, it ‘‘is never a final achievement. It is a call to untiring effort.’’

The same is true of peace.

It is seldom simple. Often messy. And, in our long experience in Ireland, always tiring.

But hard as it is, the effort is so very, very worthwhile.

To end where I began, with Derry Girls. Its final episode is set on 22 May, 1998, the day the people of both jurisdictions on my island voted overwhelmingly to reject conflict and respect difference.

At one stage, Erin Quinn, the show’s lead character, tells her friends:

“No matter how scary it is, we have to move on and we have to grow up because things, well, they might just change for the better. So we have to be brave. And if our dreams get broken along the way, we have to make new ones from the pieces.”

Things are scary now, no doubt.

But with your efforts – and those of the young people across Strasbourg and Europe today – I believe they can and will change for the better.

Thank you for your attention.    

Now, having offered you mine, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.