President of Ireland

Speech made to the Assembly

Wednesday, 29 June 1994

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, it is a great honour for the people of Ireland whom I represent and for me personally to address this august Assembly. I should like to thank you, Mr President, for your very kind words of welcome to me here this morning. It was a great pleasure to welcome you to Dublin quite recently. I am also conscious that this body has gone through an important new phase. I should like to take the opportunity to warmly congratulate and wish well the new Secretary General, Daniel Tarschys. I know that he is very familiar with the Parliamentary Assembly and he has a very challenging role as its new Secretary General. When I was here in January last year, I had the pleasure of meeting the previous Secretary General, Mrs Catherine Lalumière, and I also take this opportunity to wish her well in her new parliamentary responsibilities.

You are correct, of course, Mr President, in knowing that the immediate focus of the Irish people is not necessarily on Europe. I think that it is perhaps on either New York or Orlando, where we are following very closely the progress of the Irish team.

But I address you here with a sense of both admiration and awe; admiration because I know of the immense contribution of this Assembly, and the Council of Europe as a whole, to causes to which I am deeply attached – the protection of human rights, pluralist democracy, our cultural heritage, to name but a few – and awe because of a heightened awareness of the immensity of the tasks in the new Europe that must be addressed and I know are being addressed by this Organisation.

You bear responsibilities that could not have been imagined before the removal of the Berlin Wall: to contribute to the construction of a new visionary continent, stretching into the heartland of central and eastern Europe, and anchored by a common attachment to fundamental values. Success in this daunting enterprise will sow the seeds for future peace and stability on our continent and lead to an improvement in the democratic conditions of millions of people. Failure, on the other hand, may generate tension between nations and within nations and dash the newly-awakened aspirations of formerly oppressed peoples.

The shadow of failure is, of course, on our very doorstep. Not far from peaceful Alsace and the ordered calm of this Parliamentary Assembly, which was not so calm when you discussed gender equality, civil war is being waged, women and children are being blown to pieces by mortar shells and villages “purified”.

What lesson must we as human beings draw from the shame and ignominy of our powerlessness to intervene and bring an end to the slaughter of innocents? But this dark shadow is there to remind us of what is at stake in the construction of Europe and to fix our purpose with all the seriousness and commitment that we can command. The tragedy of ethnic conflict in the former Yugoslavia has jolted our consciences, but it has also sealed our resolve.

What makes the Council of Europe special, I believe, marking it out from other international organisations, is its concern with values. At the centre of those values is the human being. From this everything else radiates. It corresponds to what Hans Kung has described as a “global ethic”: the notion that while we follow different belief systems and cultural systems there is something that transcends all of that – the human being. It is reflected in your great treaties, in the work of the European Commission and Court of Human Rights and in the work of this Assembly. It is the leitmotif of the Council of Europe. In a true sense therefore the Council is the ethical and humanist dynamo of the developing Europe.

It is more than an outgrowth of the humanising forces of our civilisation. It is a realisation of our interdependence as nations and of the need to find common solutions for the problems of society that beset us, sharpened by a strategic awareness that this process profits from die synergy of collective action. But it also has a more profound dimension. Our concern for the rights and welfare of human beings brings like-minded nations together, provides a framework for the Europe of economic growth and development and lays the foundations for peace and stability. Without this fundamental concern, we will build on sand, or as Vaclav Havel has described it, we will saw off the branch on which we sit.

Ireland is proud to have been one of the founder members of the Council of Europe. I am glad to have the opportunity to pay tribute today to one of the moving forces behind the creation of this far-sighted European organisation: Sean McBride.

Concluding a debate in the Irish Parliament in 1949 approving the Statute of the Council, Sean McBride said, “it is, in my view, one of the most important and constructive developments that have taken place in Europe... Unlike many other attempts at world organisation, it relies rather on moral, ethical, social and economic forces that upon military measures. I have pleasure in asking the House to ratify the Statute.” Sean McBride understood – as so few politicians and even so few lawyers did at that time – the significance of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the pivotal role which its Commission and Court would play in setting standards and promoting values.

These values, of course, are the three pillars of the Council of Europe’s edifice – the protection of human rights, pluralist democracy and the rule of law. Until 1989, western Europe was the primary beneficiary of the Council of Europe’s work in these fields. But then came perestroika, the triumph of the democratic movement in eastern and central Europe and the continuing acceleration of political history – a process in which the Council of Europe and this Assembly are key players. Many of these countries had sought out the Council as a natural connecting bridge to the existing democracies in western Europe and as a specially endowed repository of those values which had inspired and empowered men and women to press for political change.

What better place to learn how human rights standards have been interpreted in practice by the human rights institutions; what common standards have been adopted in the fields of law, media, public health, education and culture, as reflected in the 150 or so international conventions the Council has prepared? What better place to hook into the democratic network – that closely woven web of links, exchanges and mutual assistance in Europe in all spheres of human activity and at all levels – governments, national parliaments, local and regional authorities, voluntary associations and individuals?

Since 1989, as you well know, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania have joined your ranks. Indeed, I am conscious that one of those countries, Bulgaria, currently holds the presidency of the Committee of Ministers. I am delighted that the minister is present and I had an opportunity to meet him this morning. Many more, including Russia and Ukraine, have applied for membership. This is not just a quantum leap in members but also in the role and mission of the Organisation which is being called upon literally to shape the new Europe, preside over its values and lend assistance to their impregnation into the fibre of the new democracies. The Council of Europe has come of age. It has ceased to be a cosy club of like-minded western European states, unsure of its precise role and overshadowed by the sparkle of the developing European Union. It is now called upon not just to preserve its own heritage but, in partnership with the vital forces in those countries, to reach out and help to sustain the newly democratic nations.

The blueprint for this historic mission is contained in the Vienna Declaration of last October following the first ever meeting of the heads of state and government of the member states. The declaration, as you know, expresses the policy of the Organisation and supplements it with a programme of action. It conjures up a vision of Europe as a vast area of democratic security based on pluralist and parliamentary democracy, the indivisibility and universality of human rights, the rule of law and a common cultural heritage enriched by its diversity. In its programme for the future, it resolves to improve the effectiveness of the European Convention on Human Rights by establishing a single Court, to enter into political and legal commitments to protect national minorities and to pursue a policy for combating racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and intolerance. The philosophy of the declaration is based on a clear-sighted recognition of the links between peace and stability, on the one hand, and the protection of the individual on the other.

Mr President, allow me to digress for a moment. You kindly mentioned the light that shines in the window of my residence in Dublin. In my inaugural address as President, I spoke of the image of Ireland’s fifth province. Geographically, Ireland has only four provinces. The fifth is nowhere to be seen. Ancient legend had it that the fifth province occupied the middle ground between the four quarters of Ireland and provided the necessary balance between them. The old Gaelic term for province is “coicead” meaning fifth. So where is it? It is the place within each one of us, that place that is open to the other, that swinging door which allows us to venture out and others to venture in. The fifth province is thus symbolic of the new Ireland – more open and inclusive, more tolerant – an Ireland of reconciliation and healing.

I believe that this image can be exported beyond the shores of Ireland for I see this Organisation as Europe’s “fifth province” – the meeting point between East and West, the centre of humanist values, the concern with healing and reconciliation, the check on excesses of government. The Vienna Declaration gives it voice; a plea open to others, a swinging door between peoples, cultures and traditions.

The metaphor is useful for another reason. It suggests that there is another dimension to the problems we are confronted with which transcends the elaboration of structures and legal mechanisms; that if we are to carry this great historic project forward our approach must involve listening to others, especially those whose voices are not strident – the unemployed, the marginalised, the vulnerable sectors in our societies. It must also involve the key elements of sharing and participation: sharing our time, our knowledge and expertise and our insights; creating structures which facilitate the participation of nongovernmental organisations, minority groups and, of course, women. Nowhere are these elements – listening, sharing and participation – more relevant than in the field of minority protection.

The protection of minority rights has become, rightly, a central preoccupation. It is perhaps the Council’s most intellectually challenging puzzle given the prolixity of minority interests in Europe today and the urgency of their claims. It is intimately connected with peace and stability. We must devise a way of neutralising the confrontation between the constant assertion of minority rights and the resistance of states. We must also come to terms with the reality that by resisting the traditional rights of minorities to religion, language and culture, states create a resurgence of demand for them. The task is often against the current of history, but this cannot be a reason for shirking our responsibilities. Just as this Organisation has developed a unique mechanism of human rights protection – after all, who could have anticipated its success in the 1950s? – so also must it embark on the transfer of that accumulated experience to a specific regime for the protection of minority rights.

I am aware that work is already under way on a framework convention and a separate protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights. Permit me to make the following modest observations on our approach to the construction of a minority rights culture. First, pride in one’s culture is a natural entitlement. It cannot be the exclusive preserve of a majority. The Ulster poet, Louis MacNeice, captured the essentials of this feeling of belonging:

“Pride in your history is pride

In living what your fathers died

Is pride in taking your own pulse

And counting in you someone else”.

By a collective subscription to minority rights on the part of all member states of this Organisation perhaps we can temper the fear that concessions to minorities will encourage fragmentation or separatism or undermine unity.

Secondly, our approach can only be multi-faceted given the country-specific nature of minority claims. We must not limit ourselves to complaint procedures or reporting mechanisms. We must go out on the ground in each region and examine the specificities at close quarters. We must listen and we must leave every space in our arrangements for minority groups themselves actively to participate in devising solutions for their own problems.

Thirdly, a new partnership must be developed, on the basis of respect for,human rights and subject to the acceptance of democracy itself, not only between the majority and the minority but between nations. The new multi-dimensional partnership requires that any state resistance must be gradually dismantled. We cannot succeed in this area unless standards are universally adopted. How can such fundamental values be taken seriously, where it counts, if states pay lip service only to this imperative endeavour? There is an urgent need to make up for the systematic neglect and avoidance of these issues in international fora which, if we are honest, we know happened in past decades.

The other side of the coin raises the question of how to deal with the alarming re-emergence of the destructive forces in our societies – intolerance, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and racism. The Vienna Declaration has rightly concluded that unless action is taken to combat intolerance our efforts to sow the seeds of a new minorities culture will be in vain. The detailed plan of action, with its emphasis on seeking to understand the deep-seated causes, on reviewing the effectiveness of our national legislation through the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, on raising awareness through a European youth campaign and on the pivotal role of education, must be encourageed and supported.

But there is one feature that is at the heart of this concern which should be highlighted. Whereas in our action to protect minorities we seek first and foremost to protect the individual, and, through him or her, the group, a campaign against intolerance places emphasis on one of the values of the “fifth province” – the responsibility of each individual. For it can only be by interrogating ourselves and by personally thought-through individual acts of rejection of and resistance to outrage that genuine progress can be made. That place within each of us that is open to the other is the value to be nourished, and all the actors in civil society have their role to play. We need to listen to the narrative of each other’s diversities so that we can draw strength and not weakness from our differences. In this unique campaign the swinging door of this Organisation is the most creative and forceful answer to the scourge of intolerance and its close ally – indifference.

Mr President, the work on minority rights and intolerance is a natural extension of the Council of Europe’s work in the field of human rights, with which as you kindly said, I have some familiarity. Both areas will profit and borrow from the existing reputation of the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter. The network of links and exchanges that has patiently been built up in the human rights sector in this Organisation can be creatively harnessed to advance these causes.

I am convinced that the opening for signature of the 11th Protocol to the Convention last month will be seen by future generations as a watershed in the development of the international protection of human rights. The creation of a single European Court of Human Rights recognises that a more effective system of human rights protection is required to enable the institutions to cope with the ever increasing numbers of human rights applications and the steady growth of contracting parties to the Convention itself. As a lawyer who has had the privilege of appearing before both the Commission and Court of Human Rights, I can testify to the excellence of their reputation in the national and international legal community and to the timeliness of that reform. It is a tribute to the courage of member states that they have seized the opportunity to build on what has been achieved, to create a single body, thereby avoiding wasteful duplication of procedures, and to strengthen the integrity of the Convention itself by making the right of individual petition a mandatory feature.

The concept of a collective guarantee of human rights in our continent has added meaning when we consider that in the years to come – I know that this is part of the Council’s current discussions – there are likely to be forty or more contracting parties, and when we ponder on the potential impact of the Convention guarantees and its rich tapestry of case law on such a wide variety of legal systems. If I have said watershed – perhaps legal revolution is more appropriate – it is because the history of the Convention to date has been its gradual acceptance in western Europe. It is there that its influence has been substantially felt. But the entry into force of the 11th Protocol will mean that this “critical mass” of Convention standards can be transferred to central and eastern European countries and eventually received into their legal systems. The next phase of development of this extraordinary and unique system, I have no doubt, will involve the subtle process of the absorption and integration of those standards into the constitutional texture of the new member states.

Of course the transfer of this “acquis conventionnel” will not be without difficulties and we must address a certain, genuine fear that the new system will not function as smoothly and effectively as the old. But in this area we must recognise the strength of continuity. Just as the existing system has been characterised, both in its structures and in its case-law, by gradual incremental changes, so also must the new system, if it is to achieve its goals, maintain strong links with the past – in terms of membership and personnel, and most important of all, in terms of its case-law. The process must be that of a continuum and not a fresh start.

Nor – I know that you share this feeling very strongly with me – can we leave social and economic rights out of the reckoning. As I had occasion to say at the Council of Europe’s interregional meeting in January 1993, we have left far behind the cold war ideological dispute as to the status of those rights. There must be a concerted effort to ensure their recognition at the national and regional level and to press for more effective measures of implementation. If we are not concerned about these rights within our own territories, are we likely to have the requisite sensitivity when confronted with widescale deprivation elsewhere in the world? We cannot afford to be blind to the fact that gross economic and social inequality between nations and within nations is as potent a factor of instability as denial of the other categories of rights. The Council of Europe must give the lead to other nations and other organisations in this difficult and sensitive area.

Mr President, I bring my remarks to a close with a question: what is the vision of the wider Europe we aspire to as we approach the end of this millennium? I suggest that it is the Europe of the “fifth province”, a Europe of democratic nations without barbed wire and without snipers, a Europe of solidarity where people can feel that they have a place without compromising their own sense of belonging, where we face up to our divisions with the same courage and pragmatism that we have recently witnessed in South Africa. It is a Europe which is not ethics-resistant and where our attachment to the fundamental values provided by this Organisation grows in tandem with the progress of our endeavours; a Europe where we do not become detached from the true meaning of the words that we use to express our convictions.

This is not, in the words of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, “the politics of the tongue”. It is the pre-condition of peace in our continent. It is the noble mission of this European Assembly. It is our shared fifth province. Thank you for giving me the honour of addressing you this afternoon.


It is very difficult to react to what has just been said. It was great, and I am proud that it was said by a woman, and an Irish woman, who has come to deliver a manifesto to which I am sure we all subscribe. It was beautiful, moving, inspiring and committing.