We marked the 50th anniversary of Ireland’s vote to join the European Economic Community (now the EU) earlier this month.
Less well-known is the fact that long before that referendum, our young state shared, and shaped, European values through another institution based not in Brussels but in Strasbourg.
In London in 1949, Ireland was one of 10 founding members of the Council of Europe, the continent’s leading human rights organisation. Last Friday, we assumed its presidency for a seventh time.
The Council of Europe is often confused with the EU. Although they have common values, the council is a separate, older and larger body. Headquartered in Strasbourg, it comprises 46 countries, including all 27 EU member states and 19 others, Ukraine among them.
Through the European Convention on Human Rights, and more than 200 other treaties, the council serves as ‘‘the conscience of Europe’’. Across our six-month presidency, Ireland’s goal is to reaffirm that conscience.
In March, the council became the first major multilateral body to expel Russia. In the months ahead, we will bring all of the organisation’s expertise to bear in aiding Ukraine.
Our presidency will pursue three clear, complementary aims.
First, as a founding state, we will use our mandate to reinforce the council’s ‘‘Founding Freedoms’’, protecting Europe’s most vulnerable civilians, above all through the effective functioning of the Euro- pean Court of Human Rights.
Ireland was the first state to accept the court’s jurisdiction, and we have always abided by it: over the decades, we have had our share of judgments. Some were historic. Several were, at their time, contentious. But all were respected.
By protecting individuals’ rights, judgments made by the court spurred our State to reform and our society to evolve. The case that Senator David Norris took to the Court of Human Rights in 1988, which resulted in the decriminalisation of homosexuality, illustrates this well.
The joy our nation shared when the marriage equality referendum passed in 2015 can be traced directly to that Strasbourg courtroom and the bravery of Senator Norris and the barrister who represented him – our future President, Mary Robinson. But it reflects, equally, the integrity of the court to which they applied and the convention we – and others – are bound to uphold.
‘‘Hear Our Voices’’ is our second presidency priority and is rooted in our belief in democracy. In January, Ireland marked the centenary of our State’s independence. We understand what it is to struggle for democracy and how it must be renewed and defended by each successive generation.
Through our term, we will draw on the Council of Europe’s expertise in promoting the rights of children and youth to engage young Europeans, our democracies’ future. At the same time, in the face of rising illiberalism, we will share our national experience, above all with Citizens’ Assemblies, in promoting participatory democracy while seeking ourselves to learn from others.
Finally, we describe our third aim as ‘‘Fáilte’’. Ireland will work to foster a Europe of welcome, inclusion and diversity, building on the changes our society has undergone since we last held the presidency in 2000.
Today, our continent faces its largest refugee crisis since World War II, with more people having fled Ukraine since February than live in our State.
Ireland’s collective cultural memory understands what it means to be forced from home – for us, “Fáilte” is as much a creed as a greeting, and we empathise with the vulnerability of those fleeing. We recognise, too, the great challenges these tremendous flows of people present and the need for states to work with, and learn from, each other to protect those who have sought shelter with us.
Current tragic events in Europe will, of course, shape our approach to our presidency. Ireland’s first chair at the Council of Europe, Sean MacBride, observed that the pursuit of peace must be “the desperate imperative of humanity”. In Strasbourg, as in New York, Geneva and The Hague, Ireland is resolved to do all we can to deliver that imperative.
Simon Coveney is Minister for Foreign Affairs