International Day of Democracy: Statements

Today is International Day of Democracy. As such, it is only right and fitting that this Parliament should take time to mark the event. The International Day of Democracy is intended both to celebrate democracy and to serve as a reminder that the need to promote and protect democracy is as urgent as ever. While it is easy for some to be cynical about politics and parliament, events around the world in the last year — the Arab Spring in particular — have demonstrated that people strive for free and democratic leadership.

Here in Ireland we are fortunate that our Parliament has remained independent, free and democratic since the foundation of the State. For 90 years the State has withstood many pressures, including a world war, and endured grim times. Throughout, we have kept a firm grip on our democratic principles. We should not take that for granted; rather, we should celebrate the fact that we have always retained the freedom to elect our Parliament. I am pleased the Dáil is joining today with many other parliaments in devoting time to mark the International Day of Democracy.

I invite the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Lucinda Creighton, to make her opening statement.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allocating time to discuss this important topic. I am delighted to have the opportunity to address the House on the International Day of Democracy. It is entirely appropriate that Dáil Éireann should mark this event and consider how we as a nation, which has been fortunate enough to enjoy a strong parliamentary democracy for the past 90 years, can strengthen and support the cause of democratic governance globally. I commend the UN General Assembly on instituting this important annual event in 2007.

The year, 2011, is likely to prove a landmark year in terms of efforts to spread democracy and foster greater respect for human rights and the rule of law internationally. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall came to epitomise the historic events set in train in eastern Europe in 1989, so it is likely that the ardent pro-democracy activists who occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo for 18 days last February and the recent wild scenes of jubilation in Tripoli and Benghazi which marked the fall of Gadaffi will be the images instantly invoked when we recall 2011 in future years.

The Government has fully supported the democratic aspirations which lie behind the popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere throughout the Middle East and north Africa. We have recognised that the demand for reform and change has come in large part from genuinely popular movements which have not been pursuing any particular political agenda other than seeking the types of rights which we in Europe have perhaps come to take for granted. These include the right to a decent livelihood for oneself and one's children and the right to protest peacefully and not to have to live in fear.

The Government has been consistent, furthermore, in the attitude it has taken to the pressures for change across this entire region. We have been just as strong in our support for the demands for democratic change and reform in Bahrain as we have in regard to the popular movements in Egypt and Libya. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has spoken out about the plight of detained medics in Bahrain and called for their release, conscious that the European Union must uphold the rights of all who engage in peaceful protest or who peacefully seek reform and democratic change across a region which has historically been deprived of such freedoms. The Government welcomes the fact that all those medics detained in the aftermath of last March's events have now been released on bail by the Bahraini authorities, although they still face potentially serious charges. We will continue to monitor that situation.

The human rights of Palestinians and the fulfilment of their legitimate aspirations to statehood are equally important and very much a topic of interest. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has clearly stated that he wishes to see a state of Palestine come into existence as soon as possible.

Libya is the latest country to have savoured the freedom offered by the Arab spring and is moving steadily along the path of democratic transformation. The fall of the cruel and oppressive Gadaffi regime is greatly to be welcomed, as is the victory of the Libyan people and the National Transitional Council, NTC, which has successfully led the challenge to Gadaffi's rule. The Government has been glad to offer what political and humanitarian assistance it could to the Libyan people in the past six months and looks forward to working closely with the NTC in the coming months as, in co-operation with the UN and the international community, it prepares the ground for the adoption of a new constitution and the holding of the first truly free and democratic elections in Libya. Close attention to, and strong support for, the development of a human rights culture in Libya will be of crucial importance in the coming months.

Democracy has by no means come to all parts of the Middle East as yet. The repression visited by the Assad regime upon those large parts of the Syrian population demanding democratic change has been appalling. I again add my voice to all those urging President Assad and the Syrian authorities to desist from effectively waging war on their own people, to recognise the need for change and reform and to pursue dialogue, not violence. If it does not do so, the Assad regime will relinquish its legitimacy and all authority to rule.

Events in Syria remind us that the Arab Spring is unfolding before our eyes. We are witnessing living history and a process which is still far from complete. Any assessment or comparison with the events of 20 years ago in eastern Europe would suggest that we are only at the Gdansk shipyard, rather than Berlin Wall, stage of this historic train of events. We must be mindful that consolidating the democratic gains that have been achieved in those countries undergoing transition may prove to be just as difficult as the initial throwing off of oppression. We must be honest enough to recognise that there may still be discrepancies between the quality of the democracy emerging in some countries and the democratic standards and norms which we apply in our own societies.

The important point, however, is that Ireland and its EU partners are prepared to walk with, encourage and support those undergoing the process of democratic transformation, wherever they may be in the Middle East and north Africa or globally. For its part, the Government intends to stand shoulder to shoulder with all those pursuing tahrir, or liberation from oppression.

I, too, welcome the opportunity to speak today on the International Day of Democracy. Notwithstanding the difficulties faced by this State during the past two years, we often to fail to recognise we have the benefits of democracy. Notwithstanding that, there are difficulties and issues to which we must face up. However, this is done against the backdrop of having an open democracy which allows us and the people to express our opinions in a free and fair manner.

International Day of Democracy has an important role to play in highlighting the fundamental values that form the heart of our political beliefs. It has a special resonance this year, a year when the Arab Spring took hold and a wave of change swept aside apparently unshakeable corrupt dictatorships, one during which brave men and women continue to resist oppression and tyranny in Syria despite the vicious crackdown they have endured during the past few months. Those of us who historically enjoy remarkable security, free and fair elections, the inalienable right to free expression, to engage with an independent media or to have our laws interpreted by an independent Judiciary would do well to look across to the convulsions in the Arab world and the suffering that people there have endured in their struggle to secure what we take for granted.

Across the globe authoritarianism continues to fester in many countries. In central Asia, post-Soviet dictatorships continue to hold a firm grip on their societies. In Burma deeply compromised elections mask the military junta's continued grip on power. In Europe, political opposition in Belarus has been continually crushed by evil dictatorship. The advances of the "colour" revolutions in eastern Europe over the past decade show signs of slippage. The international community, in particular those of us in the EU, must show real leadership here. Our commitment to open political competition, a climate of respect for civil liberties, significant independent civic life and independent media should underpin our foreign policy in conjunction with our European partners.

The European model of governance is founded upon the ideal of democracy and the concept of the inherent equality of every human being. It is an ideal that underpins the guiding principles of our Republic. Remembering that the struggle for freedom, for which generations of Irish men and women fought on our behalf, continues for many oppressed people across the world today we should also reflect upon how we can deepen democracy in Ireland. I hope that the Government's promises of political reform are not simply political speak. I believe there is a deeply held view among Irish people that we too need to reform. Our democracy has grown and political and economic life has changed and there is a necessity for us to reform the manner in which we interpret democracy in this House. I trust that the Government will continue to bring reforms in that regard.

Fianna Fáil set out a comprehensive series of measures to fundamentally reform the democratic system in Ireland in order to reconnect with the citizen. As democracies emerge and the principles become common across a particular State or country, the connection with the citizen that brought about democracy, as is emerging in the Arab world in particular, can be lost. Over the passage of time, the political process can develop an elitism and a remove from the people it seeks to represent. There is a necessity to re-establish that connection. As I stated, that has been the plank of Fianna Fáil's approach in terms of improving our democratic system. Our ideas of a citizens assembly to reform the Constitution, broadening out Cabinet membership, enhancing Dáil oversight and political party finance reform have the potential to imbue democracy in Ireland with fresh meaning.

I trust the Government will take the initiative in ensuring democracy remains at the heart of our politics at home and abroad.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak today on the International Day of Democracy. It is only fitting that on this day we extend greetings of solidarity to people across the world who are striving to achieve democracy and independence, be they people from the Basque country, Palestine, Syria or Libya.

Democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their political, economic, social and cultural systems and full participation in all aspects of their lives. While democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy. The term "democracy" is often used and abused. Just as there is no single model of democracy, the word can mean different things to different people.

The values of freedom, respect for human rights and the principle of holding periodic and genuine elections by universal suffrage are essential elements of democracy. In turn, democracy provides the natural environment for the protection and effective realisation of human rights. As politicians there is a special onus on us to ensure that the outcome of elections are upheld and respected, even if they do not always marry with our preferred outcome. Democracy is not best served when the political leaders of this State are more interested in kneeling before European paymasters than in standing up for the democratic wishes of the Irish people, as expressed in recent referenda on European treaties. One need only look to the Lisbon treaty to get an idea of how the democratic wishes of the Irish people were respected or, to be more precise, not respected. There is a huge challenge facing this State in terms of how we shape our democracy. Large swathes of Irish people do not engage in the democratic process. Even larger swathes of Irish people are not allowed to engage in the democratic process.

The upcoming presidential election only serves to highlight the democratic deficit which partition has brought about on the Irish people. How can any Government justify not extending voting rights in presidential elections to all people living on this island? If we truly believe in democracy then we should be extending voting rights to citizens living in the Six Counties. As an elected representative of the Irish people, I look forward to the day when we have a Parliament which no longer only serves a section of the Irish people but truly is Dáil Éireann in name and practice, serving a 32 county Ireland.

Over recent months we have witnessed what many have witnessed what many have termed the Arab Spring. People in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, to name just a few, have stood up for their democratic right to freedom from oppression. Hundreds of thousands of people throwing off the shackles of dictatorship and demanding real democracy. This is to be welcomed, encouraged and supported. Let us hope they achieve their aspirations and that no external influences try to foist their view of democracy on them.

As a nation which declared our independence without international support, I hope that this Government supports the right of Palestine to be formally recognised as a state. So, as we celebrate International Day of Democracy let us recommit ourselves to embracing and growing our own democracy. Let us redouble our efforts to try and ensure that the maximum number of people on this island engage in the democratic process. Let us have an honest, open debate on real political reform. Let us look at novel ways to encourage full participation in the political process. The Proclamation of 1916 states that we aspire to a permanent national Government representative of the people of all Ireland and elected by the suffrages of all her men and women, a Republic which guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally. That must be our aim. Achieving this goal is the best way we can celebrate International Day of Democracy.

I wish to share time with Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

As I understand it, today is about protecting and promoting democracy. I am here as a result of democracy. Having put my name before the people of Roscommon-South Leitrim I was elected a Member of this House and as such get an opportunity to speak here. Democracy is a great thing. Unfortunately, democracy in this country is being squeezed all the time at local, national and European level. At a local level, we have tokenism towards democracy, with county managers holding all the cards. These people are unelected yet they hold precedence over those who have taken the trouble to go down the democratic route.

When as Mayor of County Roscommon, I sought financial details at a meeting with the director of services on finance in Roscommon County Council I was told that people would leave the room if I continued to ask for more information. We talk about democracy all over the world but democracy begins at home. We need to start looking at that.

When I suggest that things should change for county councillors I am told that they abuse the power, so they should lose it. In other words, what is being said is that we cannot trust the people to choose their local leaders. That is not democracy. At national level we are heading in the same direction. A general election was held in February. Yet in the past week two people are deciding our future who have never appeared on a ballot paper in this country, namely, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Watching them decide our future without consulting with all the people of Europe is anything but democratic. It is the equivalent of the mayor of Cork and the mayor of Dublin deciding how this country is governed. We would not accept it. Also, Manuel Barroso never put his name before the people. He was not elected, yet he decided we should go down the route of eurobonds which would mean the death of our nation.

Where do broken promises leave democracy? In advance of the general election we had promises from Deputy Frank Feighan, the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, that they would leave Roscommon hospital unscathed. The people of Roscommon ask what is the point in democracy when they are lied to and let down. Democracy is a fragile flower. It should not be taken for granted. At this stage it has been trampled and crushed for a decade by weak governments containing weak politicians.

The solution to these grave threats to Irish democracy is for people to put their name on the ballot paper in greater numbers and, in the words of Rage Against the Machine, take the power back.

We in Ireland have been enjoying the benefits of democracy, our free elections, our right to freedom of expression and gathering in worship for so long. I too see that democracy under pressure. We have surrendered part of our sovereignty, first, to the EU and now our economic sovereignty to the troika. It is ironic that this is happening at a time when we see the rise of the Irish spring and not only that spring but the spring in other countries in Africa and South America who have been long under dictators and are now demanding the rights we have enjoyed for many years.

On a broader scale, as I stand here today I cannot but be struck by the rights I have. I can speak freely, I can choose the church to which I wish to belong or none, I can vote, protest, criticise, drive a car and pursue the education or career I choose. There are countries where citizens are deprived of those basic rights, countries where civil society is being increasingly repressed. They are denied their rights. They live in war zones. I am struck by the fact that there are countries where women are denied the right to drive a car or chose the man, or person, they wish to marry.

A major threat to democracy is fear. It is that fear that has brought democratic governments to do very undemocratic things, such as, invade other countries, use torture and start wars. While we can claim to be democratic in many ways, there are aspects and examples where we have not been democratic, where the rights of certain citizens have not been respected. I think particularly of people with mental health issues who are subjected to forced medication, forced ECT and stigmatised. We have denied those people the right to be treated as equal citizens and we continue to deny justice to the survivors of the Magdalen laundries. They are just two examples of the blight in our democracy.

I look back at history and the types of government we have had, at monarchy and the divine right of kings, dictatorship, benevolent and autocratic, one party states, fascism and communism. Given that today is international day of democracy, it is important that we respect it, yet we allow only 25 minutes to debate it.

When I think of democracy I think of a system of government with four key elements: a political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections; the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life; human rights of all citizens; and a rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally and fairly to all citizens in the common good.

I welcome this opportunity to speak on this the United Nations International Day to mark democracy. I have here a book published in 1992, written by my late uncle Tom Keating, entitled Presidents of Ireland. In his opening remarks Tom Keating states: “The Presidents of this country are guardians of the law and enactments [and are] guided by a Council of State comprising of members serving all in a true and just manner”.

Our democracy in Ireland was hard fought for. I was reminded of this during the summer break when we were bombarded with television pictures of the strife and struggle in Libya, in Syria and in Egypt where we saw young people fighting to have the freedom to express their views and to participate in the civil, cultural and public life of their respective countries. I was also reminded of one of the greatest democrats of all time, Nelson Mandela, a man who spent 27 years in prison because he was principled about democracy, about having the vote for every citizen,

Shortly, this country will have an opportunity to express its view again on who we want as our President. I do not intend to enter into party politics but I appeal to all our citizens, each and every one of them, to exercise their right to vote on 27 October for the person whom they believe should be President of this State or for the person whom they believe should represent them in protecting the Constitution in representing each and every citizen, singly or as a community.

I am proud and privileged as a citizen of this country to be a Member of Dáil Éireann, having been sent here by the people of Dublin Mid-West, to stand in this House and to freely express the views both of my party, of the individuals with whom I have had discussions and in what I believe myself. This is possible because of the democracy we have, even with all its limitations and virtues.

The greatest and most serious threat to our democracy is not the bomb or the bullet — not even the external or internal pressures of economic mismanagement we have witnessed in the past as we have seen by the previous Administration- but the growing cynicism and apathy that can be found daily in our society. We often hear remarks such as, "Sure they are all the same" or "why should I bother?". I say to this House and to all those who are listening that we are not all the same and we should bother. We in this Chamber do bother and we have a duty to protect our democracy by the way we treat this responsible work. When Deputy Enda Kenny was returned as Taoiseach with a massive endorsement, that was democracy at work and I know and believe he will honour that endorsement.

This Republic has been blessed to have had eight Presidents, eight Heads of State, who were representatives of our democracy. In the US in the 1950s and 1960s there was a highly segregated society with blatant discrimination based on colour of skin. Two world leaders were to the fore with a non-violent approach to achieving civil rights. They were Mahatma Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King. Their non-violent resistance to the segregated society that existed then — there are still elements of it existing today in the US — were successful because they had a principle which was enunciated as follows: "In struggling for human dignity the oppressed people of the world must not allow themselves to become bitter or indulge in hate campaigns". I call on those who indulge in this behaviour to get involved, to exercise their entitlement, have their say and demand that their opinion be heard.

The principles of democracy, on which my party is founded, are a template for going forward. They include the principle of equality for every citizen; hope that we will recover from our difficulties; integrity in every public office and action; scrutiny, especially for those who are at risk; and reward for those economic patriots who work for the betterment of our society. Each of us has rights and responsibilities. In this country we are blessed to have, in our democracy, what many countries do not have. People should be allowed to question the decisions of government, but not reject the government's authority providing it is a government elected by the people. Democracy demands that we protect the weak, the vulnerable, those most at risk and the marginalised. On this International Democracy day I pose the question that if we do not have democracy, what do we have?

Democracy in evolutionary terms is one of the real achievements of mankind. By definition it is a form of government in which all people have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Freedom and equality have long been identified as two of its central characteristics. These principles are reflected in all citizens being equal before the law and having equal access to legislative processes. In a true democracy it should be fair to say that every individual should be afforded the necessary opportunity and support to reach the fullest of their potential. It is a fundamental part of how we as a society, a people and a nation engage with one another.

The sacrifice so many have made through the years for the right to democratic rights should be in our thoughts today. When considering the significance of democracy in the context of Ireland and its history, it is impossible not to remember the vision the founders had for this country in the early decades of the last century and the sacrifices they made. The 1916 Proclamation and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil were visionary documents ahead of their time. The democratic values of liberty, equality and justice for all were core tenets of both. The Democratic Programme declared that the wealth of the nation, including that of its soil and natural resources, was to be the wealth of the people. Public rights, the right to work, the right to shelter, the rights of the sick and the elderly as well as the rights of children were to be paramount. This was to be a democratic republic with its people at its heart.

It also declared that the nation's sovereignty extended not only to all men, but to the women of the nation also. This at a time when many countries did not afford women the right to vote. As a female Member, I could not pass this opportunity without making mention of the groundbreaking contribution of Countess Markievicz. When she took her seat in the First Dáil in 1919, women had only just won the right to vote. That right was granted in 1918 and only to those over 30 years of age. She holds the record as the first woman ever elected to the British Parliament and, on her appointment as Minister for Labour in the First Dáil, she became the first female Cabinet member in western Europe. Countess Markievicz set the standard for the rest of us to follow.

Unfortunately, only approximately 5% of all seats in the Oireachtas have been filled by women in the period since 1918. The Government intends to introduce proposals in an attempt to address this issue. Sinn Féin will play a positive and constructive role in the debate and a full role in encouraging more women to participate in the democratic process in order to deliver a truly representative democracy.

Indeed, Sinn Féin continues to call for the fullest possible participation in the democratic process by everybody on this island and beyond. We could all show our support for a truly participative and representative democracy in the upcoming presidential election. Irish citizens living in the Six Counties and those forced to emigrate due to this and previous economic crises, not to mention the broad Irish diaspora, will not be afforded the opportunity to elect their President. They should have just as much right as the Minister of State or I to choose our next President. The point has already been made publicly that President McAleese, had she been living in her home town of Belfast, could not have voted for herself. This is an administrative anomaly that other progressive democracies have overcome. We should do likewise.

I am conscious that we have run over time and I will keep my remarks short. I thank Deputies for participating in this important debate. I do not set the Dáil's agenda, but I will take the Deputies' point on board and I hope we will allocate more time to this type of discussion in future.

The link between democracy and human rights was clearly established when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared that the will of the people should be the basis of the authority of government and guaranteed to all the rights that were essential for effective political participation. It may be difficult for us to understand how radical the declaration was at the time. The determination and vision of its drafters, chief among them Ms Eleanor Roosevelt, produced a document that set out universal human rights as individuals for the first time. This fundamental shift recognised the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings regardless of colour, sex, religion or origin. A deeply held genuine respect for the qualities outlined in the declaration is the foundation upon which democracy can flourish.

I listened to Deputies' comments and accept that the EU is not perfect. In terms of the implementation of and support for the UN declaration globally, the EU is the strongest advocate of democracy and human rights and has been truest to the declaration's spirit among the major regions and blocs. This fact can be acknowledged in the Chamber at least.

The uprisings in the Arab world have reminded us that democracy, if it is to be lasting and robust, must be deep democracy. Protestors in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the region demanded a systemic rather than a superficial change. This is the main challenge facing us. Votes and elections are important, but protestors want more than these. They demand an end to the corruption that stifles economic growth and freedom to express their opinions without fear of arbitrary detention, torture or death. They insist on reform, independent judiciaries, vibrant and free civil societies and impartial administrations. We can forget how fortunate we in this country are to have these rights and basic freedoms enshrined in our Constitution and integrated into our legal system.

Deep democracy is not just about changing governments, but also about building the right institutions and attitudes. As we know from our national and European history, the process of establishing a democracy is slow and multifaceted. It is a process rather than a one-off event.

Ireland and the EU hope to assist our Arab neighbours in this quest for deep democracies in three primary ways, the first of which is politically. The EU's approach has been fully set out in the joint communication launched on 25 May, entitled A New Response to a Changing Neighbourhood. I recommend that Members read this good document.

Second, the practical, technical and financial support for democratic transformation and institution building is an ongoing process. The EU has made available a €350 million package of support. A practical example of our help is the financing of an election monitoring mission in support of Tunisia's Constituent Assembly elections on 24 October. As part of the EU, Ireland is providing short and long-term monitors to the mission.

Third, Ireland and the EU will support sustainable and inclusive growth and economic development in the southern neighbourhood. The Government is determined to strengthen our trade relations with the countries in question, as the Arab Spring represents a political and economic opportunity for all concerned.

The prospect of a ring of democratic and economically vibrant states across our southern shore and elsewhere in the Middle East is tantalising. Ireland and the EU are determined to do everything we can to make this vision a reality.