Address to Seanad Éireann by Ms Anne Brasseur

On behalf of my fellow Senators, I welcome Ms Anne Brasseur, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Our distinguished guest today is the first Luxembourger and only the second woman to take up the post of the president of the assembly. Ms Brasseur, I congratulate you on your election as president earlier this year. I know the sessions she has already presided over have been eventful. This month’s session will be no less so with the election of a secretary general setting the scene for the work of the Council for the next five years.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which held its first session in 1949, can be considered the oldest international parliamentary assembly with the pluralistic composition of democratically elected members of parliaments, established on the basis of an intergovernmental treaty. Ireland is a founding member state of the Council of Europe and is deeply committed to the principles and values to which all member states subscribe. Our historical and more recent experience gives us a relevant background on which we can draw in debate and activities. The Irish delegation attending the Council of Europe sessions on behalf of the Oireachtas is highly dedicated, participating fully in plenary and committee meetings.

The Parliamentary Assembly meets for week-long plenary sessions in Strasbourg four times a year. The 321 principal members and 321 substitutes are appointed by national parliaments from among their members. The parliament of each country sends a delegation of between two and 18 representatives, depending on the country’s population and which must reflect the balance of political forces in the parliament. Under current rules, at least one representative must be female. The assembly is a unique platform for interparliamentary dialogue, communication and engagement. It is central to the Council of Europe’s promotion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Given the great economic, financial, environmental and social challenges that Ireland and Europe face, it is important we continue to engage, exchange ideas and work together as democratic nations to resolve the issues that face us and foster a Europe that works in the interests of its citizens.

In her office, Ms Brasseur plays an important role in helping to stimulate that dialogue. Today, we will have an opportunity to hear her vision and priorities for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The Seanad, the future of which was recently endorsed by the people in a referendum, is determined to modernise its procedures and actively engage with civic society and its representative institutions. Our discussion today with Ms Brasseur is tangible evidence of that determination.

On behalf of Seanad Éireann, I thank Ms Brasseur for agreeing to appear before the House and welcome her. We look forward to her presentation, as well as a positive and enlightening discussion.

Before we begin, I acknowledge the presence of Deputy Joe O’Reilly, leader of the Irish delegation at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, and the work of his colleagues Deputies Michael McNamara and Olivia Mitchell and Senators Jim D’Arcy, Terry Leyden and Kathryn Reilly and a former Member of the House Deirdre Clune, who is now a MEP.

Ms Anne Brasseur

Thank you very much, a Chathaoirligh, and Senators. I am very honoured to address Seanad Éireann in this fine historic building, Leinster House. It is the first time that I have addressed a parliament outside my own and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. This is an honour for me and I thank the Seanad for the kind invitation to address it.

The Seanad has had and continues to have many illustrious Members. W. B. Yeats may be one of the most well-known. Senator Norris, currently a Member of this esteemed institution, has a firm place in Strasbourg history as one of the successful early human rights litigants whose case helped bring major changes to laws and attitudes towards LGBT, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, issues in Europe. The Irish are famed for their hospitality, their openness and friendliness. While I only started my official visit yesterday, already I feel at home in a country which has many similarities to my own. Luxembourg has kept its own language, Luxembourgish. Ireland has kept its own language, Gaelic. Both countries are cosmopolitan and open to diversity. What makes me feel most at home is that the Seanad is made up of 60 Members, the same size as the Chamber of Deputies in Luxembourg.

It is a great pleasure to address the Seanad on some of Europe’s pressing political issues and the role and contribution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. I also feel at home today because Ireland is one of the great supporters of the ideals of the Council of Europe and its values based around the rule of law, democracy and human rights. Support for these ideals is not to be taken for granted at a time of economic woes, political upheavals and troubling security issues. Ireland’s commitment to the organisation can be seen in many ways: the professionalism of its diplomats and experts in Strasbourg; the contribution of its parliamentarians under the chairmanship of Deputy Joe O’Reilly; its involvement in campaigns such as those to combat domestic violence, child abuse and trafficking of human beings; its application of the European Convention on Human Rights; and its co-operation with the monitoring bodies of the Council of Europe.

Ireland has a unique and troubled history which it has surmounted. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement gives hope and example of how to tackle and overcome frozen and other conflicts in Europe. As president of the assembly, I cannot ignore these conflicts. That is why the issue of conflict features strongly in my address. In Europe, there are plenty of conflict regions that deserve our attention including Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria and the northern part of Cyprus. From Ireland’s experience of conflict settlements, we can certainly benefit.

One conflict which is already having a bearing on the whole of Europe is that between Ukraine and Russia. As I said last month in Vienna when addressing the foreign affairs Ministers of Council of Europe member states, the three most important challenges facing the Council today are Ukraine, Ukraine and Ukraine. The conflict is a test of the credibility of our organisation. It is also a test of our ability to support a member state facing an unprecedented political crisis not only internally, but also at its borders. During the February 2014 Maidan events in Kiev, the rapporteurs of the Parliamentary Assembly’s monitoring committee were on the square, providing daily updates on the situation. A week after Russia annexed Crimea, I visited Ukraine together with political leaders and rapporteurs.

The country has taken its international obligations seriously and has not sought a pick and choose approach to human rights, because one cannot pick and choose human rights. Ireland has also been highly supportive of the European court in other ways, including by funding for the benefit of all webcasting of hearings before the court. If I may make one suggestion, it would be for Ireland to consider inviting its Government agent and Attorney General to speak to both Houses once a year on the implications of case law developments for Irish law and practice.

I was pleased to learn that, after the recent referendum in Ireland, the future of the Seanad is no longer in question. In preparing for this visit I came across an article published several years ago in which the author spoke about those who wanted the Seanad to go away and stated of these people they are "the bores of the world - the "monotony monitors"... who travel the four corners of the globe seeking out remaining pockets of individuality and interesting-ness to be standardised into boredom or else abolished." I hope none of us will be standardised into boredom and that pockets of individuality and interestingness will continue. Gabhaim buíochas libh go léir as an éisteacht a thug sibh dom.

During the visit we went to Donetsk in the east, which is, unfortunately, in the news almost daily. There, I met the governor of the region in the administrative building currently occupied and sand bagged by so-called separatist forces. In March, there were already anti-government demonstrations and a number of demonstrators chanted at me, "Fashistskaya Europa". While I do not understand Russian, I understood those words. While the demonstrations were peaceful, it showed a level of frustration and distrust of Europe.
As the Members are aware, events in Ukraine moved quickly with the annexation of Crimea, the build up of Russian troops at the border and the occupation of government buildings by the so-called separatists. The parliamentary assembly had to react. During the April part-session, the assembly sought to stand up for the values of the organisation and took difficult and principled decisions, which its founders would have expected of it. In Resolution 1988 (2014) on recent developments in Ukraine, the assembly made it clear that Ukraine had a heavy responsibility but also a window of opportunity to tackle corruption and bring about real constitutional change, electoral reform, decentralisation and a reform of the judiciary. However, this resolution was overshadowed by discussions on Russia's annexation of Crimea and the increasingly worrying events in eastern Ukraine.
Actions have consequences. The assembly laid out the consequences for Russia in Resolution 1990 (2014) and I would like to be clear on what the assembly did and did not do. Concerning the Russian delegation, it suspended voting rights, the possibility of being represented in the bureau and presidential committee of the assembly - meaning the executive bodies - and the right to participate in election observations. It did not, however, suspend the credentials of the Russian delegation, allowing for an ongoing dialogue whereby the Russian delegation could continue to participate in the other work of the assembly.
Our actions had consequences. In light of the assembly's sanctions, the Russian State Duma has reacted by suspending "its further constructive participation in the PACE activities". It is unlikely its parliamentarians will attend the June part-session of the assembly. Since these resolutions, the situation in Ukraine has not improved. On the contrary, the death toll has increased and there have been tragic events such as the fire and loss of life at the trade union building in Odessa. There have been allegations of atrocities, kidnappings and hostage-taking and there are daily military interventions. This cannot continue. A week ago, I spoke to the speaker of the Russian State Duma, Mr. Sergei Naryshkin, to see how channels of communication can be kept open with a view to ending the violence. While these discussions were frank and open, I cannot say there was much progress apart from an agreement to meet and talk in the future.
While Ukraine may be Europe's Pandora's box, we hope at the bottom of the box there is hope. There are prospects that the new president of Ukraine, Mr. Petro Poroshenko, will be able to forge a new dialogue with Russia and the separatists in the east. On the home front, he has a mandate to build on the reform process, as I already mentioned. I have invited President Poroshenko to address the assembly at the end of the month in Strasbourg, and I hope he will be able to come. This conflict will challenge our conflict settlement skills. Irish parliamentarians, with their experience, will have something to contribute in future discussions on the issue. Perhaps we also can learn from the words of James Joyce: "Your battles inspired me - not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead."
There are other major challenges for Europe, such as the financial and economic crisis, and Ireland has shown courage in tackling its problems and building trust in its financial institutions. This has not come without political cost and, above all, immense personal cost to many Irish men and women who have made tremendous efforts and sacrifices. Across Europe, the financial and economic crisis has also engendered a social crisis. It is, therefore, essential that fundamental social rights, such as those under the European Social Charter, are respected in difficult times, particularly for those most vulnerable.
While Ireland may be, in many ways, a model member state, there are still steps it can take. In the recent report on the state of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe, the Secretary General of the Council of Europe highlighted that Ireland must consider ratifying or signing seven further conventions. I particularly mention the Lanzarote convention concerning sexual abuse of children, the Istanbul convention tackling domestic violence, Protocol No. 12 of the European Convention of Human Rights relating to non-discrimination and conventions concerning money laundering and cyber crime. I do not need to explain the relevance of these conventions.
Regarding the other conventions ratified by Ireland, the spirit of co-operation of Irish authorities is to be welcomed. Nonetheless, it is important that recommendations from these bodies are fully implemented whether they concern migrants, with the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance; detainees with the reports of European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Irish Travellers in the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities; or issues under other mechanisms. One of the priorities for my presidency is to help member states live up to their commitments under the European Convention on Human Rights and not to patronise but to help as we are helping all countries to meet their commitments.
If all countries could show Ireland's level of commitment, Europe would be a better place. Before the European Court, Ireland has a reputation of being willing to do business. This means settling cases where appropriate and fighting hard on cases where most important issues of principle are concerned. This is as it should be. Ireland has relatively few cases and this is not due to luck but because the European Convention on Human Rights is well rooted in Ireland's domestic law and strengthened further by the incorporation of the convention into domestic law in 2003.
I refer to the difficult and sensitive issue of abortion and how the Seanad and Dáil handled it in light of the A, B and C judgment against Ireland. Both Houses organised a hearing in the Seanad over several days, collecting evidence from different parties and sectors with a view to preparing legislation. This is a model of parliamentary co-operation and engagement in order to bring domestic law into conformity with the European Convention on Human Rights. Notwithstanding that Ireland has had to deal with judgments of extreme sensitivity, this has been done without a backlash against the convention and the European Court.