Address to Seanad Éireann by Ms Anne Brasseur (Resumed)

Madame Brasseur, nous vous remercions beaucoup pour votre visite. It is a great pleasure to welcome Ms Brasseur to Ireland.

Since her election as President in January of this year she has been outstanding in the role. In particular, her handling of the difficult debates on Ukraine, and particularly the debates on possible sanctions on Russia, was excellent. The situation regarding Russia and its Ukrainian policy is a big issue. The Council of Europe, which comprises 47 countries, is the principal human rights and democracy body for the wider Europe and as such has a very important role. It places enormous responsibility on the Parliamentary Assembly to be the voice of reason in this debate and I am pleased that, whereas certain voting rights were taken from the Russian delegation, the option of expelling Russia or cancelling its credentials from the Council of Europe was rejected. It is very important that communication is kept open with Russia, and the Council of Europe is one of the few organisations where east meets west. I urge Ms Brasseur to continue dialogue with the Duma members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, and to continue with her contacts at ambassadorial level. I am delighted the leader of the Irish members of PACE, Deputy Joe O'Reilly is here. I hope someday we will propose him for the presidency of PACE but that is in the future.

The Ukrainian situation is very sad. There were recent signs of movement, if not improvement, and I hope these will bear fruit and conflict can be avoided.

There have been some concerns about human rights issues in Azerbaijan. It is very important that these concerns are addressed, particularly as the question of the chairmanship of Azerbaijan of the ministerial council arises. I know that Ms Brasseur is using her good offices in this regard.

Since being appointed to the Council of Europe, I have had the privilege to attend plenary sessions. Last week, I attended the meeting of the culture, education, media and science committee in Paris. We discussed a number of issues, including a report from Mr. Piotr Wach from Poland on raising the status of vocational education and training. This is an issue dear to our hearts and Ireland has recently legislated in this regard with the Education and Training Boards Bill and the Bill on further education and training establishing a new and better delivery structure. We need to monitor this education constantly so that our people throughout Europe get the best possible training and education. These people are the backbone of our country. As a former education Minister in her native Luxembourg, Ms Brasseur has always had a deep interest in and concern about vocational education and training and I encourage her particularly to support Mr. Wach's report as it goes through its various stages.

When the Council of Europe was established in 1949, Ireland was a founder member. Yesterday, I had lunch with the grandson of the Taoiseach at the time, John A. Costello who said his grandfather considered bringing Ireland into the Council of Europe as a founding member one of his most important achievements. I have absolute confidence in Ms Brasseur's ability to lead the Council of Europe in all the amazing directions it is going at present. I assure her once again of our full and committed support.

On behalf of the Fianna Fáil group I am honoured to welcome Ms Brasseur to the Upper House. It is an historic day not only for us, but, as she outlined, for her as she is addressing a full Parliament during her tenure as president.

As was already outlined, Ireland is a founder member of the Council of Europe and has a very proud history and tradition of participation in it. I could not help but reflect on the circumstances in which the Council of Europe came together in 1949, in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War when human rights had been trampled and the concept of human rights had not been developed. It is to the credit of those founding fathers that they set down concepts at the time which have resonated to the present day.

It is in this context that I was particularly interested in Ms Brasseur's remarks about the relationship between the Council of Europe and Russia. I applaud her efforts in this regard. As she outlined, and she was probably somewhat restrained, it is one of the most serious crises to affect Europe since the Second World War. I am curious to know how she thinks it will develop in the coming weeks and months. The fact she has invited the newly elected president of Ukraine to address the Parliamentary Assembly is worthwhile. There seems to be some movement between Russia and Ukraine in terms of trying to lessen tensions. Ms Brasseur has been pivotal to the discussions and developments in recent months and I am curious to know her overall view.

Regarding Russia and the Council of Europe, I am particularly pleased the Parliamentary Assembly stopped short of withdrawing the credentials of the Russian members. It is very important that dialogue continues. As Winston Churchill said, "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war". As Senator Jim D'Arcy said, the Council of Europe is one of the few pan-European organisations where East and West come together. I was a member of the Council of Europe from 2002 until 2008 and Russia played an active role and saw the Council as an important connection to the rest of Europe. Russia would not wish to do anything that could endanger its status in that regard. It is good that while a marker was laid down by the sanctions imposed, the Council stopped short of withdrawing Russia's credentials. It was a wise decision because to do so would not have solved anything.

Does Ms Brasseur have any views on the future role of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe? I know this matter has been under discussion for some years, particularly since 2004 and the enlargement of the European Union. Many former Soviet Union satellite countries saw the Council of Europe as the most important part of their external policies. They were active members of the Council but this has weakened since they joined the European Union. From 2004 to 2008, I got the impression those countries were less committed to the Council of Europe because they had become members of the European Union. Within the European Union, the need for the Council of Europe was questioned because the EU was founded on the same concepts, such as human rights and fairness and equality for all. What relationship does the Council of Europe now have with the European Union?

I am sure Ms Brasseur will agree that the evolving situation in Ukraine and Russian involvement in that crisis have made other countries nervous, particularly neighbouring countries. This applies to the disputed territories in Moldova and Transnistria and also to the territories mentioned by Ms Brasseur in places such as Nagorno-Karabakh. Should we be more concerned about these situations?

I again welcome Ms Brasseur to the House and to Ireland. I am glad she has enjoyed her time here and I hope she returns soon.

I welcome the President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Ms Brasseur, and thank her for her address to this House. She has opened the eyes of some of us, including myself, who did not know a great deal about the Council of Europe. Other Members of the Houses, including Deputy O'Reilly and Senator Mooney, know a great deal more about the Council and have much experience of it. I will give Ms Brasseur an opportunity to add to what she has said. Could we have a brief overview of five achievements of the Parliamentary Assembly in the past year? Russia will play a large part in this and I understand the crisis in Ukraine must have put huge pressure on the Council of Europe. Will the lack of trust that has grown between Russia and Ukraine damage the Council of Europe? If Russia withdraws its €23 million contribution to the Council, which it has not yet done, will it mean the Council will be unable to function as competently as in the past?

Ireland has been involved in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE. That organisation has several hundred people involved in the Ukraine crisis. Is there a danger the Council of Europe will duplicate this work or will its work complement that of the OSCE?

What is Ms Brasseur's view on the rise of extremism in Europe? This is a concern for everyone, though extremism varies depending on the country. Some countries have shifted sharply to the right and some to the left. Can we learn from this and what can we do about it?

What deficits in legislation does the assembly see in Ireland? Where should our focus be as legislators and what should we do differently?

I thank Ms Brasseur for the insight she has given. I apologise that I will not be in the House for the next few minutes but I hope to return for her answers.

I am an Independent Senator and I say to Ms Brasseur, welcome and bienvenue. My background is in children's rights and I have long admired the work of the Council of Europe. In fact my first experience in the area came 25 years ago with the then youth directorate, now youth department, of the Council of Europe. I became familiar with the way it trained future youth leaders and I thank the Council of Europe for this experience. It is good to see that this work continues today and that there is a system of co-management in the area of youth policy. This means youth non-governmental organisations, NGOs, work with officials from member states to determine budgets and programmes for young people. Member states should note how the Council of Europe has succeeded in engaging with those it funds to reach democratic decisions.

I commend the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on its work and the emphasis it has placed on children's rights. We must build a Europe with children for children. The Council's work has been a forerunner of much of what has been done at EU level. The Council has worked on children in care and child-friendly justice but the EU's work in this regard has been protectionist. The Council's work on child-friendly justice is remarkable and I draw from it often in my work in the Seanad. I am glad that experts such as Ursula Kilkelly play a leading role on this work in the Council of Europe.

Ms Brassuer mentioned work on domestic violence and child abuse and the importance of Ireland ratifying the Lanzarote Convention and the Istanbul Convention, among others. We must live up to our roles. One of the benefits of having this debate with Ms Brasseur present is we can discuss the future role of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

The Council of Europe is a good forum for discussing issues such as youth policy, children's rights, child-friendly justice and domestic violence. All too often it may take years for the EU to then pick up on this and often in a pick and mix way without the integrity of the Council of Europe. I echo what Senator Mooney said as it is something I am also thinking about. Perhaps Members of this House should discuss this rather than just being bystanders because we have a role as parliamentarians to support the colleagues that represent us in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

I thank Ms Brasseur for acknowledging our colleague, Senator David Norris. She reminds us to be proud of the role he played. He did something of historic importance and used the European Convention on Human Rights in a very positive way. We should continue to draw reference from this fact. Can Ireland be a leader rather than a follower?

I welcome Ms Brasseur, President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Tá fáilte romhat. I am afraid I do not speak Luxembourgish but I thank her for speaking Irish in the Chamber. It is an honour to have her here and I welcome Deputy O'Reilly, the leader of the Irish delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

It is very good to hear about the work being done by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. In Ireland, we are all much more familiar with the work of the European Court of Human Rights. Senator van Turnhout and others have mentioned some of the significant cases that have been taken to the European Court of Human Rights by Irish citizens which have had a huge impact on our society - a positive impact - such as Senator Norris's case which was acknowledged.

The court also ruled on the case of Louise O'Keeffe in January. The case has been hugely important in terms of establishing the need to ensure that there are adequate remedies available for those who were victims of sexual abuse as children in schools. That case has had an important impact in Ireland too.

Ms Brasseur mentioned the A, B and C case which has also had a major impact here. The hearings she mentioned were held in this Chamber and were widely commended as an exemplary model of a pre-legislative stage for drafting Bills.

I pay tribute to the work that she has done within the legislative wing of the Parliamentary Assembly which she spoke about. She also referred to the positive steps that have been taken regarding Ukraine.

Senator van Turnhout spoke about Ms Brasseur's work on children's rights. I am interested in some of the work being done on equality issues, particularly the announcement this month by the Parliamentary Assembly of the launch of the No Hate Parliamentary Alliance. Senator Quinn mentioned the rise of extremism across Europe. I note that Ms Brasseur spoke about the need to launch a No Hate Parliamentary Alliance to commit parliamentarians to taking an open, firm and proactive stands against racism, hatred and intolerance. She also stressed the crucial role played by politicians in combating hate speech, particularly at a time of economic and financial crises because such crises offer fertile grounds for a climate that distils hate. That is a very good example of the sort of positive work that the Parliamentary Assembly can do and is doing. I thank her to coming here and telling us about that.

I welcome President Brasseur to the Seanad and to Dublin. I hope she enjoys her short stay. I commend her on the work that she is doing in Europe and on her comprehensive contribution to the Seanad today.

I wish to pick up on a number of the issues and themes that she raised and to support some of them. The first issue is the rights of the Traveller community in this State. We have a long way to go in terms of the responsibility of this State towards Travellers. I would welcome Ms Brasseur's thoughts on what practical steps the State could take to protect the rights of Travellers.

With regard to migrant groups, we can agree in general that we need burden sharing across Europe as regards the issue of illegal migrants. I am concerned about the rise of far right groups across Europe and their very anti-immigration position. Thankfully, we do not have that same situation in this State but we can see it happening in other states across Europe. A lot of issues feed into the rise of such groups which has little to do with immigration and more to do with economic issues in those states. The situation is very worrying. I agree with Senator Quinn that the rise of the far right is something that should worry us all. I would like to hear Ms Brasseur's view on that matter.

My party and I have previously raised the issue of direct provision for asylum seekers. They are provided for directly in what are called reception centres. However, they do not have the right to work or many other rights. It is a policy of out of sight and out of mind, with very little integration in the wider society. Very often, these people must wait years for asylum to be granted and while they wait for the process to be completed, they are kept in reception centres. In some cases, the management in the centres is questionable. What is Ms Brasseur's opinion on the overall policy and where Ireland can improve?

We are all concerned about the unstable and volatile situation in Ukraine. I agree that the annexation of Crimea by Russia was not legitimate for all sorts of reasons. However, I am concerned about one of the reasons given by the EU for not supporting it, which was the constitution in Ukraine. A referendum will take place in Catalonia and Spain's constitution does not allow for a region to secede from the Spanish state. This constitution was drawn up by Franco. In my view, the majority of people in the region support independence. Therefore, the EU should be open to the idea and supportive of the democratic right of citizens, once elections and referendums are fair and not under pressure from a military occupation, which is what happened in Ukraine. There was also a very short lead in to the referendum and all sorts of other issues in Ukraine. I am concerned about an inconsistency of approach in Europe and I ask Ms Brasseur for her opinion in this regard. I wish her well for her short stay here in Dublin.

The president has five minutes to respond to a number of questions, if she wishes.

Ms Anne Brasseur

Trying to answer them will be the most difficult task of my trip to Ireland.

Concerning Russia, it is true that we must keep open the corridors of dialogue. We can also learn from Ireland about how it met challenges during its history and overcame serious crises through dialogue. On the one hand, there must be sanctions but, on the other, there must be dialogue. One must speak and listen to one another, even if one does not agree. One must try to understand the other argument and sit down to find solutions. Dialogue only works, however, if both sides want to find a solution and, of course, we cannot force anybody to do it.

Azerbaijan has taken over the chairmanship. I was very critical of it in my opening address at the standing committee a fortnight ago in Baku. One must be critical but I also see the chairmanship as a window of opportunity for Azerbaijan to accelerate its reform process. The country has lots to do and we must address the situation. That is not patronising, just helping countries to reach and cope with the commitments they undertook when they joined the Council of Europe.

The important issue of vocational training was mentioned. I am glad the Council of Europe took up the issue because we need people in Europe who are hands-on and know how young people treat things. One can delocalise jobs in other parts but there is work that must be done on the spot which is where we need qualified people. I believe in the importance of vocational training and I am glad that we are going to adopt the resolution of Mr. Wach.

With regard to human rights in 1949, our predecessors had a vision. They understood that the Second World War was the result of not finding the right solutions after the First World War. After the Second World War they sat down and decided to have a pan-European organisation that would defend democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We tended to take that for granted. When we look at what is happening today, one can see that it is more important than ever to focus on that. One cannot have stable countries and strong institutions without a democratic system. One cannot have a democratic system if one does not have human rights and a system based on the rule of law. We must continue to work together to defend this.

I was asked how the situation between Russia and Ukraine will develop. I do not know, and nobody else knows, but there is some hope. I hope that we continue the dialogue in order to find solutions.

Members spoke also about the neighbouring countries and Moldova. In a fortnight's time, after the session, I am going to Moldova to meet the people because it is important that they feel the support of the Council of Europe. I do not pretend to solve the problem of Transnistria but I want to assure them that they belong to the European family.

In regard to relations with the EU, I always say that the Council of Europe cannot be seen as a waiting room for the European Union. We have to focus on our core business which is human rights in the 47 member states which means the whole geographical Europe, except Kosovo and Belarus. While the European Union decided to join the European Convention on Human Rights we still have some way to go. That is important. We have also agreements where the European Union is funding action plans of the Council of Europe, especially in neighbouring countries in, for example, the Maghreb states.

On the achievements of the Council of Europe, there were serious crises in countries such as Albania where the opposition refused to sit in the parliament, making it impossible to work, because it needed a qualified majority in order to get started. As a Council of Europe and as a parliamentary assembly we went to Albania and spoke to the people and we contributed. We did not solve the problem because they had to solve it themselves but we contributed to finding solutions. The same happened in Romania when they tried to force President Bsescu to step down. We also made a contribution there not to mention all the conventions.

On the issue of finances, it is true that the Council of Europe is getting less money because we have a zero nominal gross budget but we have to continue to get money. I do not think the Russians will withdraw and not pay any more.

There was a question about the OSCE. I called on the Secretary General of the OSCE as we have to maintain relations. The OSCE is responsible for security issues and we are responsible for human rights. We cannot develop human rights without security and we cannot have sound security without human rights, therefore, we have to continue to work closer together.

Several Senators raised the issue of the extremists in Europe. That issue is more than worrisome. I appeal to all democratic parties, despite our political differences in many areas, to stick together in order to combat extremism because that is very dangerous especially with the economic crisis in all our countries. As that is easy for all those populists, so we have to come back to that issue. We know how it worked in the 1930s where people said it was not that dangerous. One has only to look at what happened in Greece to the Government's own party. I was told that was because of the economic crisis and protest voters but it made 16% in essence at the local elections. Therefore, we must stick together in order to combat extremists.

I turn to children's rights and protection. Ireland can make efforts to join the conventions to make them even stronger. The role and future of the Council of Europe is to focus on structuring human rights. I come back to Ukraine where one of its the problems is that it has very weak institutions and weak institutions are not able to provide answers to a serious crisis. It starts with a constitution, corruption, and the justice is not independent. This shows the importance of having those core values deeply rooted in every country. Through its instruments this is where the Council of Europe can help those countries. The No Hate Parliamentary Alliance is also linked to the extremists, therefore we have to stick together.

The last report of the Commissioner for Human Rights of 2011 dealt with Traveller community rights but time does not permit me to go into its details. However, it points to some of the ways to tackle the issue. I advise the House to work on that issue as well on asylum seekers and refugees. The migration issue should be a focus of all member states where a common policy is needed, otherwise this also will help the extremist parties to get more support. Given that it has been stated that migrants are responsible for everything, we need to find an answer to that question.

The final question is territorial integrity, self-determination. How far can it go? Ireland is a neighbour with Scotland. If it agrees that the forthcoming referendum there is fair and meets all the requirements that can be a solution but it has to be in the framework of the constitution, in line with all international requirements and not left to an upcoming populist party which would split a country and make it weaker and more vulnerable.

I have tried to answer all the questions. I wish to close with one word in Luxembourgish, Villmols merci, go raibh maith agat.

I invite the Leader to propose a vote of thanks to Ms Anne Brasseur.

I thank Ms Anne Brasseur for her excellent address and response to the Members of the House. We apologise for the delay in commencing her address but in a parliamentary democracy things can happen for which one cannot always legislate. We are very glad to have her address the House. The members of the Council of Europe who are not present send their apologies; they are away on further business. I thank Ms Anne Brasseur for coming to address the House. It was an honour for us. We wish her every success for the future.

Ms Anne Brasseur

Thank you.