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Civil Society Days: International Conference on Civil Society

Civil Society Days: International Conference on Civil Society

6 June 2019

OECD Conference Centre, Paris


Address by Minister McEntee

‘Addressing Civil Society space – a development partner perspective’

*Check Against Delivery* 

Director General, Your Excellencies, Dear Friends,


I would like to begin by congratulating the OECD and the Task Team for convening this conference. Here in Paris today I see a genuinely broad range of stakeholders who together will ensure a rich and wide-ranging dialogue. As well as representatives from civil society organisations from all over the world, it is good to see representatives of partner countries, donors, and, of course, multilateral institutions in the room.


Our collective engagement is needed if we are to deliver the ambition of the 2030 Agenda.  When Ireland and Kenya co-facilitated the negotiations which agreed the Sustainable Development Goals, the countries of the world agreed that they would be universal – that they would apply to all of us, and not just some nations. And within that, we agreed to both leave no one behind and to reach the furthest behind first. If this ambition which we have set ourselves is to be achieved, it is clear that the essential role of civil society needs to be recognised. This is why the final goal – Goal 17 on Partnerships to deliver the SDGs – enables the realisation of all of the other 16 goals.


This week-long session of ‘Civil Society Days’ is an important moment for us all to collectively take stock of where we are; to reflect on and enable civil society to deliver on the SDGs.  


[Ireland as a donor]


Earlier this year the Irish Government launched a new policy for international development called A Better World, which includes a reiteration of Ireland’s firm commitment to support and protect civil society space. This reflects our lived experience that effective civil society is an essential ingredient for national development.


Ireland is consistently one of the top donor countries providing development assistance to and through civil society organisations as part of our international development programme. Even during the years of austerity, it was our strong priority to ring-fence and preserve our funding to civil society organisations.


We have a proud record of pro-active and sustained engagement on the promotion and protection of civil society space. However, we can always do better. I know there are some representatives of Irish civil society in the room today with whom we have an on-going and robust dialogue on where we can do more both at home and overseas. This is part of the ongoing, at times challenging, but honest debate which my government has with Irish civil society, which enriches the quality of our joint endeavours. These partnerships with civil society organisations at home and abroad are key to delivering the SDGs. Indeed, ‘partnership’ is one of the three themes of our United Nations Security Council candidacy such is its importance to us. 


As everyone in this room will be only too aware, civil society actors have come under increasing pressure in many parts of the world, both across developed and developing countries, in recent years.  In some countries, dialogue with civil society remains limited and the space for civil society engagement is narrow or shrinking. In other cases, restrictive legislation and repressive practices have led to stigmatisation, harassment, and even criminalisation of civil society actors.


While serving on the United Nations Human Rights Council from 2013 to 2015, Ireland championed the right for civil society to have safe, protected places to operate as we facilitated the first Human Rights Council resolutions on civil society space.  Last year, we were proud to again be a lead sponsor, along with a cross-regional alliance led by Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone and Tunisia, of the latest resolution which focused on Civil Society Space: engagement with international and regional organizations.


This resolution highlights the need for a strong civil society in all countries to ensure the promotion of equality, accountability and the rule of law.

In the resolution, we requested the High Commissioner for Human Rights to prepare a report on progress made in improving civil society engagement with international and regional organisations, which I’m sure will be of interest to the OECD in its own engagement with civil society.  I’m pleased to be sharing the podium with UN Special Rapporteur, Clément Voule, whose personal commitment is one of the lynchpins in enabling the UN family to deliver on these resolutions.


[Challenges to civil society space]


The promotion and the protection of civil society space is not just a foreign policy objective of ours - it is our lived reality. After all, we cannot advocate overseas what we do not live up to at home. I’d like to take a few moments to share some aspects of our journey to better engage with civil society at home, including on how this engagement has helped us manage difficult issues.  

In 2016, the Irish Government committed to establishing a Citizens’ Assembly to consider a number of key national issues. The Assembly consisted of 100 Irish citizens who were randomly selected to be broadly representative of the Irish electorate.


The Assembly Members deliberated over a period of months, heard evidence from all sides and had the power to call experts to present on any aspect of the topic under consideration.


Their conclusions on each topic formed the basis of individual reports and recommendations that were submitted to the Houses of the Oireachtas (Ireland’s parliament and senate) and were of great assistance to myself and my parliamentary colleagues as we set out the way forward. This experiment in deliberative democracy led to Ireland being called the “most innovative democracy in Europe”


In practice the Citizens’ Assembly helped us nationally to discuss a very emotive and often divisive issue.  While every country has its own unique challenges and circumstances, I hope that this experience can help inform other countries’ approaches to benefiting from an expanding civil society space.


As one of its first recommendations, the Citizen’s Assembly proposed a referendum to remove and replace the 8th Amendment – an amendment to the Irish Constitution which acknowledged the right to life of the ‘unborn’ and which, in essence, prevented abortion in all but the rarest of cases.  This Amendment had been a subject which caused deep rifts throughout society, and had been the subject of heated and emotional exchange for many decades.  What the Citizens Assembly allowed us to do was to take some of the heat out of the discussion. When the Assembly brought together civil society groups, government, academics and experts from many different fields, it allowed for all perspectives to have a hearing and to tease out complicated and sensitive issues in a respectful and considered manner.


The outcome was that our national debate on this issue, while still difficult and emotional at times, was conducted in a more sensitive and caring context than at any previous time in the preceding 40 years. Most importantly, the outcome of the referendum was respected, including by the losing side – perhaps because the process was deemed legitimate by the people, having had their views and concerns listened to.  


As Minster of State for European Affairs, the Europe’s future and, of course the decision of the UK to leave the EU – better known as Brexit - is a topic on which I spend a lot of my time. As with other policy areas ranging from our new development policy to our LGBTI+ youth strategy, we actively engage civil society throughout the process.


On Brexit, we held ‘town-hall’ style forums – Citizens’ Dialogues on the Future of Europe- throughout the country, which were an opportunity for individuals and organisations of all backgrounds to make their voices heard on the future direction of the European Union as well as the consequences of Brexit for them and their communities.  


The dialogues were designed to raise awareness and encourage participation. But most of all, they were a listening exercise.  From a Government perspective, it is not always easy to listen to criticism, but I believe hearing the perspectives and lived experience of ordinary citizens allows us to design better policies and deliver better outcomes.


Our civil society space is probably now more open, engaged and diverse than it has ever been. However, that does not mean we have no room for improvement and we look forward to continued dialogue with our civil society partners at home and abroad in delivering together on all the SDGs, especially SDG 17 on partnerships.


Finally, I’d like to congratulate the Task Team on CSO Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment – our co-hosts along with the OECD - which is marking its 10th anniversary this evening. For those of you who may not be familiar - the Task Team brings together donor countries, partner countries and civil society organisations as equal partners to engage on the shared agenda of how both development effectiveness and an enabling environment for civil society organisations are mutually reinforcing.  The Task Team seeks to facilitate multi-stakeholder dialogue to allow us all deliver the 2030 Agenda. Having recently taken over as the donor co-chair of the Task Team, Ireland commits to continue to engage with all stakeholders to promote and preserve civil society space.


I look forward to listening to and learning from my fellow panellists, and indeed the audience, about your experience of engaging in, and promoting civil society space.


To quote an old Irish proverb, “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine”, which means “It is in each other’s shelter that the people live”. We cannot achieve our shared ambition without working together.