Minister for Finance, Mr Ruairi Quinn at the presentation of the European Journalism Awards Iveagh House
Address by the Minister for Finance, Mr Ruairi Quinn
at the presentation of the European Journalism Awards
Iveagh House, 7 May 1997
As we gather here this evening for the annual awards ceremony organised by the Association of European Journalists, we do so to mark the achievements of Irish journalists in covering European stories during an eventful last twelve months for the European Union and for Ireland in Europe.
The European story is a story of growing importance. It is one that deserves to attract, and indeed has attracted, a high standard of journalistic coverage. It is true that the European story is not always an easy one to cover and that it has drawn its fair share of detractors and derision. If one is looking for a disparaging or mischievous angle on the EU there is usually material for this in the multiple recesses of EU policy, and if not it can be invented. The straight banana stories so beloved by the tabloids will always be with us.
There are also plenty of serious challenges for journalists on the European stage. There is, of course, the problem that the complexities of the Intergovernmental Conference, of the Single Market or of the Social Chapter may not readily yield their secrets even to the most astute journalistic pen. Furthermore, the European scene often seems to lack some of the drama of local or national politics with their personality clashes and party rivalries. The European story has, however, its own rewards and tonight's recipients are proof that it is receptive to the wiles of that valuable commodity, good journalism.
The EU story is a complex one that requires, and repays, careful telling It is a tale of a great political adventure in which countries with diverse cultures and a history of mutual conflict have banded together to create an entity unique in the annals of international relations. It tells of an organisation that has succeeded in being at the heart of Europe's peaceful evolution over the last 40 years, having managed to transcend centuries of debilitating division. Moreover, the EU retains great contemporary relevance as it endeavours to come to terms with the challenges of ensuring continuing prosperity and security for its peoples as we approach the 21st century. It also has the task of extending these benefits to those countries now waiting to join the Union. The EU has a central role to play in coming to terms with the great changes that have remade Europe over the last decade.
There have been some significant European developments in the last twelve months. This period has seen the Intergovernmental Conference to review the Maastricht Treaty move, under the Irish Presidency, from its initial exploratory phase to the stage of negotiation centred on actual draft treaty texts. As a result of the substantial strides made over the last year, the IGC negotiations are now poised to conclude on schedule at next month's Amsterdam Summit. This will bring to a close a complex negotiation about the EU's development. It will also open a further chapter as the enlargement negotiations and their attendant challenges come into focus in the second half of this year.
The past year has also seen a continuation of the progress towards Economic and Monetary Union. The highlight of the on-going preparations for EMU was the agreement in Dublin in December on the Stability and Growth Pact. This underlined yet again the determination of the member States to make EMU a reality in 1999. The recent performance of EU economies provides further testimony to the depth of the Member States' commitment to the EMU participation criteria enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty.
The EU story is a still unfolding one. As in the domestic political arena, there are new twists all the time, for the EU does not, and cannot, stand still. It needs to evolve to meet its peoples' changing needs and there are some highly significant hurdles on the horizon. The conclusion of the Intergovernmental Conference will bestow the revised Treaty with a sharper focus on meeting the real needs of the people of Europe. The revised Treaty is expected to equip the Union with new possibilities for promoting employment and combatting social exclusion, both of which have been key Irish aims during the negotiations. It will bring the Social Chapter fully within the ambit of the Treaty thereby providing a coherent basis for Union action in the social area. The revised Treaty will strengthen the Union's hand in contributing to the fight against crime, a menace that has no respect for national frontiers.
It is also envisaged that the revised Treaty will strengthen the Union's institutions, and render its decision-making more effective by means of a sensible extension of the scope of qualified majority voting and of the co-decision procedure which confers an important role on the European Parliament. On the external front, the continued development of the Union's common foreign and security policy represents an effort to apply to the entire European continent the benefits of peace and security the EU has brought to western Europe this last 40 years. A key innovation will be the assumption by the EU of responsibilities in the area of humanitarian tasks and peacekeeping. This will give the Union a profile in a field in which Ireland has a long and proud tradition of service to the international community.
Tonight we salute those journalists who have distinguished themselves during the last year in reporting on Ireland in Europe. To cover the European story from an Irish angle is to focus on one of the most positive aspects of this country's recent historical experience. It is to hone in on the significant economic achievements that have coincided with our EU membership. Our years in the EU have witnessed a substantial diversification of our trade in a frontier-free Europe; we have promoted the development of our industrial base through foreign investment attracted, among other reasons, by our position within the Single European Market; the steady improvement of our economic infrastructure has derived in part from the impact of European structural funding; and there has been a dramatic rise in our living standards, something that has been especially apparent in recent years as we have begun to close in on the EU wealth average.
The European story also calls to mind the changes that have come about within Irish society, and the revolution in attitudes that has occurred during our first quarter of a century of European involvement. Active engagement in European affairs for the first time in our modern history has generated a new self-confidence and maturity. In such areas as social policy, environment, and equality practices, European models, and our participation in the EU debates on these issues have had a major impact on the evolution of Irish public policy .
Last week in New York there was another awards ceremony on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day which called to mind an altogether nastier side of today's Ireland. The posthumous award for Veronica Guerin brought back painful memories of one of the darkest days for Irish journalism, and indeed for our society. The savage killing of Veronica Guerin was an attack on all that it is decent in Irish life. The extent to which organised crime is capable of threatening the peaceful democratic basis of Irish, and indeed, European society, is truly appalling. The challenge that organised crime has thrown down is one that is being met with full vigour. It was one of the achievements of our Presidency that we placed a new kind of emphasis on the need to tackle organised crime, not alone on a national basis, but at European and international level as well.
Veronica Guerin was murdered because she upheld the public's right to know the truth about the criminal underworld against the wishes of those who felt they could not afford to have their sinister story told. This heinous attempt to silence the media goes against a most basic principle of a pluralist society, the insistence on a free press. The public's right to information is a paramount requirement in any properly functioning democracy. The trend in Ireland as in the rest of Europe is, I am happy to acknowledge, towards making more and more information available to the public. This is an area where the media has an essential contribution to make.
Since these awards were last presented twelve months ago an important piece of new legislation has been passed which will transform the operation of Government in Ireland. The Freedom of Information Act gives everyone a legal right to seek and receive information from public bodies and to see public files. That right will be backed up by an independent appeals system. And it will place a legal duty on public bodies - on Ministers, on Government Departments, on County Councils, Health Boards and other official agencies - to provide the public with the information when they ask for it. Thus the people's right to know is being enshrined in law, overturning the outmoded and excessive presumptions of official secrecy.
Freedom of Information is not only important for the proper functioning of this State. It is vital if we and our EU partners are to achieve what we have promised and bring the European Union closer to its citizens. It is in the nature of the European Union that seems more remote from, and less tangible to, its citizens than the nation State. In national systems, Government is more of an everyday reality as represented by the Buildings in which Parliament debates and Governments meets. The exacting exchanges in which politicians - and journalists - engage on Morning Ireland or Daybreak, bring national politics into our homes on a daily basis and, together with the five-yearly appearance of election posters on lampposts, give domestic politics an immediacy that Brussels and Strasbourg have been unable to match.
The European Union has all of the ingredients of domestic politics but its very size, tends to make the citizen feel at a distance. That is why the Irish Presidency's draft revision of the Maastricht Treaty included a promise of greater transparency and openness in the operation of the Union and its institutions. This is essential if the Union's workings are to be understood and accepted by its citizens. That is why we subtitled our Treaty text "Adapting the European Union for the Benefit of Its Peoples and Preparing it for the Future." That is why the very first words in the document are "The European Union belongs to its citizens."
Greater access for the citizen to the operation of Government and the Union is not enough in itself. Appreciation of the EU, for its strengths and even its weaknesses, requires a strong media which carries out its responsibility to keep the people informed and to ask hard questions on their behalf.
For many Irish people, the European Union becomes all the more immediate every six years or so when we carry out our Presidency duties. I think we can be happy with how we discharged our Presidency responsibilities. There are those who believe that smaller countries cannot bear the burden of managing the European agenda. Ireland has yet again refuted that notion. Coverage of the Irish Presidency in the last six months of 1996 was, I believe, balanced and fair, informed and informative. Enormous credit must go those who were involved in this venture, some of whom are getting awards this evening. Without their labours, the intricacies of the European agenda might have gone unexplained. The climax of the six months was the European Council, which gave Ireland an opportunity to display its wares to 2,000 journalists, scores of TV channels and their millions of readers and viewers across Europe ands beyond. It was a source of considerable satisfaction all round to be able to demonstrate once again that efficiency and effectiveness are by-words for the Ireland of the late 20th century.Top