Ireland's youngest MEP making waves in Brussels

It's a fine November afternoon in Brussels but here, deep in the bowls of the Berlaymont, you could be forgiven for not knowing what the weather is like outside. For two days, myself and group of fellow newspaper editors and journalists have been getting our first live taste of the Parliament since before lockdown.

Maria Walsh, Ireland's youngest MEP

Maria Walsh, Ireland's youngest MEP

I have been on many of these trips over the decades, but maybe it's age, or maybe it's the lack of proximity since the last one, but this visit of work seems the most interesting. Most trips over the years have been dominated by agriculture or fishing, and while both are still firmly on the agenda, the menu of topics for the European project has greatly expanded in the past few years, the past few months and the past few days.

Now, the invasion of Ukraine, the after effect of the pandemic, the lingering tentacles of Brexit, and the UK's self-imposed meltdown top the list, but just ahead of the dangers of cyberwar, disinformation, and spiralling levels of mental health. Through all of these talks, we hear from EU officials of the esteem in which they hold Ireland's youngest (and least experienced ) MEP who has taken the Parliament by storm with her support for a wide range of relevant issues that need to be tackled if engagement with the Single Market's younger population is to be increased.

"There are just eighty weeks to the next European Parliament elections," Maria Walsh reminds me as we sit down for a brief chat. It just feels like yesterday that she was elected, and now she is on the other half of her first term. Lockdown has taken up a good portion of that.

For someone whose experience of politics was not via the traditional route, she has morphed well into the role, championing issues of cyber violence, bullying, mental health. She has known too that there is a process to be followed if change is to be achieved.

"Before I came here, I and my generation just didn't understand the ins and outs of things or how things work. And then you try and look at a problem and think traditionally, that might take a couple of years. But how can we actually reduce that and get get get some new way of thinking in it.

"But it doesn't always work like that. And there is a certain hierarchy in terms of experience. But for everything that you have here, if you're willing to put the work in, you hope that it delivers. And that's all you can ask for.

“But ultimately, if things like fair equality on women and LGBTI community or equality overall happens, if the constituency gets more funding and more awareness to what it actually can deliver and has delivered for people, then we will have succeeded.

“And if mental health gets discussed by the big bosses here, then I feel like whatever happens in the election in 2024, we've delivered something."

The networking experience of being a Rose of Tralee was not wasted on the Shrule woman.

"I was given a podium, the time of the Rose of Tralee to talk about really difficult issues, and it kind of grew from that. And then being able to sit here and speak with colleagues across the political house. When I compare notes to other deputies or senators or local councillors at home, you know, it's always fascinating to me, you cannot make anything work here, unless you have cross party support.

“Because your rebuttals and how you deliver conversation or speeches, or put in amendments, you have to think through the prism of who am I actually speaking to? And how best to get as much support into that.

“So that has been really great. And then to your point, yeah, as being someone who's not who's not your traditional politician, or who's not looking at a role in Europe as, let's call a spade a spade, a retirement home (which it has been for not just our country, but many countries ) or working on a list system, which other countries do where we you know, where a party leader might have their 10 best candidates or those that they want to choose.

“For us, every vote really counted and every vote got me here. So if it wasn't for the Rose of Tralee I would not be standing on any podium, particularly as a member of the European Parliament.

“People often forget, you know, I travelled the 32 counties of Ireland as my Rose duty. And I was introduced to many small towns and villages, like my own in Shrule, multiple times through different organisations and through different Roses themselves or escorts.

The year was so jam packed that I got to meet so many people.

And then a couple of years later, I reintroduce myself as the exact same person in terms of values and principles, but just through the prism of a different job description. And I never take for granted that it is because of the Rose that I'm here."

Maria is aware of the toll that poor mental health is having on the towns and villages of not just her constituency, but of all such communities across Europe.

“Yeah, mental health in particular. One of my fundamental campaign, one of my fundamental life goals is that everybody understands the importance of good mental health.

"And some of us are challenged more than others. Others overcome that challenge because of support but none of us is going to get out of this silent pandemic that we've been experiencing for years unless we all wake up to the fact that mental health is a serious problem.

“You know, on a on a daily basis, I read reports where the second leading cause of death in Europe right now for young people is suicide.

“No, we're not unique, which just goes to show you that meant that dealing with mental health, yes, in a silo fashion, like a member state like Ireland, is not going to help anybody. And we have a blueprint because we've seen it with COVID when Member States came together. I really do not think we can deal with mental health on our own.

“We have shared expertise across the EU, so why aren’t we tapping into them. Why aren't we looking at best practices elsewhere? And really working together on the EU mental health strategy?

Traditionally such issues have not been seen as the responsibility of the EU?

“Can you imagine running for as long as I did and arriving here first day of school and being told. 'Well, that's actually not being discussed here?'

"And I'm like, there are always ways and means, because for me, in a small village, like Shrule, we've lost close to 20 people, if not more over the year. There are a lot of people who are suffering.

"A lot more people have understood the suffering based of COVID. Yes. And I think, and we have to open up to the fact that we have a negative legacy for mental health. But we cannot have a negative legacy in the future for younger generation.

Maria's ambition is to deliver a year dedicated to mental health.

"I wanted it to be 2023. But the Commission has decided to dedicate that to training and skills, a very worthwhile year. But it still doesn't mean that myself and a handful of other MEPs won’t get that delivered.

“For the first time and potentially only the last time, we have an EU Commissioner for Health who is herself a child psychologist by trade. And the President of the Commission herself, for the first time ever, in her state of the Union address, spoke about mental health.

“So the stars are slowly aligning. It's just in this big, bold, beautiful place, things move a little bit slower than I wish. I got into politics and wanted anything to change yesterday, and that's not the case. It's my number one learn for anybody looking to this place.

“Democracy and change takes time, frustrating as it is it is. But a EU mental health strategy would be the where we have all EU ministers and those working within them in the mental health area around, sit together for the first time together and actually look at what is the data we know, where's the research pointing us?

“What's academic saying, what's stakeholder staying, and let's actually make something change. Because suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people, that's our future of Europe.

"And like cyber, cyber violence, cyber bullying, what is happening online also happens offline, it's just not being reported as much. And ultimately, we also have a responsibility in Ireland because we are home to multiple tech sectors. And while there's change right now, in terms of the job security, that doesn't mean the competency, or the requirement for us, as a country leading this way is in any way diminished.

Maria Walsh's constituency covers a massive swathe of Ireland and her success last time out was phenomenal. However, she is hoping that her record as the youngest MEP is broken when the elections come around in 2024.

"Democracy speaks for itself, you know, and you have to allow people to use your voice and make their point. But, you know, this place has as average age of 55 years, and younger people need to shelf the idea of ever thinking that Europe is not for us.

"And how we connect to people about European issues is incredibly important when you see the rise of extremism. I mean, I'm watching the US elections, And then you see it rising in several EU countries and there is a lot to be done."

The weekly commute to and from the cockpit of Europe is something she wishes she could change.

"I wouldn't say it's easy. But I read the terms and conditions before I applied. But I leave Shrule every Monday morning typically at 2am. Yeah, I tried to do Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday here long days, and theis allows me Thursday to Sunday to be able to focus on the constituency and weirdly enough that works.

But it's hard on the body. It's hard on the mind. It's hard on my own mental health, and to find some sort work-life balance, which is politics and media and many other jobs. I wish Ireland West Airport flew direct to Brussels, it would make things easier," she adds.

Our nearest-based MEP has a full agenda, but she is determined to continue to make her mark on highlighting the concerns that are dominating the minds of young people from Belmullet to Budapest.

It might be a year and a half to the election, but Maria Walsh is keen to ensure that her work until then is meaningful, and that it yields results in soothing the chaotic minds of the young people of the continent.


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