EU elections - why would anyone bother?

Former MEO Mark Killilea — 'the MEP's job is to lobby and cajole'

Former MEO Mark Killilea — 'the MEP's job is to lobby and cajole'

Seeing the occasional poster of a local election candidate advertising public meetings on various issues of concern, Insider noted that, within a month’s time, towns, villages, and the countryside will be radically altered as the election poster blitz takes hold.

The Local and European elections are just eight weeks away and once Easter is over, the campaigning will take off in earnest. Let’s leave the local elections for another day though and ask what the European elections are all about.

High profile declarations – but why?

This topic has been exercising Insider in recent weeks. What has been especially perplexing is the number of sitting TDs and senators who have opted to contest the EU elections. We even have the sight of a high-profile Junior Minister Brian Hayes running for FG in Dublin.

Insider will be blunt about this – Minister Hayes has to all intents and purposes announced his retirement from frontline politics. Five years of obscurity awaits and while he may feel he can return to national politics in due course he may find that easier said than done.

In the new Ireland Midland-North-West constituency we have so far seen declarations of intent from one TD and two senators. It is instructive to look behind two of these decisions, as it tells a story about these elections.

Sen Thomas Byrne who is running for Fianna Fáil had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table according to most accounts. He has little interest in running – preferring instead to focus on regaining his Meath East Dáil seat after a promising by-election outing last year – but was persuaded by party HQ which felt it needed a candidate based in the eastern commuter belt.

Roscommon Independent TD Luke Ming Flanagan on the other hand announced that Ireland had to send a voice to Brussels to give an alternative message to the establishment line. This unfortunately is a most naïve take on the role of the MEP. In reality he will find he has little scope to even get his voice heard, never mind listened to.

The very limited role of the MEP

The truth is, that when it comes to EU politics, the power rests with the Council of Ministers and the EU Commission. While there has been much talk – and no little spin – about the European Parliament flexing its muscles and getting more powers of oversight in recent years, and some occasional standout moments such as their role in the forced resignation of the Jacques Santer Commission back in 1999, the reality is, MEPs have a very limited function.  

Former Connacht/Ulster MEP Mark Killilea spoke about the role of an MEP just before retiring in 1999. He described it as essentially a mixture of networking and lobbying. His view was that Ireland had benefited enormously from EU membership and funding and that the role of the MEP was to keep up the pressure to ensure that Ireland continued to ‘get its share’.

It is not clear if the MEPs really did play as pivotal a role in this process as he claimed, but his remarks were nevertheless quite telling; essentially the role of the MEP was to get the ear of those who had power, not to wield power themselves.

Someone like Dep Flanagan may argue it is a variation of this role that he envisages for himself. He may say that instead of arguing for a share of the EU funding and projects as would have been the case in the 1990s, he will now lobby for a change in the terms on which Ireland’s bank debt is handled at European level.

Insider fears he will be disappointed. Whatever about their power to influence the divvying up of funds, MEPs have little say in determining the ideology of European politics and decision making - that is something that is done between the various member state governments and the Commission.

Who does this role suit?

Why then would people who aspire to hold (or already hold ) ministerial office want to become an MEP?

Looking at the profile of a typical Irish MEP over the years it can be seen that they traditionally come from one of three categories.

1 ) People with a prominent position in farming politics. This is understandable as agriculture is a ‘European issue’ and the lobbying role described by Mark Killilea is a natural continuation of their role in the IFA.

2 ) Experienced politicians going no further in national politics, or someone who parties want to replace with new blood at constituency level. In either case, a term as an MEP is offered as an alternative/compensation/reward.

3 ) TDs who have somehow been discommoded by circumstances – such as for instance Mark Killilea who suffered from the redrawing of the Galway constituency boundaries in the 1980s or Proinsias de Rossa following the Labour/DL merger in the late 1990s.

In more recent times we have seen another breed of MEP candidate emerge – the ‘profile-builder’. Whatever about the low profile of MEPs, the European elections themselves are high profile, almost semi-national contests and can considerably boost the profile of a young politician. Examples would include Junior Minister Alan Kelly who was originally elected as an MEP for Ireland South in 2009 and then won a Dáil seat in Tipperary North barely 18 months later. It does not always work however with both Mairéad McGuinness and Mary Lou McDonald coming a cropper in the 2007 General Election.

This usage of the EU elections has led the electorate to become more cynical about them. The proliferation of MEPs retiring midterm to be replaced by ‘substitute candidates’ in recent years has further perplexed people. A quarter of Irish MEPs elected in 2009 have since been replaced in this manner.

Midlands-North West prediction

Having said all that, the EU elections will generate a lot of attention and excitement. So what might the outcome be in Midlands-North West?

EU elections are very different to Dáil elections and are more personality than party based. A successful candidate must appeal to a wide geographical base – this is even more so on this occasion with the large, unwieldy constituencies.

You will struggle to find many people who are happy with the new ‘Malin-M50’ conglomeration but the Boundary Commission was stuck with a range of unpalatable choices in trying to split the reduced number of 11 seats. Insider is not the only one who is wondering if the Government should have taken steps to create one national 11-seater.

Midlands-North West is what we are stuck with however and it makes for a very unpredictable outcome. Looking at the population spread Insider expects the likely outcome is two seats along the west coast and two seats in the east. Most people agree that sitting MEP Mairéad McGuinness is a near certainty for FG, and Insider concurs.

This is also fertile territory for Sinn Féin, containing a range of border constituencies as well as other party strongholds. Indeed half of the party’s 14 TDs are based in this constituency as well as a few senators. SF will surely fancy its chances of taking a seat with Monaghan-based Cllr Matt Carthy.

The assumption then would be that the three sitting MEPs in Ireland West – Pat the Cope Gallagher (FF ), Jim Higgins (FG ) and Marian Harkin (Independent ) – would fight it out among themselves and possibly with the two newly declared Independent candidates, Luke Ming Flanagan and Senator Rónán Mullen for the two ‘west coast seats’.

This is still the likeliest outcome but Insider would not totally disregard Sen Byrne’s chances of taking the FF seat. It admittedly looks unlikely that both he and Mairéad McGuinness could be elected; however there is a considerable population in the eastern end of the constituency and SF would be expected to eat into the vote in the western half, especially in MEP Gallagher’s Donegal base.

The fight for FF supremacy may yet prove to be an interesting one, although Insider feels Sen Byrne is not totally committed to this race, and that should favour MEP Gallagher. Despite fears of a split vote costing them a seat, Insider cannot see FF being wiped out in this one either.

Insider then would mark down one seat each for FF, FG and SF. This would see FG’s Jim Higgins battling it out with the Independents for the last seat. MEP Higgins was regarded as being up against it but Insider has got vibes he is holding up reasonably well in private polling.

In the current climate however, and with the tradition of electing Independents in the old Ireland West, it is hard to see there not being one Independent seat in this constituency. If one of the three Independents can emerge as a frontrunner then s/he may take that seat. At the moment MEP Harkin, as the incumbent, may look to be the favourite; however she may not have the profile across the enlarged constituency that Dep Flanagan will have. Then again, Sen Mullen may benefit from being the main candidate from the Galway end. Labour Sen Lorraine Higgins is unlikely to be in the mix.

At this point that last seat is too close to call – but as Insider has asked, is it really that big a prize?

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