Crowley’s shift to the conservative ECR is a ‘right’ problem for Martin

BRIAN Crowley, MEP, emerged as Europe’s most popular and improbable liberal in recent European Parliament elections. Among the minority of countries where European Parliament members are elected by constituency, as distinct from a list system or a combination of both, Crowley amassed more votes than any other ‘liberal’.

‘Liberal’, in this instance, means affiliated to ALDE (not be confused with the better-known European institution, ALDI, where we forage for groceries).

ALDE is the Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe. It is led in the European parliament by three-times Belgian prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt. Pat Cox held the same role, before he parlayed that job into the presidency of the parliament. Fianna Fáil joined in 2009, but most of its MEPs were unhappy. They had been in the UEN (Union for Europe of the Nations). A marriage of convenience between disparate groups, it yielded little influence and veered towards the Eurosceptic and the right. Facing an uncertain future by the 2009 European elections, it disappeared thereafter. In any event, Fianna Fáil’s then three MEPs had been moved on.

There were never the same pickings, subsequently, for them in the larger liberal group. Joining had been a manoeuvre conceived in Dublin, largely over the heads of most of the party’s MEPs. This was especially true for Crowley, who had been co-president of the UEN group, which gave him a pass into the European Parliament officers’ mess.

Crowley was always a conscript, not a volunteer, for European liberalism. When his colleague, Pat the Cope Gallagher, lost his Euro seat, leaving Crowley as his party’s sole representative, it was speculated that he might bolt. Being the sole decision-maker, he was effectively enabled to do so. Now he has, to the European Conservatives and Reformists group (ECR), of whom the UK Tories are the central pillar. Some on the fringes of that group make the Tories look simperingly liberal. Others are downright nasty. In joining with them, and facilitating memberships on committees and in speaking time, as all members in a group do for one another, Crowley is abetting them.

That will be a millstone around his possible future candidacy for President of Ireland. It would be ironic if the result of pique at being deprived of a presidential run poisoned his chances of running again.

There are layers of meaning to Crowley’s move. The most immediate is that Crowley has bluntly put it up to his leader, Micheál Martin — who can do little that is effective — while holding onto him. Mary Hanafin is the genie already escaped out of that bottle. Panicked into a rash move before local elections that Martin did not anticipate being even moderately successful, to recruit her for the Blackrock ticket, he rapidly repented, and was promptly made a fool. She is now, with a caravan of political baggage in tow, Fianna Fáil’s most prominent face in Dublin. Together with Crowley in the Tory nest in Europe, they are a pungent antidote to claims of renewal by Fianna Fáil.

Another piece in this jigsaw is that the former general secretary of the UEN, Frank Barrett, son of one-time Fianna Fáil Clare TD and minister, Sylvester Barrett, is now, coincidentally, in the same top post in the Tory ECR group. Barrett managed the feat of exiting the disintegrating UEN group without a single live Irish MEP in tow, to become the secretary general of the conservative group in Europe.

That makes him a skilled survivor and the most prominent, least likely Irishman in the counsels of the Tory party since Brendan Bracken. Barrett could give his counterparts in Fianna Fáil HQ basic lessons in essentials, and they would be wise to take them.

Martin is now left leading Fianna Fáil in a European political group with eight European Union commissioners and the prime ministers of the Netherlands, Slovenia, Luxembourg and Estonia. His councillors sit as liberals on the European Committee of the Regions. It is represented, likewise, in the Council of Europe, and Ógra Fianna Fáil is somewhere under the liberal duvet. But Fianna Fáil’s European Parliament seat, the only offering of real political currency that it can bring to the liberal grouping, is gone. That is a far cry from the bonhomie in Dublin in 2012, when Martin hosted liberal leaders, including Nick Clegg, from across Europe.

As a former minister for foreign affairs, Martin understands how European political networks function. Getting his party into the liberal group had a long gestation. It had been attempted after the European election in 2005 but, in the face of opposition from some of its MEPs, was not pursued. Brian Cowen, as minister for foreign affairs then, was not enchanted and pushed the matter to a conclusion, as party leader, in 2009. The move was a twofold strategy. It was intended to place Fianna Fáil in a European ambit of access and influence that would reflect positively, domestically and ideologically. In particular, it was intended to allow it catch up, in perception, on a modern-values agenda.

MOVING in, as liberals, with the ALDE group was also important in addressing a historic cock-up in the party’s European political strategy, going back to the 1970s. After Ireland joined the EEC, in 1973, overtures were made to it by the Christian Democrat group about joining. Garrett FitzGerald, then minister for foreign affairs, got there first, signed Fine Gael up and wiped Fianna Fáil’s eye. A generation out of the European political mainstream, in alliance with French Gaullists, resulted. ALDE was the answer to that.

If this is the big picture, finer detail often counts for more. Crowley is not a liberal, by any meaning. The irony of that is that after Martin tried, and failed, to have his party agree a stance on the Government’s abortion legislation, he arrived, by default, at the impeccably liberal position of allowing a free vote on matters of conscience. Very un-Fianna Fáil, and very unwillingly on his part, but perfectly liberal. Indeed, Ireland’s only ever genuinely liberal party, the Progressive Democrats, adopted the principle of the free vote, on matters of conscience, from its foundation.

However, what matters more to Crowley is less any issue of principle than a determination, in the old Irish political tradition, to be a chieftain. He has a score to settle with Martin and electoral success only accentuates his need to underline his status. Martin, recent modest success notwithstanding, is still fighting for survival. In a general election, Crowley’s friends in Europe, and Hanafin if she is a candidate at home, will be part of his problem, not a solution. In the meantime, any attempt to have disciplined Crowley would have make Martin look foolish, but the lack of it would have made him look hopelessly weak.

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