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European Elections: Looking after farmers the key for Clune in post Brexit Europe

Deirdre Clune MEP returning to Baltimore Harbour after visiting Cape Clear Island, one of the most westerly points in the Ireland South Constituency. Picture: Michael O'Sullivan /OSM Photo

With Rosalia Long’s Zumba moves triggering positive feelings left, right and centre, Beaumont Girls National School was as good a place as any to re-energise for the final week of European Elections campaigning.

Deirdre Clune, an Ursuline’s girl herself, was giving it welly, harnessing the momentum generated by all those rushing endorphins, as the schoolkids busted out the best of Latin-based dance moves to teacher Rosalia’s instruction.

Deirdre was really there to honour pupils for unbroken attendance, with plenty of fortuitous photo ops, and her on-the-ball campaign manager Laura McGonigle was quick to point out that the school kids are not the only ones with excellent attendance records.

“Deirdre has close to full attendance at the Europe Parliament,” Laura said, “over 90%, in the top three among Irish MEPs."

Deirdre was also there to meet and greet several members of the newly-elected School Council, the brainchild of second class teacher Anne Marie O’Rourke, who is keen to instill an understanding of how politics works in her students.

“They drew up their own election manifestos,” she said, “and they had to put themselves forward to the classes and canvass so they can appreciate what Deirdre is doing,” Ms O’Rourke said.

She’s delighted Deirdre came to visit “because it’s really important for the girls to have a female role-model in politics”.

It’s not a family friendly job, this Europe gig, and Deirdre has to haul herself out of bed at 4am on a Monday morning to fly on to Amsterdam, before taking the train to Brussels, highlighting the limited connectivity by air out of the Ireland South constituency to the heart of European democracy.

She’s not home till late Thursday evening, but at this stage, her four kids - now adults - are so used to her schedule that if she popped home unexpectedly “they'll probably all be sitting around with their legs on the kitchen table, watching a Munster game”.

Deirdre is one of 23 candidates vying for five seats, with polls currently indicating she is in the running, albeit substantially behind her Fine Gael South colleague Seán Kelly, and with a less favourable poll showing than Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ní Riada and Fianna Fáil’s Billy Kelleher. She also has Fine Gael colleague Andrew Doyle snapping at her heels and Independents4Change Mick Wallace is well within shouting distance.

She didn’t have a spat with Andrew over territorial encroachment, she said. They are abiding by a slightly killjoy electoral strategy which allowed her to attend the recent, better-missed, Cork versus Tipperary hurling championship game, while preventing her travelling to Sunday's Cork-Limerick match.

Deirdre says the farmers are extremely important in this campaign because agriculture is among the sectors with most to lose should Brexit go ahead. And so she has undertaken a gruelling from Mart to Market schedule to explain to them how important Europe will be to their livelihood going forward, and backwards for that matter, if you consider the role Europe has played in propping up Irish farming for decades.

“Beef is their beef,” she said, and sure Europe understands that, what with the European Commission only last week agreeing a highly timely €50 million exceptional aid fund for Irish beef farmers, to compensate for the fall in prices suffered as a result of Brexit.

Deirdre knows a hell of a lot more about farming than she did when first elected to the European Parliament in 2014, and could “do an interview with the Farmer’s Journal, which I couldn’t have done five years ago”.

She knows a lot more about the impact of tax and tariffs on Irish products, for instance being part of a trade deal means producers of cheddar cheese aren’t subject to 30% tax and tariffs.

She understands the importance of selling food produce, her father, former Tánaiste Peter Barry, had a “small shop” - before pioneering the wholesaling and distribution of Barry’s Tea and turning it into a global brand.

Deirdre Clune MEP pictured with Cape Clear resident Ted Ó Drisceoil while visiting Cape Clear Island
Deirdre Clune MEP pictured with Cape Clear resident Ted Ó Drisceoil while visiting Cape Clear Island

She’s been campaigning since the March 24 election date was set on Holy Thursday “but officially started five years ago”.

It took her “about 18 months” to get used to the machinations of the European Parliament “but when you do, it’s very interesting”.

Deirdre’s on a number of committees such as the Transport and Tourism Committee - a good one to be on with Brexit looming - because they’ll have to ensure ongoing connectivity to mainland Europe.

She’s also been party to the development of a new Aviation Strategy for Europe and to ensuring that Cork and Shannon Foynes Ports were included in the new Connecting Europe Facility, she said.

Deirdre has also played a role in formulating policy proposals on ensuring the rights of workers with long-term illness to remain in the workplace, and pushed for zero tolerance legislation for violence against women and girls.

So what’s the reception on the ground been like? Does the general public care about Ireland’s place in Europe?

On a personal level, “the name recognition is much better this time around”, she said.

And people have woken up a bit more to Europe on account of Britain potentially skedaddling.

The South constituency is currently a four-seater but is set to expand to five seats after Brexit.

“In one sense we don’t want an extra seat,” Deirdre says “because it will mean Brexit has happened”.

Still, if it turns out to be her seat, it will categorically prove that every cloud, even the towering cumulonimbus that is Brexit, has a silver lining.

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