Spotlight is turning to Europe’s frontrunners

Sean Kelly MEP chatting with SF’s Toireasa Ferris at the last European election count. He will likely prove hard to dislodge. Picture Dan Linehan

The race for the European elections is already hotting up, with some big names making no secret of their ambition to run, writes Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe.

The countdown is on to the European Parliament elections next year with a number of hopeful figures pressing the flesh as parties weigh up which candidates to field.

An extra seat proposed in the Dublin and South Constituencies; the chances still of a snap general election this year; and increasing criticism around EU institutions mean MEP hopefuls have a lot to ponder, especially with several incumbents set to seek re-election.

Brexit is now up in the air and will also dominate debate.

A bewildering plethora of topics hung over campaigns during the last European elections in May 2014. 

These included water charges, the aftermath of the bailout and the economic crash, as well as payments for farmers.

This time around, sitting MEPs say it will all be about Brexit and an EU landscape without Britain, the future of the bloc, challenges for Ireland as well as the negotiations over common agriculture payments over the next year. 

Corporate tax and the pressure to change Ireland’s rate will also be a hot topic.

So who are the runners and riders for next May’s race and how is the field shaping up?

Ireland South moves from a four-seater to a five-seater after taking in the counties of Laois and Offaly. 

Fine Gael incumbents Sean Kelly and Deirdre Clune will seek re-election here and it will likely be tough to oust the pair. 

The party will run a third candidate, a sweeper, with Laois-Offaly solicitor Thomasina Connell likely to make the ticket.

Fianna Fáil’s dilemma still rests with the unknown situation regarding former party MEP Brian Crowley, who is sick and hasn’t attended parliament once since his 2014 re-election.

The poll topper resigned from the parliamentary party after his re-election and has still made no statement about his intentions for next year.

But Crowley is set to reveal those intentions later today. 

Fianna Fáil is targeting the Ireland South seat and is hoping Gory councillor Malcolm Byrne could retake it for the party. 

Crowley’s intentions will decide a lot for contenders in the Munster region.

There is also speculation Oireachtas Finance Committee TD John McGuinness might be a good choice for Fianna Fáil in Ireland South, maximising his base in Carlow-Kilkenny.

Furthermore, Cork North-Central TD and senior party figure Billy Kelleher stuck his neck out yesterday, indicating he would be interested in Europe.

In an interview on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, the business spokesman confirmed he would like to be at the centre of developments in Europe. 

This was clearly a pitch across the airwaves to his boss to allow him to put his name forward — if indeed there is space for Fianna Fáil to reclaim its support base in Ireland South.

Nonetheless, a spokesman for party leader Micheál Martin maintains that his position is that sitting TDs will not be contesting the European elections.

One reason for this is that there is a strong possibility that those elections may be overtaken by a snap general election or even that both votes may be held on the same day this May.

Elsewhere, Liadh Ni Riada, while damaged from Sinn Féin’s dismal result in the recent presidential race, is expected to seek a second term as an MEP for Ireland South.

Independents are also expected to field someone in the now bigger five-seater, but a name has yet to emerge.

Dublin also grows and becomes a four-seater which, like Ireland South, will increase competition there.

There is much speculation about candidates for Dublin.

Barry Andrews, a former minister and the sitting director general of the Institute of International and European Affairs, has made it known he wants to run for Fianna Fáil, as has former minister and Dun Laoghaire councillor Mary Hanafin. 

LGBT rights campaigner Tiernan Brady is also considering his options, having unsuccessfully sought selection in Europe in 2014.

Party sources also say Conor Lenihan, another former minister from the boom years, has expressed an interest in running in Dublin.

He confirmed to this newspaper that he would likely put himself forward for the party’s regional selection convention.

Brian Hayes

Elsewhere, a recent announcement by MEP Brian Hayes that he is leaving politics has triggered speculation about who from Dublin Fine Gael will want to send to Europe.

Senator Neale Richmond, a popular party figure and election candidate in Dublin-Rathdown, says the EU parliament is important work. 

But he enjoys his current role and focus on Brexit in the Upper House.

“There’s a lot to consider,” he said, after his name was linked with a bid.

And while attention has turned to former EU minister Lucinda Creighton, who has not ruled out a return to party politics and is a friend of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, two senior party figures have emerged as possible contenders.

Former tánaiste Francis Fitzgerald and ‘super’ junior minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor have both not ruled out running for Europe. 

The latter is thought to be eyeing up options with a Cabinet reshuffle now on the cards this summer.

There is also speculation Fine Gael is considering running Noelle O’Connell, head of the European Movement Ireland, and SDLP MLA Claire Hanna in the race.

With Sinn Féin seeking to return poll topper Lynn Boylan in Dublin, the remaining questions are around Independents or smaller parties fielding a candidate. 

Lynn Boylan

This is especially so after a decision by Independent MEP Nessa Childers not to run again.

And with an extra seat in Dublin, the May race could be wide open.

Labour potentially has its best chance of securing a seat in Europe with a bid in Dublin, with barrister and former minister Alex White.

The party will also contest Ireland South with former TD Michael McNamara while another former TD Dominic Hannigan will run in the vast constituency of Midlands-North West. 

Party sources say he will face competition from Iverna McGowan, a former director of Amnesty International’s European institutions office, who also wants to run here for Labour.

It is also understood Independent MEP Luke Ming Flanagan will seek re-election there.

There is also much speculation that the controversial presidential race runner-up Peter Casey may run in this enormous electoral region, which stretches from Kildare and Louth up to Donegal. The Derryman says he intends to remain in politics and has taken on a radio role recently.

Certainly, if three-time elected MEP Marian Harkin decides not to seek re-election in Midlands North-West, there is space for another independent. 

She has yet to reveal her next step: “I haven’t decided yet. Every other time, I always knew. I love my work. It is also a lot of responsibility. You represent 15 counties and have all the legislation in Europe too,” the Sligo woman said.

Ms Harkin thinks the debate around immigration — a significant issue for other member states such as France and Italy — is unlikely to figure here come vote day next May.

“We don’t have much immigration. If we did, it would be an issue,” added the MEP.

Having campaigned for an EU globalisation fund, carers’ leave as well as workers rights and pay during her third term as an MEP, she says the post-Brexit landscape will be the next big debating point for voters.

“The standout argument or issue this time will be Ireland’s relationship with Europe.”

Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly says water charges, medical cards and the banks were the hot topics in 2014. 

Next year’s elections could be more “European” topics, he thinks.

“Security is a big issue. But it might not necessarily be at home,” the former GAA president added.

With between three and five out of the 11 sitting MEPs potentially not running this time, Mr Kelly says the race will be wide open.

“It’s not good for Ireland when we need experience in Europe,” the Kerryman said.

Matt Carthy

Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy will not be seeking re-election here as an MEP, with intentions to run and keep the seat belonging to Cavan-Monaghan TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, who is set to retire from politics.

And while there is speculation the party’s northern MEP Martina Anderson will seek to retain the Midlands-North-West seat for Sinn Fein when MEP seats in the North are scrapped with Brexit, no decision has been made on Mr Carthy’s possible successor.

Party sources are also not ruling out running a second candidate in Ireland South, alongside Ms Ni Riada, given the expanded constituency there.

Other new faces could get to Europe if the Social Democrats secure a result with their candidates Dublin city councillor Gary Gannon and party political director Ann-Marie McNally now running.

One note of caution for MEP hopefuls.

With the Brexit process up in the air and the slight possibility it might all be pushed back, there is now a chance Ireland’s two extra MEP seats could be held back, until Britain does in fact leave the EU. 

This would change strategies for contenders in Dublin and Ireland South without the extra seats.

What is abundantly clear is that whoever is elected to Strasbourg on our behalf will have to fully represent Ireland’s interests in a changing bloc of member states, where the future of the EU — more than ever before — will now be debated on the back of Brexit.

Ireland will also need all the allies it can get without Britain at the negotiating table in Europe and Irish MEPs may at times have to stand together, even if they are affiliated with different political groups at a European level.

Indeed, EU leaders including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar are very conscious of the pressures that will come to bear on new MEPs and during election campaigning. 

Only recently, Mr Varadkar warned about external interference in the European elections.

He also cautioned that a European Parliament “full of nationalists, populists and extremists” could bring some of its work to a halt, given that voters often use their votes as an opportunity to register a protest.

Imagine the pressures and debate impacting on campaigning if, indeed, Britain does not leave the EU before the May elections. 

This is a strong possibility given how close those votes are to the March 29 Brexit date. 

With Britain, then, still in fact a member of the EU, what kind of debate would follow in the run up to the European elections? 

Certainly, it would be dominated by Brexit.

It may seem some time away, but the race for the European Parliament elections next May is heating up and the fight for seats will be so much tougher this time around for parties and candidates amid the looming chaos Ireland faces thanks to Brexit.

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