Greens’ one saving Grace in battle for Brussels

When she answered the phone and the caller said he was Eamon Ryan from the Green Party, Waterford woman Grace O’Sullivan didn’t know what to say.

Greens’ one saving Grace in battle for Brussels

He said: “We would like you to run as a candidate for the Green Party.”

“No,” she answered. “I couldn’t do it. Thank you but I’d have to compromise my principles too much.”

“No Grace, we’d like you to run for Europe. As you know, the Greens are strong in Europe.”

That, she said, was a different matter. As an ecologist and heritage specialist, she knows the European Union is the driving force behind environmental law in Ireland.

Within 24 hours of Mr Ryan’s phonecall, she had accepted his invitation and now two days before the election, and with a budget of less than €10,000, she’s at 7% of the vote in Ireland South and could find herself in a dogfight for that fourth seat.

“I have so much valid experience that I feel that Europe is the perfect bowl to mix it into. I have the environmental experience, the business experience, the community experience, and the educational experience.”

As we walk into the T-Bay Surf and Eco Centre in Tramore, where Grace was born and returned to after years abroad, the former lifeguard and Irish surf champion, is high-fived by young and old.

Teenagers, parents, and older people enjoying the sunshine outside the centre stop to ask how the campaign is going.

“You have our vote anyway Grace. She’s walked the walk hasn’t she?” says one father.

Grace is one of a local committee which developed the coffee shop and hang-out zone — like something straight out of an Australian soap opera.

She is also a Greenpeace veteran who was sailing the Rainbow Warrior when it was bombed and sank by French intelligence services in 1985. Photographer Fernando Pereira died on board the ship but 22-year-old Grace was on land when the bombs hit. Two French agents were subsequently jailed for Pereira’s manslaughter.

She had joined the Rainbow Warrior the year previously and was one of a crew of 12 who sailed from Florida to Hawaii campaigning for a nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

After her degree at UCC, she sailed and worked for Greenpeace for 10 years. At one point she was its head of human resources when it had 5,000 employees. Another Rainbow campaign saw her sailing to the Marshall Islands to re-locate natives whose land had been contaminated by radioactive fallout from nuclear testing.

“I remember we had to wear dresses as we helped them as the islanders wouldn’t accept help from women in trousers. So there I was island hopping in the Pacific. What an education.”

Grace was also aboard Greenpeace’s yacht Vega when it was taken over by commandos descending from helicopters in French Polynesia. She and the rest of the crew were locked into their cabins for days with armed guards at the door. She has also been to Antarctica twice.

“So, yes I have walked the walk. I have never given up and have never sold out. I have always remained consistent about the need to create a sustainable economy and a sustainable environment and Europe is where it’s at. I don’t think we’re taking Europe seriously. Can you believe that we voted for a 50% cut in the solidarity fund even though that that’s the very fund that we turned to after the storms this winter and which will need increasingly as climate change becomes more evident? I think the current crop of MEPs have let us down hugely.”

A single mother of three, she is keen to stress that she isn’t elitist, not just the candidate of the middle-class eco warrior.

“I was in Moyross there recently, a place where it’s a huge achievement if somebody makes it to Leaving Certificate, there’s so many leaving school after primary. All their parents are so stressed, they see no light at the end of the tunnel. I am hearing that all over the place, that we are not out of the recession at all and we need to fight at European and national level.”

Grace supports wind energy but wants it taken out of the hands of big business and into co-ops such as the ones that operate at Templederry. The two turbines at the Co Tipperary townland have led to a €1.2m contribution to the local community. “They are doing it in Denmark and it has worked very well for them. The Green Group is strong in Europe and I think that I can make an impact with them and that this will be positive for rural Ireland.”

At the same time, she believes politics in Ireland “needs to become more bottom up”.

O’Sullivan describes herself as “in love with the Irish landscape” and adamant that the Government needs to see its value for rural and maritime tourism. She lambasts Eirgrid for its lack of consultation around pylons.

“There are cables from the West of Ireland to the US and from Ireland to Britain. Why didn’t they even consider this for the Gridlink project?”

There is one very important aspect to O’Sullivan that she doesn’t publicise: she’s a single mother of three girls, aged 15,16, and 22, and her eldest, a Special Olympian, is profoundly disabled as she’s missing a chromosome. She can’t read or write and attends a daily workshop with the Brothers of Charity.

I asks her why she doesn’t talk about this more. She says she doesn’t want to exploit her family circumstances.

As an educational ecologist, Grace works regularly with schools in the South-East.

When we meet Grace, she is crabbing with 20 first year boys from CBS Tramore at Foyle beach, a secluded cove and pier not far from Tramore Strand. Despite living in a beautiful seaside town, most of the boys have never crabbed before. Earlier, the group had placed a crab pot off the pier, using fresh meat as bait.

O’Sullivan had spent the hour previous explaining the hidden ecosystem that was at play on the beach and how crabs, which will eat any kind of vegetation or meat, even rotting meat, are the top predators here.

This is Grace at her life’s work: waking people up to the hidden wonder that lives around them, hoping they too might realise that if we want to continue to enjoy our environment, we must protect it. She hopes the next chapter will bring her to Brussels.

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