Soldiers of Destiny throw their lot in with EU Liberals

TAOISEACH Brian Cowen announced at the Ard Fheis that Fianna Fáil would be joining the Liberals in the European Parliament after the elections in June.

He is not expected to change his mind about this as his predecessor Bertie Ahern did in 2003 when, after months of negotiation, he capitulated following a plea from Brian Crowley and Gerry Collins.

Much of the negotiations then centred on ensuring Fianna Fáil’s loyal staff in their old party would move with them to new jobs in the Liberal group.

Both the current Taoiseach and the Europe Minister Dick Roche put a lot of work into the discussions, winning considerable concessions from the liberal group.

These included that when it came to questions on abortion the FF member could vote with his/her conscience and would not be subject to a whip.

The then president of the parliament and Liberal member Pat Cox did his best to ensure all their needs were met.

The party was anxious to be part of a respected group in the Parliament for Ireland’s presidency of the EU at the start of 2004.

But the two main Fianna Fáil movers in the Parliament, Mr Crowley and Mr Collins won a reprieve, partly with the promise that they would have the presidency of their group — Union for Europe of the Nations (UEN) — after that year’s elections and be in a position of power and influence attending meetings organising the work of the Parliament.

The UEN was in danger of falling apart when the new Parliament was formed but it was rescued when it was joined by a motley group of politicians, mostly nationalists and many from the far right from euro sceptics to shades of fascism.

Mr Crowley, expected to be his party’s candidate in the next Irish Presidency elections, was as good as his word and the Cork man became co-president of the UEN.

Some of the objections to Fianna Fáil joining ALDE then are still valid — that they support gay marriage and that they want an end to the Common Agricultural Policy.

Their election manifesto of 15 top policy positions promotes what it calls an ambitious reform of CAP within the WTO.

They also believe the EU should play an important role in global security and want to strengthen and extend the European Security and Defence Policy, arguing that it would improve defence cooperation and its ability to respond to security and humanitarian emergencies.

To recompense the Taoiseach for whatever flak he may get for joining a party with such policies, he will be in much more august company when he attends summits of EU leaders.

Normally Fianna Fáil taoisigh skip the pre-summit meetings of pan-EU parties but in future they will be able to meet the prime ministers of five other countries and a third of the commissioners – including for agriculture — who are all Liberals.

The Independent West MEP Marian Harkin is a member of the bureau of the ALDE and the close to defunct Progressive Democrats is also a member.

This time the FF MEPs are likely to have little chance to change their minds as the UEN is likely to disappear after the coming elections as their biggest member, Italy’s National Alliance, is departing.

There could be several other big changes in the Parliament as the Torys are set to leave the European People’s Party (EEP) taking some of the old UEN members and possibly highly euro sceptic UKIP members from Kathy Sinnott’s Independent Democrats group.

This will considerably reduce the size of the EPP, currently the largest party in the Parliament to which the five Fine Gael MEPs belong, and could hand the title over to the Socialists.

This could return the Liberals to the role of king maker they held under Pat Cox and see Fianna Fáil MEPs in a pivotal place in the Parliament.

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