FF’s Euro wing is trying to wriggle between a rock and a hard place

THE budget is still nearly three weeks away and speculation is already mounting about the Government’s ability to get it through the Dáil. Against all expectations when this government was formed, the Greens have developed a limpet-like grip on power. Only grim death will separate them from ministerial office, it seems.

No, it’s the Fianna Fáil backbenchers who are proving restless. Quite a few of them must be asking themselves whether they’re better off hanging on in there until 2011 or 2012 — or causing a general election and trying to win reelection as independent mé féiners on a “no tax rises, no spending cuts” platform.

Relations between the Soldiers of Destiny are a little fractious right now — hardly surprising given their opinion poll ratings. A clue to how bad things are has come in the shape of an obscure battle over where Fianna Fáil should sit in the European Parliament. Yes, it’s a long way away and few of us quite know what they do in the hemisphere — or care very much, in many cases — but, trust me, these are life-and-death issues to MEPs and it does affect how well they are able to deliver for their constituents.

It all came out into the open at the árd fheis at the end of February. Secret talks had been going on, it emerged, to negotiate Fianna Fáil’s way into a new parliamentary group. The Taoiseach told the assembled delegates that “Fianna Fáil has no alternative but to reconsider current arrangements... To that end, we will soon advance a proposal to join... the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party.”

Fianna Fáil has to stand against “the radical Eurosceptic agenda,” he warned.

To say some of the party’s MEPs were incandescent is an understatement with allegations being hurled that the national party was stitching them up. Fingers have been pointed and wagged at the Europe minister, Dick Roche. In turn, some in Dublin feel one or two of the MEPs might have pulled their weight more in the first Lisbon referendum.

For those who are not ardent students of European groupery — and who can blame them? — a little background might be helpful. The overwhelming majority of MEPs from the 27 member states — 96%, in fact — sit in pan-national groups, the largest of which are the European Peoples’ Party (EPP) on the moderate right and the European Socialists (PES) on the soft left. A little smaller, the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR) slot between the two.

The other four groups are considerably less important — the Greens, the communists, the hardcore Europhobes and the slightly-hard-to-pigeonhole UEN, of which more later. Those not in any group include Jean-Marie Le Pen’s racists, a few other hardcore nationalists and the North’s Jim Allister who is more Paisley than Paisley.

Irish Labour obviously fits with the PES and Fine Gael are very comfortable with the Christian Democrats in the EPP with which the UUP’s Jim Nicholson is also currently aligned on some issues.

Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou MacDonald and Bairbre de Brún sit with the extreme left while Kathy Sinnott and Marian Harkin have arrangements with the Eurosceptics and the Liberals respectively.

That leaves Fianna Fáil and the curious Union for Europe of the Nations. The UEN doesn’t have a clear credo as such apart from being pro-farmer and pro-family; it’s defined more by who’s in it. Apart from Fianna Fáil, that includes the Italian “post-fascists” and regionalists, a few right-wing Poles (some of whom are very, very right-wing cavemen) and a Danish anti-immigrant party often accused of being xenophobic. To say it’s a motley crew is an understatement.

The French Gaullists left some time ago and now even the post-fascists have had enough and are off to join the mainstream centre-right. To be blunt, many in Fianna Fáil wonder why they’re there as well. They’d dearly love to be in the EPP, but the Civil War puts paid to that.

Whatever else it is, Fianna Fáil isn’t on the left, despite what Bertie Ahern used to claim about being a “socialist”. Nor are they against Europe, so the Liberals it is. Twenty-five years ago, under Charles Haughey, “liberal” would be the last word you would use to describe Fianna Fáil. That was then. FF has moved to the centre economically down the generations and joined the mainstream on social issues. The ‘green card’ is played less often too.

So what’s wrong with the Liberals? Quite a lot, according to veteran MEPs Brian Crowley and Séan Ó Neachtain. There’s quite a few pro-abortionists in their ranks and most European liberal parties tend to appeal to metropolitan types who don’t like subsidising farmers to produce the unproductive. They might add that the ELDR believes the EU has a role to play in global security.

By their friends shall ye know them but all European parties are, to some extent, marriages of convenience. The real question is do you want to be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond? Some might see advantages in Ireland’s three main parties being represented in Brussels’ three main (respectable) groups. Besides, ELDR membership would free up some money to pay for the next referendum campaign — something the UEN has so far failed to deliver. But that would be to neglect the perks: as co-chair of the UEN, Crowley enjoys access to the parliament’s absurdly grandiosely named Conference of Presidents — and a chauffeur-driven car.

Nice to see the EU being frugal in these hard times, eh? Crowley’s argument is that the UEN has enabled Fianna Fáil to punch above its weight — just four MEPs since 2004 and who knows how many after June? “The UEN has worked well for Ireland... partly because I’m the leader,” he says modestly.

WHERE Crowley is on strong ground is when he says no one can predict the future. Who really knows how many representatives of the Lithuanian Peasants will be returned, let alone how the Polish Samoobrona party will fare.

But in recent interviews, the Munster MEP does seem to be ignoring one unpleasant fact for Fianna Fáilers — the Tories. Their national party has promised — against many of their MEPs’ better judgement — to leave the EPP who are too Eurofederalist for their grassroots’ taste. They’ll almost certainly be the largest delegation to the parliament so they will be well placed to form the backbone of a new group.

Such a group would, almost certainly, attract other present members of the UEN, notably the Poles. The centre-right Czechs have promised to go where the Conservatives follow. Some Belgians and non-fascist Italians are sniffing around, too.

The Tories and FF might have more in common than they both realise. Both consider themselves natural parties of government and both are instinctively suspicious of ideology. Trouble is the Tories want to be with Europe but are not of it, to use Churchill’s phrase.

And then there’s the issue of the North. Everyone’s for the Agreement these days but there’s about a century’s worth of bad blood between the two parties. It would be a brave Fianna Fáiler who made the case for a Tory link-up. It’s probably a peace process too far.

Like their cousins on the Dáil backbenches, the MEPs might decide it’s better to do as the Taoiseach says, after all.

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