FIANNA FÁIL again finds itself swinging in the wind when it comes to the EU with the defection of Brian Crowley to the group dominated by the British Tories.
The Soldiers of Destiny spent decades observing from the sidelines even when in government, while almost all other prime ministers met before EU summits to find allies and agree policies.
Its MEPs joined up with various, mainly right-wing groups that after each election had to cajole newly elected members of the European Parliament to join to give them the necessary numbers to form a group.
When Brian Crowley was re-elected for the second time in 1999, he joined the newly formed UEN (Europe of the Nations) group, with two fellow Fianna Fáil MEPs. Mr Crowley became its joint president, serving two five-year terms until 2009.
It entitled him to be part of the regular meetings of presidents of the various parliament groups that decide the order of business and take policy decisions. Even at that level, there is a pecking order, and being one of the smallest groups means you come far down the list.
Nevertheless, he had a car and driver at his disposal and the perks that go with the post, and enjoyed a reasonably high profile helped by his affable personality; most people overlooked the fact that the UEN had some less than savoury MEPs in its rank of 35 members.
The UEN, kept together by the hardworking Frank Barrett, son of Clare Fianna Fáil TD Sylvie Barrett, had 15 MEPs from the right-wing Polish Law and Justice party created by the Kaczynski twins and nine from the Italian neo-fascist Alleanza Nationale.
The main glue holding them together was their nationalism and their desire to see the EU as just a loose association if it had to exist at all.
While most of its members were Eurosceptic, Mr Crowley was not and has voted more often with the Liberal group than with Eurosceptics, which includes the European Conservative and Reformist Group he has now joined.
When Vaclav Klaus, a Eurosceptic former president of Czech Republic, visited the European Parliament a few years ago and Ukip members wore green jerseys, shouting for the Irish not to vote a second time in the Lisbon Treaty, Mr Crowley made his position clear. “I am from Ireland and I am a member of a party in government. All his life my father fought against the British domination. Many of my relatives lost their lives. That is why I dare to say that the Irish wish for the Lisbon Treaty.
“It was an insult, Mr President, to me and to the Irish people what you said during your state visit to Ireland. It was an insult that you met Declan Ganley, a man with no elected mandate. This man has not proven the sources from which his campaign was funded. I just want to inform you what the Irish felt.”
Mr Ganley tweeted about this on Monday as the news broke that Mr Crowley had joined the party dominated by the British Conservatives. His old partners from the Polish Law and Justice Party have an equal number of seats, with the Flemish separatist N-VA party coming third.
In the run-up to Ireland taking over the six-month presidency of the EU in 2004, Fianna Fáil, despite Bertie Ahern’s occasional dalliance with Euroscepticism, agreed with other forces inside the party to seek an alliance with one of the mainstream groups.
Negotiations went on for some time with the liberals, ALDE, then the third largest group in the parliament. Mr Crowley led a revolt, however, and flatly refused to leave the UEN. Brian Cowen, however, insisted he join ALDE in 2009.
At the time, furious and upset, he said: “I think the UEN has worked well for Ireland and for Fianna Fáil, we’ve been able to deliver policy at a European level, partly because I’m the leader. If I weren’t the leader, if I were part of another group, would we be able to do that?”
Mr Crowley reportedly attended just one meeting with his new group members during his five years with them. His contribution to the European Parliament was the smallest of Ireland’s 12 members, with his attendance record leaving him 755th out of 769 MEPs. He was also unique among the Irish MEPs in not having any assistants in Brussels who are paid by the European Parliament to help members keep track of the enormous amount of work and legislation that passes through the parliament.
However, he proved the most popular candidate in the country when, with 182,000 votes, he was the only one of Ireland’s 11 MEPs elected having reached the quota straight off in the elections last month.
His decision is a double blow for Fianna Fáil as his exclusion from the parliamentary party means it effectively has nobody representing the party’s views when it comes to the committees and plenary sessions where decisive votes that affect the Irish electorate are often taken.
From his hospital bed in Cork, Mr Crowley flatly refused to put off his decision on Monday, telling party leader Micheál Martin he had made up his mind. He did not observe the usual procedure of consulting the party ahead of his decision. He is entitled to decide what group he joins — but usually it is the same as the one to which the national party is affiliated.
The party also believes that had he managed his vote better in the elections, it could have taken a second seat in the South; instead his transfers led to Fine Gael taking a second seat.
Now, when Mr Martin comes to Brussels tomorrow for the pre-summit meeting of ALDE, he will be one of the few with no members in the parliament — and Mr Crowley will not have a party leader present at his new group’s meetings.
There will be seven political groups in the European Parliament when they meet for their first voting session in Strasbourg next week. They will absorb almost all 751 members, divided along political ideological lines — right, left, centre, far right, far left and those who don’t find a home in any of these.
To form a group requires a minimum of 25 members from 7 countries. There is no whip system but each group gets funding and staff depending on their size to help their members, follow the 20-plus committees and organise meetings, and speaking time.
There is also a strict division of the important roles of committee chairs, vice chairs, vice-presidents and quaestors of the parliament allocated to each group.
With 221 members, once again the largest, dominated by German MEPs. Officially termed centre right, but very conservative on financial, climate change and social issues. Fine Gael’s four MEPs are members.
With 191 members they are the second biggest group with the Italians having the largest number of MEPs. Centre left, they have lost their Labour party members but with independent Nessa Childers they have MEPs from all 28 member states.
Formed in 2009 when Britain’s David Cameron pulled his then 27 MEPs out of the EPP, they now have 70 members from 15 countries making them the third largest. Polish Law and Justice and the British each have 19 members; 7 from the German AfD, admitted despite Cameron’s request that they not be. They believe weaker members should leave the euro. There are 4 from the Danish People’s Party whose leader was jailed for racism; 5 N-VA, Belgians who want the country divided; Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson; and Brian Crowley.
Their 67 seats puts them in fourth place. They accommodate a broad church and the loss of all but one of their British Liberal MEPs is a blow. Independent Marian Harkin, Ireland’s and one of the EP’s best performers, remains with them as they lose Crowley.
Led into the election by Greece’s main opposition leader, increased its seats from 34 to 52 making it the fifth largest. It includes communists, socialists, anti-capitalists and environmentalists. Ireland’s three Sinn Féin MEPs belong to it plus Ming Luke Flanagan.
A left-leaning environmental group with 50 members that during the last parliament had the highest participation rate in votes.
Led by Britain’s Nigel Farage whose Ukip party is credited with forcing the Tories to take a more sceptical line, were the least active national party last term. Members include Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star movement, Swedish party founded by pro-Nazi white supremacists that have now distanced themselves, and a member who defected from the French National Front. They will have to keep their single members from a single state happy — many believe it will be very difficult.
The numbers at around 60 have doubled from the last term as France’s big winner, Marine LePen from the National Front, succeeded in getting MEPs from just four other countries — Netherland’s Geert Wilders, Italy’s Lega Nord, the Austrian Freedom Party and Belgium’s Vlams Belang to join them in their deeply anti EU group. This can change during the five-year term.