Sinn Féin’s MEPs have got ‘stuck in’ to committee work and are finding much common ground on both sides of the border to defend at EU level, writes Europe Correspondent Ann Cahill
They are having to take notice of the fact Ireland is a single unit as opposed to two member states
ALMOST a century after partition, Ireland is united again — at least in Europe, as far as the Sinn Féin members of the European Parliament are concerned.
Led by Martina Anderson, released from a British jail as part of the Good Friday Agreement, the party is the only one with an MEP from each of the Irish constituencies, north and south.
Apart from individual interests and constituency concerns, they are finding much common ground on both sides of the border to defend at EU level.
The somewhat unconventional approach of having MEPs from two countries representing joint national interests is not meeting any resistance and is raising few eyebrows.
Ms Anderson says: “Decision makers are faced with team Ireland. They are having to take notice of the fact Ireland is a single unit as opposed to two member states”.
There has also been lots of informal pragmatic cross-border liaisons with northern ministers, relying on their southern counterparts to support their case at agriculture ministers’ meetings while Scotland and the Republic have frequently found common cause.
MEPs from both sides of the border have, for years, also united in successfully encouraging the EU to maintain funding for the Peace initiative.
Ms Anderson says she has pursued a 32-county policy since she arrived in Europe, having challenged troika policies relating to the Republic more frequently in the Parliament than any other MEP.
The three from the southern constituencies are new to politics. Ms Anderson replaced a retired Bairbre de Bruin, two years ago and her experience is now an advantage to colleagues.
They belong to the left-wing European Left group in the Parliament, the fifth largest with 52 or 7%, of the 751 MEPs. This is also the group Luke Ming Flanagan joined, bringing its members from the Republic to four, the same as the number of Fine Gael members in the largest and centre-right European People’s Party.
They have, as Dublin MEP Lynn Boylan, says, “hit the ground running”. While they may not have all secured the committees they best like, they have got stuck in and are exploring what role they can play that would reflect constituents’ interests. Between them they cover 10 — half the available committees — as either full or substitute members.
Added to this, Ms Anderson will be the chair of the Palestinian parliamentary delegation, a post held by Proinsias de Rossa and then Emer Costello of the Labour party in the previous two parliaments.
One of their main concerns is what happens if Britain votes to leave the EU in a possible referendum in 2017 — with potentially huge implications for the border and the northern counties.
Once seen as being firmly in the eurosceptic camp, Sinn Féin now describes itself as being critical, but supportive, of the EU. They echo the classic preferred structure of work undertaken at the most local level possible and the big issues like climate change food labelling and human rights being worked through at EU level.
The party is anxious to ensure it is in no way like Britain’s Ukip or even the Tories in the European Parliament. “We are euro-critical and we have nothing in common with Ukip,” said Ms Boylan.
They differ also from the DUP in the North and will be campaigning for a ‘no’ vote in any British referendum to leave the EU.
They point out the North’s disadvantaged position in Europe, as part of Britain. An example, they note, is there has never been an application for globalisation funds from the EU aimed at helping re-train redundant workers in the North because, taken as a whole, the UK does not qualify.
And Matt Carthy, from North and West, a member of the EU’s agriculture committee, points to the border as allowing vested interests to play off farmers with the so-called nomad cattle issue, where Irish producers are deprived of a higher price for their beef.
On the other hand, the reason the North does not qualify or would not be interested in availing of cheap loans from the European Investment Bank for instance, is it would mean the loss of an equivalent sum from the grant from London.
Last week, on their return from Strasbourg where the Parliament meets for its monthly voting sessions, three of the Sinn Féin MEPS called into the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg.
With domestic banks unwilling or unable to lend to businesses and institutions for much needed growth, the EU has been emphasising the need to use the resources of the EIB.
The world’s largest bank, funded by the member states and with a triple-A rating, invested €75bn in European infrastructure last year.
They met vice-president Jonathan Taylor, former UK treasury official, to discuss investment strategies.
While the scope for Northern Ireland councils and housing associations to borrow is zero because of the British grant, there are ample opportunities for the Republic.
But the Republic has had other problems, Ms Boylan points out, with the State having to return €24m from the globalisation funds — aimed at helping workers find alternative employment.
She wants more focus on the youth guarantee scheme on quality apprenticeships, single parents and the disabled, and she points to a Ballymun pilot scheme crying out for funding.
Again, Northern Ireland does not qualify for the funds as the unemployment rate, generally in the UK, is under the 25% threshold.
Ms Anderson retained her seat on the Civil Liberties committee and a particular interest is legal highs — which has a clear cross-border significance. Legislation in the Republic has closed down ‘head shops’ but the legislation has not been harmonised across the country, so what are often deadly substances are still freely available in the north.
Liadh Ní Riada from the South constituency sits on the Fisheries committee and has spoken about fishing on all all-island basis, concerned about small quotas and fishermen allegedly harried by some inspectors.
She is a substitute member of the Culture and Education committee and with her background in television production and Diploma in European Culture, she says it is a good fit.
A native speaker, it should also help with her party’s aim of promoting the Irish language throughout the country, she believes.
Mr Carthy is a substitute on the Economic and Monetary Affairs committee that during the last term played a significant role in the whole troika adventure and helped soften some of the pro-financial institutions bias.
Sinn Féin sees a role for itself in questioning the government’s position on various EU issues and its interpretation of EU legislation.
Mr Carthy points to the removal of any mention of the role of post offices in the Social Welfare bill on the basis that the EU bans preferential treatment for state owned entities.
It’s not unlike the IDA’s failure to bring potential investors to the west, and its failure to provide adequate broadband, placing the region at an automatic disadvantage, he says.
They are looking forward to questioning Ireland’s nominee for Commissioner, former environment minister Phil Hogan, especially over his actions on the Leader programme and his environmental laws.
In the meantime, they are preparing to bring the first all-Ireland delegation to the parliament.
The European United Left will host a meeting about the mother and baby scandals, with more than 30 people from the 32 countries in the autumn.
They hope it will at least convince the Church to release all the records and have the State acknowledge the mothers and their babies fundamental rights were abused.
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