Europe will dominate political affairs this year, whatever way you look at it. The election of Ireland’s MEPs on May 24, the appointment of our EU Commissioner and, of course, Brexit, will shape the agenda.
One fact easily lost in the Westminster din is EU business will carry on apace, with or without the Brits. The new EU Commission will have to be ratified by the European Parliament and Council by the end of the year. Ireland’s incumbent Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, is almost certain to be reappointed. In the jockeying for position to replace presidents Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, a great deal of horse trading still has to be done between the three blocs of the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists, and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).
It makes sense for the Government to make an early March announcement confirming Mr Hogan, to secure either the trade or energy portfolios. To protect our interests in the context of Brexit and to facilitate the ease of transition for the commission, we require an established heavyweight battling in Brussels.
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Currently, we have 11 MEPs. With the exit of British MEPs, we’re set to gain an extra seat in Dublin and Ireland South, with Laois/Offaly joining South.
Party selection conventions are about to get under way, to be concluded by the end of February. Fianna Fáil has ordained that no TD can stand as an MEP, much to the chagrin of Billy Kelleher and John McGuinness. Fine Gael has yet to decide whether sitting deputies can stand. One upside would be to create maximum ministerial vacancies for Leo Varadkar’s next reshuffle.
The downside, of course, is this would trigger by-elections for elected MEPs, who must resign from the Dáil. The Government’s voting power of 54 TDs would be more precarious, so the prospect of losing more TDs would be a risk.
Dublin, which will become a four-seater, is currently wide open, with the retirements of FG’s Brian Hayes and Independent Nessa Childers. Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan should be re-elected, leaving three new MEP seats up for grabs.
FF is likely to run one candidate, most likely Barry Andrews – neither of former ministers Mary Hanafin nor Conor Lenihan appear to be in the hunt. As for Andrews, the former TD/minister is currently director-general of the Institute of International and European Affairs.
Fine Gael is likely to run two candidates. Junior Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor is eager to stand. In her favour is the prospect of a successful subsequent by-election through Dún Laoghaire barrister Barry Ward. Senator James Reilly has thrown his hat in the ring, while former Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Senator Catherine Noone also seem to be flirting with notions of candidature.
On the left, the line-up could include some well-known faces – the Green Party’s Ciaran Cuffe, Labour’s Alex White, or Senator Ivana Bacik. TCD’s Independent Senator Lynn Ruane may also fancy a run as a dark horse.
The most likely Dublin outcome is one MEP for each of FG, FF and SF, through Mary Mitchell O’Connor, Barry Andrews and Lynn Boylan, with possibly Cuffe capturing the mood in relation to climate change, environmental and public transport issues.
Ireland North-West remains a four-seater. SF’s Matt Carthy has already been selected for the party’s Cavan-Monaghan general election team and won’t contest. He’s likely to be replaced by Martina Anderson from Derry, who is an existing MEP for Northern Ireland.
The loss of all the Northern MEPs is apparently of concern to Varadkar in shaping FG’s final slate, but this won’t cut much tactical ice with FG delegates at conventions.
FG will run outgoing Mairead McGuinness, one of 14 vice-presidents of the European Parliament. She’s likely to top the poll, thereby preventing the unlikely scenario of FG securing two seats. Her running mate will most likely be former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh, from Mayo, rather than former TD John O’Mahony.
FF is likely to run both former Donegal TD Niall Blaney and, from the West, John Comer of the ICMSA – one will be elected, most likely Blayney.
The last seat (after FG, FF and SF take one each) will be filled by an Independent. If Marian Harkin decides to contest again, she’s likely to be ahead of Luke Ming Flanagan. A wild card could be presidential runner-up Peter Casey. Either way, there’ll be one Independent MEP elected.
Ireland South is an enlarged five-seater. FG will run three candidates. Outgoing MEPs Seán Kelly and Deirdre Clune are set to be joined by one newcomer. TD John Deasy from Waterford and Wexford junior minister Paul Kehoe are said to be interested but their geographic locations are not strategically advantageous.
Intriguingly, Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan may enter the race. This might suit the Taoiseach, as it creates a Cabinet vacancy for the reshuffle. The risk is it could well result in a by-election loss.
FF looks set to nominate Cllr Seamus McGrath (brother of Michael) from Cork south-central and Malcolm Byrne from Gorey. The fly in the ointment may well be incumbent MEP Brian Crowley, who previously obtained 170,000 votes. Crowley has been absent through illness and has left Fianna Fáil. But if he runs as an Independent, he could get elected. This could be the difference between one and two FF MEPs. SF’s Liadh Ní Ríada should retain her seat, despite internal party sourness from her failed presidential bid.
Michael Healy-Rae has been suggested as a possible electable MEP, but remains undecided. Ultimately, it looks like two FG, one SF, one FF and the final seat between FF and an Independent.
Post-Brexit, there’s likely to be a greater scrutiny on our MEPs, as Parliament gains more powers within EU structures. Expect new faces, but the bigger parties are likely to dominate in gaining 10 of 13 MEPs. The biggest winner has to be FF, leaping from zero to at least three MEPs.
Let the battle commence.
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