Sunday 23 November 2014

Colum Kenny: It just may be too late for the red-faced Greens

De Burca might have had a point when she said FF were running rings around the party, says Colum Kenny

Published 21/02/2010 | 05:00

SPARE a thought for Deirdre de Burca. The political debacle that last week brought down Minister for Defence Willie O'Dea lends support to her view that Green leaders were also given the run-around in her case by Taoiseach Brian Cowen.

De Burca had good reason to believe that she had landed the job as a top adviser to EU Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn. John Gormley thought Brian Cowen backed her.

Former Fianna Fail minister Maire Geoghegan-Quinn is herself well able to run rings around Green politicians. She showed this last month when a French Green MEP challenged her on the EU's nuclear research budget.

As the proposed EU Research and Innovation Commissioner, nominated by an Irish government that is against nuclear power, Geoghegan-Quinn had to convince sceptics in Brussels that she would not pose a threat to EU nuclear research.

The prospect of a troublesome Green on her team did not help.

Geoghegan-Quinn promised MEPs at her confirmation hearing last month that she would maintain investment in nuclear research. And she clearly refused to have Senator Deirdre de Burca foisted on her by the minor coalition party in Dublin. So why did Green leaders believe that the Taoiseach backed de Burca?

Fianna Fail has been denying undue influence over Green deputies. Dermot Ahern specifically did so just before he and his colleagues bounced the Greens into voting complete confidence in Willie O'Dea last week.

Ahern had bridled at a suggestion by RTE that he and Fianna Fail were running rings around the Greens. "That is not the case," he told the station in a tone of contempt.

"And, in fact, the Greens have been, I think, for a party that is relatively small, have been accommodated in government very much.

"And it is a mutual relationship. I mean, John Gormley was at our parliamentary party meeting last week."

This is not quite as patronising as Sean Lemass, in 1966, describing the Labour Party as "a nice, respectable, docile, harmless body of men -- as harmless a body as ever graced any parliament." Not quite. Ahern forgot to mention that, small as the Green Party is and getting smaller, it keeps Fianna Fail in power.

But perhaps you cannot patronise a party that already knows its place. For a letter sent last weekend to Green Party members by their deputy leader Mary White TD appeared to confirm much of what de Burca had claimed.

Deputy White wrote: "We have already explained publicly that we supported her candidature for a job in Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn's advisory team in Brussels because she was well-qualified and suited for such a post. The Taoiseach was also favourable and representations were made."

If de Burca had been told by Gormley that Brian Cowen supported her appointment then, given the realities of Irish political life, it is not surprising that she took such news as confirmation that her job with Geoghegan-Quinn was in the bag.

"But," adds Deputy White, "Commissioner Geoghegan Quinn had other plans and she could not see a role for Deirdre de Burca on her team. Everybody in Dublin had to accept that. A European Commissioner is totally independent and legally obliged to shun any direction from the former home government."

This is theoretically true, but politically naïve. Nobody in Dublin "had to" give Geoghegan-Quinn the nomination if that was her attitude to the Greens.

If a Taoiseach wishes to offer someone a nomination as Ireland's EU commissioner, then he can ensure that certain things happen as part of the deal.

And while it is true that EU commissioners are ultimately independent, the notion that they are not national in any sense was given the lie by this government when it insisted in the context of the second Lisbon referendum that commissioner posts remain within the gift of individual states.

When Maire Geoghegan-Quinn appeared at her confirmation hearing in the European Parliament last month, she was tackled by Michèle Rivasi MEP, a French Green, who noted that Geoghegan-Quinn had defined herself as "a political woman".

Rivasi asked specifically if Geoghegan-Quinn was ready to reduce the nuclear budget, and instead increase the amount spent on researching health risks from nanotechnology.

Not likely, indicated the former Irish minister. She offered: "A short answer to begin with: I do not want to reduce the budget in any of the areas for which I have responsibility." She added: "Nuclear energy for me is extremely important. It remains the technology of choice in many member states."

Geoghegan-Quinn promised that Euratom, which has a budget of €2.7bn, would continue its work in nuclear waste management and "safety". This keeps down the cost of nuclear development and maintenance for the private sector, making nuclear energy appear more attractive financially than it otherwise would.

Geoghegan-Quinn made a special point of taking time at her confirmation hearings in the European Parliament to commit herself to the controversial International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER). Green critics say that the billions of euros being poured into ITER would be better spent on wind and other forms of alternative energy technologies.

She assured one Greek MEP that, "under my stewardship, were you to confirm me, I will ensure that the research is maintained and developed as an option for those member states that wish to pursue it [nuclear energy]."

Was this a woman ever likely to welcome a Green Party member into her inner circle as a well-paid adviser who had ambitions to influence policy? Does it mean anything for Deputy White to claim that the Taoiseach was "favourable" to such an idea?

The fact that Deirdre de Burca is reported to have turned down an alternative job in the EU Court of Auditors indicates that her anger at not being appointed to Geoghegan-Quinn's team was not merely self-serving, even if it was partly so. There was a principle involved for the feisty Green senator.

It is too late now for Deirdre de Burca to get what she wanted. And, having been bounced into a vote of complete confidence in the Minister for Defence last week, it may also be too late for the Greens to salvage any political capital from their subsequent knifing of O'Dea in the back.

Sunday Independent

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