Election of three Sinn Fein MEPs shows how unimportant European Parliament is to us
Published 31/05/2014 | 02:30
THERE is nothing like an election drubbing to clear the air and release all manner of toxins into the atmosphere. Outside of elections, analysis of how parties or leaders are faring is all speculation, opinion and frequently self-serving spin. Putting the question to the public for their opinion can be unpredictable and dangerous as the Government parties have discovered this week.
Local and European elections are usually viewed by political commentators as not really the "full shilling". Voters can "have a go" and take a risk-free swipe at the powers that be, safe in the knowledge that the Government will still be in place after the tantrum.
But last week's vote was a deliberate statement of collective protest to the Government about the limits of austerity. It is instructive, however, that the unexpected strong support for Fianna Fail in the local elections suggests the electorate has not totally gone off the rails.
The marathon European elections were torturous. Surely there is now a case to be made for the use of electronic counting in European polls. The carry on in the count centres, with shopping trollies and talk of boxes lying uncounted under tables, was reminiscent of scenes in emerging democracies in sub-Saharan Africa. Speaking of which, it seems odd that Ireland insists on Electoral Commissions in developing countries to oversee and organise elections as a condition of good governance and democratisation while we don't have one ourselves.
That the Irish people elected three untested, albeit attractive Sinn Fein candidates and an eccentric Independent TD to the European Parliament is perhaps a measure of how unimportant the Irish electorate views the European Parliament. The truth is that after weeks of debate and campaigning, there remains widespread ignorance about what MEPs actually do apart from disappearing into the bowels of Brussels and Strasbourg for five years.
Brian Crowley's extraordinary vote is wholly personal to him and is down to hard graft and genuine engagement with his voters over many years. Few others apart from former MEP Pat Cox have made such an impact at European Parliament level. Small wonder, therefore, that scepticism has taken hold in the electorate's attitude to the Commission and the Parliament. For many, the Commission is the epitome of "big government" so detested by democracies such as the US and increasingly in Europe as its reach and dictates extend into ordinary lives.
Ministers wrongly contribute to this europhobia by feebly laying the blame for property and water charges and needed public service reform at the door of the "bogeymen" of the troika. Proper politicians should be able to defend policy on its own terms rather than hide behind the Commission.
If ministers are honest, they will admit that democratic engagement with the European Union institutions is appalling. As a minister attending Council of Ministers meetings, I found them boring and pre-packaged. Most of the agenda had been pre-agreed by the permanent reps /ambassadors in advance.
All that remained was for ministers to rubber stamp proposals, most of which had little traction at home. Such massive rejection by millions of voters in Europe of the undue influence of the European bureaucracy on the internal affairs of nation states deserves a robust response by governments.
Opposition to Euro-incursion into nation state laws and polity can no longer be ignored or dismissed as whacky.
Sinn Fein, now with four MEPs who espouse "euro critical" views unlike the eurosceptic UKIP, have an opportunity to make a difference to the shallow and moribund political discourse which has passed for debate about Europe up till now in this country.
Like it or not, Sinn Fein take their politics seriously. Perhaps rather than sniffing at that party's success, one should be relieved that politics is working for them and recall John Hume's fateful exhortation to republicans to "spill our sweat not our blood".
By running young articulate candidates for Europe, devoid of unsavoury baggage, the public was offered youth and conviction. Already Sinn Fein's economic and social policy is being seriously scrutinised as their share of the vote suggests possible participation in government. To their credit they have not stooped to play the race card like populist parties like UKIP.
They have simply slipped into the space left by the Labour Party as a left-wing party, unfettered by the responsibility of government.
So while the vanquished Labour Party searches for a saviour to lead them out of the 2014 battlefield, Sinn Fein is riding high having trounced all comers.
But Labour can take heart by reflecting on the cyclical swings of politics. After only three years in the sin bin, Fianna Fail have made a Lazarus-like recovery at local level. Which goes to show the capacity of parties to be comprehensively chastened by the electorate and yet come back to fight more battles if they have the stomach for it.