Wednesday 17 July 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'For all their faults, Wallace and Daly will be missed in the Dail'

Why would any self-respecting Irish radical swap politics here just to get on a first-class flight to Brussels, wonders Eilis O'Hanlon

Brussels bound: Mick Wallace and Clare Daly. Photo: Collins Court
Brussels bound: Mick Wallace and Clare Daly. Photo: Collins Court

It's hard to fathom why any TD would swap the cut and thrust of the Dail, where they can make some difference to the political life of the nation, for the European Parliament, where they'll just be one of more than 700 MEPs, with limited powers to bring about change.

There are some advantages, though, as a case in the Circuit Civil Court last week proved.

AIB Mortgage Bank had applied for a repossession order on 13 Clontarf Road, Dublin 3, which is the home of Wexford Independents 4 Change TD Mick Wallace.

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The TD took out a mortgage of €825,000 in 2004, but had failed to meet monthly payments of €2,270, meaning the bank is now owed €910,800, which it was seeking to recover. Last week's action heard of a fortuitous "change in his financial circumstances".

One change, needless to say, was his recent election as MEP for Ireland South after garnering the most number of votes of any candidate once all the preferences had been redistributed.

An MEP's salary is only - and here, the word "only" is used with a certain ironic discretion - €10,000 or so higher than that for a TD; it's worked out as 38.5pc of the salary of a basic judge in the European Court of Justice.

But every little helps. There are also other benefits. MEPs get a pension of 3.5pc of salary for each full year they serve in the parliament, capped at 20 years' service; as well a so-called transitional allowance of one month's salary for every year served, should they be beaten in an election or otherwise step down for any reason.

They can also claim travel expenses for first class air or rail travel or 53 cents per kilometre of travel, though they do have to provide receipts for those, as well as generous expenses for renting a flat or paying for a hotel, food, "and any other expenses associated with maintaining two home cities".

The subsistence payment comes in at €304 a day, as long as they clock in that day and take part in at least half of all votes. MEPs are also given a general expenditure allowance of €4,513 a month to cover "office costs" back home in the constituency, which can be paid directly into the MEP's bank account, and they don't have to show any evidence of how that money is spent. The European Parliament has always refused to provide information to journalists as to where this money goes, arguing that it would be "an excessive administrative burden", and last year that decision was upheld by the European Court of Justice.

In 2017 a group of independent journalists from across Europe attempted to find out how the money was spent, but drew a blank. Of the MEPs that they approached, 249 either said they didn't have an office or refused to say where it was.

The office of Manfred Weber - who in the last few days has been re-elected as president of the centre right European People's Party, of which Fine Gael is a founder member, and who also has his eyes set on being the next European Commission president - was found to be an annex to his own home.

There is no reason to suppose that any of Ireland's newly elected MEPs would engage in questionable practices; but as with all of the class of 2019, Mick Wallace's election has definitely improved his financial outlook, as the court last week was told. As a TD since 2011, he will also be eligible for a Dail pension once he reaches the age of 65 in two years' time.

That he has managed to avoid repossession of his Dublin home, after the case taken by AIB was adjourned until the next legal term, should be welcomed. Anyone who is in a position to make payments to keep their family home should be allowed to do so. But it does still leave open the question of why anyone would want to go to Brussels in the first place, other than the obvious financial advantage.

One can question whether the contribution of Mick Wallace and his fellow Independents 4 Change deputy Clare Daly, who's also Brussels-bound after being elected in Dublin, was as substantial as has sometimes been claimed on their behalf. Readers of former Justice Minister Alan Shatter's new memoir will find numerous examples where Wallace went off on a solo run with little evidence to back up some of his extraordinary claims. Whenever he had the chance on the Justice and Equality Committee to cross examine some of those against whom he had made particularly serious allegations, such as former Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan, his contributions were frequently less than scintillating or forensic.

Some of his other contributions to public debate, such as tweeting whilst the Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 were still ongoing that it was "so terrible for the victims, but when is France going to stop it's (sic) role in the militarisation of the planet?", have also revealed a stance on global security which rarely goes above the level of student agitprop.

Clare Daly's general political demeanour has been more substantial, but she also shares Mick's fondness for tub-thumping anti-Americanism. The pair recently went on a fact-finding visit to Venezuela. On her return, the Dublin TD wrote of how, despite falling oil prices and an economy which is being "strangled by US sanctions", the Marxist government still provided free water and electricity and ensured that "millions of poorer families receive a monthly box of essential provisions and a top-up on their salary", as well as building two-and-a-half million social housing units in the last seven years.

"Leo take note!" she added.

She wrote of "carnival festivities" and "packed streets and busy shops", but there was not a word about the most recent report by Amnesty International earlier this year which accused President Maduro of "crimes against humanity", including arbitrary detentions, sometimes of children, and more than 8,000 extra judicial killings in a two-year period between 2015 and 2017 alone, and called for his regime to be held accountable to an independent, impartial judicial body. To suggest that a few teething problems have simply been fomented by the Yankees to get their hands on Venezuelan oil is risible. They claim to speak truth to power, but only certain powerful people, such as the visiting President Trump, ever feel the lash.

They will still be a loss to the Dail. It would be condescending to suggest that they added colour to the chamber, because their role went far beyond that; Daly is one of the few genuinely working class voices in a political scene increasingly dominated by a smug professional class. So many solicitors.

But they had a unique role which it will be hard to replace, and they seemed to chime with the times, at least for a while. Even now it's hard to imagine the Dail without them. It's easy to get seduced by nostalgia in advance of their departure, but it really won't be the same place without them. They've said they will continue to attend Oireachtas committee meetings that pertain to EU matters, as is their right, but the likelihood is that they will now quickly become marginal presences in Irish political life, as Ming Flanagan has.

And what are they swapping it for? Brussels, a place which seems utterly alien to everything they stand for. Before the election, Daly justified the decision by saying "it is a bit like taking the fight to the heart of the beast to see if we can make a difference", citing the rise of so-called "far right" populists as a reason why "strong, critical but pro-European in a different sense voices are absolutely needed".

She also talks about using the vast resources of the EU to "empower the people about what is going on in Europe in advance of the decisions actually being made", which, not to put too fine a point on it, sounds like so much blether.

This familiar talk of reforming the EU and building alliances against neo-liberalism ignores the reality that the strongest voices against that neo liberalism are from populists in France and Italy that she and Mick would deplore. The idea that leftists in Brussels can make a difference is wishful thinking. They can either follow Sinn Fein in joining the European United Left/Nordic Green Left grouping, which has just dropped 14 seats in the most recent election to finish with 38 out of 751 MEPs, or else stay as independents, as Ming does, though he sits with other left-wing MEPs in the chamber.

Either way, they're not going to be making that big of a difference just by contributing the occasional speech against austerity or the creation of a European army. MEPs don't even have the power to introduce legislation. They can only vote on proposals submitted by the European Commission.

For those who believe enthusiastically in the European project, such as Fine Gael's Frances Fitzgerald, the parliament is an essential element of the new Europe which they're intent on building; but it really is no job for any self-respecting radical, and Mick and Clare are fooling themselves if they think that they will make more of a success of it than Ming Flanagan. His success was in being re-elected in Midlands-North West. Perhaps that's the best they can hope for too.

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