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First week on the job: We checked in with some of Ireland's new MEPs to see how they are getting on

Committee memberships, travel woes and accidentally calling the fire department. All in a week’s work.

Irish MEPs Billy Kelleher, Maria Walsh and Ciarán Cuffe.
Irish MEPs Billy Kelleher, Maria Walsh and Ciarán Cuffe.
Image: Rolling News

EARLIER THIS WEEK, MEPs from across the 28 EU member states took their seats for the first time at the European Parliament in Strasbourg for the start of their five-year term. 

This is nothing new for returning members such as Mairead McGuinness and Matt Carthy, but for first-timers it can be quite a change of pace.

Seven of Ireland’s 11 MEPs elected in May have never sat on the European Parliament before. 

We checked in with some of these first-time MEPs to see how they have been getting on so far in the new job.

Ciarán Cuffe

Green Party MEP for Dublin Ciarán Cuffe topped the poll in his constituency last month and has been around the political sphere for decades – spending several years as a city councillor and as a junior minister. 

“It’s quite a challenge to sit in an assembly that represents half a billion people. It’s a huge honour and a huge challenge as well,” said Cuffe. 

The MEP is now part of the Committee on Transport and Tourism and the Committee on Industry, Research and Energy at the European Parliament. He plans to focus on sustainable transport, improving public transport and cycling.

“Particularly when it comes to climate change, a lot of the legislation has to go through these committees,” Cuffe said. 

He described his experience so far at the parliament as being quite similar to his time in Irish politics, just on a larger scale. 

“There was a lot of horse-trading behind the scenes and I’m used to that in local authorities and the Oireachtas, but this is playing out at a European level,” Cuffe said. 

He found the Brexit MEPs turning their backs on the EU anthem to be a distraction from the real issues being discussed. 

“The theatrics of the Brexit party from the UK is really a side show compared to the serious business of tackling climate change, poverty and issues that are hugely challenging for Europe.

I think they wanted to capture the limelight and they’re very good at doing that and picking up their salaries and expenses.

On a less serious note, Cuffe also tweeted about his keyboard struggles at the European Parliament building in Strasbourg – noting that he’d accidentally called the fire department while trying to set up fadas. 

“The good news is, I got a new physical keyboard that is in English and the Windows setting was able to override it to give me an English-Irish keyboard setting,” he said. 

“The fada was the least of my problems, I couldn’t even get the ‘@’ sign to email people.”

He also took a tram going in the wrong direction, but is gradually finding his way along with the other new MEPs. 

“There’s a sense of everyone helping you out. Even though we’re from 28 member states across Europe, I think most of us believe in the ideas that brought about the EU and work together for progressive change.”

Maria Walsh

When it comes to new MEPs, former Rose of Tralee winner Maria Walsh is fresh to the world of politics. The Fine Gael MEP won the third seat in the four-seater Midlands North-West constituency in May.

Despite entering into an entirely new line of work, Walsh said the role has mostly met her expectations so far.  

“Within the parliament itself, there are amazing characters and personalities and different cultures and, for a first timer, it’s amazing to see and experience,” Walsh said.  

Trying to catch your breath and figure out a way that you can inject your own points of view and the challenges that face your constituency is what I’m still working out.   

Travelling between Shrule, Co Mayo, Brussels and Strasbourg throughout the month is time-consuming, but Walsh said she is used to “being on the trot” moving between the US and Ireland for most of her life. 

“If I was going to Brussels, I would leave Shrule on either Sunday or Monday night at 2am and drive to Dublin Airport,” she said.

But I enjoy it. I’m still in the honeymoon phase.

The chamber’s new session began this week as Italian Social Democrat David Sassoli was elected president of the European Parliament on Wednesday for a two-year term.

Walsh’s party colleague Mairead McGuinness, who topped the poll in Midlands North West, was re-elected as one of 14 Vice-Presidents who can fill in for the President.

The language barrier may present a struggle for Walsh and she admitted she might need to brush up on her skills, particularly for ordering in restaurants in Brussels and Strasbourg. 

“I asked for a soda and next thing they came down with six bottles of sparkling water,” she said. 

Walsh is a member of the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs and wants to focus on rural isolation, employment, welfare and the gender pay gap among other issues. 

Billy Kelleher

Fianna Fail MEP for Ireland South Billy Kelleher is a first-time MEP and former senator and Cork TD. As a commuting Dáil deputy and former Minister of State for Trade and Commerce, he said he was well used to travelling around for work. 

“Like everything else, airports and planes and trains will be initially exciting but then can become mundane which is part of the job,” Kelleher told TheJournal.ie

Kelleher said he started driving to Dublin “long before the motorways were built so it’s not new to me”.

MEPs meet in Strasbourg once a month for around four days because this is the official seat of the EU Parliament. All parliament votes must also take place in Strasbourg. For the rest of the month, MEPs travel between Brussels and their Irish constituencies. 

The Fianna Fáil MEP became a member of the EU Parliament Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs and a substitute member of the Committee on Environment this week.

“It’s really about getting to work in terms of getting on the committees, trying to be effective, but overall it can be a little daunting at times in terms of the logistics and the sheer scale of it,” Kelleher said. 

Over the next few months, he plans to focus on the economic and trading impacts of Brexit, the Irish insurance market and protecting the 12.5% corporation tax rate in Ireland.  

In terms of the first-day antics of the Brexit Party MEPs who turned their backs (literally) during the EU’s anthem at Tuesday’s opening ceremony in Strasbourg, Kelleher said it was insulting to the people of Europe. 

“I would never turn my back on the British National Anthem while it was being played and there were some times when they gave us plenty of reason to potentially do that,” he said.

It’s insulting. It’s debasing politics, it’s debasing parliament and it’s debasing themselves.

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