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'More conservative than she appears to be': Who is Mairead McGuinness, Ireland's new EU commissioner?

Ursula von der Leyen said that McGuinness has “significant political experience on EU issues”.

Image: RollingNews.ie

ONCE MAIREAD MCGUINNESS’ name was formally submitted to the European Commission for consideration to fill the role vacated by Phil Hogan, many commentators and pundits seemed to believe it was all over bar-the-shouting.

After all, she has been in high demand throughout her political career – and it seemed Ursula von der Leyen had picked her woman.

With her family background in farming, a degree in agricultural science from UCD and an extensive media CV, specifically in farming journalism, the Louth native had cultivated a reputation as a capable operator and an expert on all things agricultural even before her arrival on the political scene in 2004.

By that stage, McGuinness was already a household name in the Irish farming community. Her broadcasting work with RTÉ on programmes like Ear to the Ground, her stint as a journalist at the Farmers’ Journal and later as editor of the Irish Independent’s farming supplement had ensured as much.

She also worked as a researcher on The Late Late Show and on Pat Kenny’s RTÉ radio programme.

Before she had ever contested an election, it was an open secret that the former journalist was seen as hot political property.

It was considered a coup for Fine Gael when the party scooped her away from the Progressive Democrats to run as its second candidate in the 2004 European elections alongside sitting MEP Avril Doyle in the now-defunct Ireland East constituency.

At the time, Fine Gael was circling the electoral doldrums following its disastrous showing in the 2002 election when, under the stewardship of leader Michael Noonan, the party lost 23 seats.

Two years in the job, the party’s new leader, a certain Enda Kenny, promised to “electrify” Fine Gael and securing McGuinness’ candidacy was seen as one way to fulfil that ambition.

Much to the chagrin of her running mate Doyle — as well as several long-standing hopefuls, including Lord Henry Mountcharles of Slane Castle — McGuinness was parachuted in by the party leadership. She secured the nomination unopposed and went on to top the poll in the constituency.

Political experience

McGuinness followed up that success with a less fruitful tilt at a Dáil seat in Louth in the 2007 general election, finishing fifth in the four-seat constituency, 3,000 votes adrift from Sinn Féin’s Arthur Morgan.

In 2011, she was in the mix to receive her party’s nomination to run for the Áras but lost out to Gay Mitchell.

Apart from that, McGuinness’ attention has been fixed on Europe.

She has contested four European elections since 2004, topping the poll in all but one: in 2014 when she was pipped to the post by independent Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan.

She served as vice president of the European Parliament from 2014 and has sat on a number of parliamentary committees and working groups.

As Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said this morning, McGuinness has “significant political experience” on EU issues.

However, her time in Brussels hasn’t been entirely free of political controversy.

Last October, she and Fine Gael’s other MEPs, Sean Kelly, Frances Fitzgerald and Maria Walsh, were forced to defend their decision to vote against a resolution to step up search and rescue for refugees in the Mediterranean.

The resolution called on the “EU Member States to enhance proactive search and rescue operations by providing sufficient vessels and equipment specifically dedicated to search and rescue operations and personnel, along the routes where they can make an effective contribution to the preservation of lives”.

The motion failed by just two votes in the end.

Accused by Sinn Féin and other parties of siding with the European far-right, McGuinness told RTÉ News that she and her party colleagues “had concerns about the actual content of [the resolution], not about the objective”.

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In a statement on her website, McGuinness said, “Any suggestion that my vote yesterday is against protecting and rescuing those who flee their home countries is a serious misrepresentation of my position.”

Politico.eu has reported that one of her European People’s Party colleagues described her as, “a person who is more conservative than what she seems to be”. The website report added:

“Her conservatism, he said, stems from her strong Catholic faith, her defence of family values and attachment to traditional Christian democratic values.”

Historic downturn

As European commissioner in charge of the financial services and stability portfolio, McGuinness replaces well-regarded former Latvian prime minister Valdis Dombrovskis, who moves into the coveted trade role.

When Dombrovskis was retained as financial stability commissioner last year, President von der Leyen sent him a ‘mission letter’, outlining his main tasks.

Chief among them was the completion of the European banking and capital markets unions: key Commission policy goals aimed at harmonising supervisory and risk management rules across the bloc.

That job of work now falls to McGuinness, who takes the reins against the backdrop of what all indicators are suggesting will be a record-breaking Europe-wide recession.

With the posts, she also becomes a key regulator of banking in Europe and will help determine the role of the City of London in the EU’s future ties with the UK. 

— Additional reporting by AFP

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