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'Ming' Flanagan on independents' popularity, his autism diagnosis and voters' move to the right

After nearly a decade in Brussels, Flanagan tells The Journal he can now see the merits of the European Parliament.

LUKE ‘MING’ FLANAGAN HAS said his time in the European Parliament over the last ten years has made him less of a eurosceptic.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Journal ahead of the upcoming European elections in June, the Independent MEP gives his thoughts on the rising popularity of independents in Irish politics, his recent autism diagnosis and why he thinks the current approach towards farmers over climate change will lead to a massive turn to the right due to desperation and fear.

Flanagan has been a member of the European Parliament since 2014. He sits on the Committee on Budgetary Control and the Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development and is part of The Left group in the EU Parliament.

When he was first elected to the parliament, Flanagan was known as a critic of the European institutions and some might say it was on that premise he won his seat. 

However, after nearly a decade in Brussels, Flanagan tells The Journal he can see the merits of the European Parliament. 

Euro skeptical no more

“I’m not euro skeptical anymore,” he said. 

“I am seeing that it actually works. From the point of view of feeding ourselves, I think it’s important we do it together. From the point of view of climate, it’s important we do it together. From the point of view of biodiversity, it’s important that we do it together. But from the point of view of people on the ground, money is important to them,” said Flanagan.

He went on to explain how two-thirds of the money that comes from Europe to Ireland comes through the agriculture committee, of which he is a coordinator.

“Once you’re in the room, you’re only one of eight voices… so while I am coordinator for a group, I’ll be honest with you, I’m coordinator for Ireland when I’m in that group,” he said. 

While Flanagan’s perspective and skepticism has mellowed over the years, he states that he is “not only skeptical” when it comes to the European Union developing into a defence organisation, he is “totally and utterly opposed” to it. 

Farmers, climate change and the move to the far-right

Speaking about farmers and the calls on them to do more to tackle climate change, Flanagan said he has concerns that the approach being taken might lead to people turning to the far-right. 

The Roscommon-native said he has voted for nearly every piece of environmental legislation, but he could not vote in favour of the Nature Restoration law.

He said if someone speaks out about the legislation, they are lumped in with the far-right, but that he voted against it because none of the money in the climate and biodiversity fund will go to farmers, he claims.

He believes the law means the poorest farmers will have to do the most without any  extra money. 

“Because people will feel desperate. And if you continue with the climate agenda that doesn’t facilitate change with the poorest people, you’re going to have a massive turn to the right,” he said. 

“I will be approaching the electorate from the point of view of saying we can do all these things if we fund them and there’s the money there to do it,” said Flanagan. 

“So I think it’s unfair, what’s being done to them [farmers],” he said, adding:

“I do believe climate change is real. I do believe our biodiversity crisis is real. And I think someone out there should be saying that, because otherwise, the far right will take it up.”

Rise of the independents

Speaking about the rise in popularity of independents in recent poll results, Flanagan said :

Independents are so popular now that there’s even a political party going around with candidates claiming they’re independent? You can’t be both.

The new political party Independent Ireland, headed up by Michael Collins, also has TD Michael Fitzmaurice as a member. 

Fitzmaurice won a by-election brought about by Flanagan’s departure for Europe. At the time, he was endorsed by Flanagan.

When asked about the party, Flanagan said he didn’t know how well they would get on in the election, but said the birth of the party showed just how strong the brand ‘independent’ is right now. 

“When in fact, to be independent, you can’t be in a party,” he said, stating that the benefits of being independent is that you can say what you believe without having to check-in with someone else. 

Autism diagnosis

Flanagan has recently spoken about being diagnosed with autism. The MEP recalled how he never knew why he didn’t cope very well in the Dáil chamber when he was a TD. 

“It’s most likely because of auditory processing problems that I have with autism, as in you’re in a big bowl when you’re in the Dáil chamber and you have voices coming at you from different directions,” he said.

“I used to be jealous of Mary Lou McDonald because when I’d stand up and talk, people would be heckling me, my head would be spinning,” he said.

With McDonald, the “more abuse they threw at her the more coherent, the more cogent and the more confident she got. Whereas for myself, it was, God, I left the Dáil kicking myself, going, ‘why wasn’t I better in the Dáil chamber? Why wasn’t I able to cope with it better?’ I kind of know why now. It’s because I’m neuro divergent,” he said. 

He states that while people speak more openly about autism, the level of abuse is still concerning. Flanagan said the word ‘retard’ is still widespread in schools, stating that he has heard of cases where children are described as ‘duds at the back of the class’.

“The accusation that parents are being difficult because they demand better for their children with autism is widespread,” he said.

“I don’t think very much has changed at all,”adding that the same could be said about mental health issues.

“I’m sick of people talking about mental health and nothing being done,” he said.

I come from a family where, when I was eight, my Mammy was not at my Christmas dinner. My Mammy wasn’t at my Christmas dinner, because she was in a mental hospital. And I did not know that until I was 17.

“I knew she wasn’t there and I knew she wasn’t there because we had pheasant stew from the doctor’s wife who brought it to us and we never had pheasant stew…

“My Daddy said Mammy’s gone on holiday. We never went on holiday. Why was Mammy going on holiday on Christmas Day? So from the point of view of talking about mental health, there’s still nothing there for people with mental health problems,” he said. 

Flanagan said many of the people that take part in charity events for mental health funding, are the “very people who cross the road when they see some people who have mental illness problems”.

“They are the very people who judge me for hanging around with them and trying to help them,” he said. 

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