Diane Dodds interview: an independent approach

An independent approach One of the few independent MEPs, Diane Dodds finds this an advantage rather than a hindrance. Local farming and fisheries has made up much of her workload in her first year in office but she also casts a critical eye over the wider European project.

“I deliberately went into the Parliament to be independent and to stay independent.” Diane Dodds’ approach to being an MEP differs from Northern Ireland’s other two representatives but she claims that this gives her more freedom and sometimes more influence in Europe.

Dodds is one of 28 ‘non-inscrits’ or MEPs who have not joined the Parliament’s groups. Twenty-one of these are members of far-right parties, such as the BNP, leaving just seven who are effectively independents.

“I think the Parliament is the better for having some independent voices within it,” she states. Groups have a “herding instinct” on their members which make their members “easier to manage”.

Dodds votes according to what she thinks is good for Northern Ireland and the UK, and explains that several votes are tied or are decided by independent votes.

Groups also divide up their speaking time between members, whereas she has her own allocation.

This allows her more opportunities to ask commissioners oral questions. All MEPs have the same rights to written questions. Dodds also negotiated her preferred committee places and claims she has everything she needs as a representative.

Reform

Working with MEPs from the groups is, though, “absolutely vital”, one example being her work with Swedish Greens on fisheries reform. It does not seem an obvious alliance but Sweden’s model is the closest to the UK.

Dodds sits on the Parliament’s Agriculture and Fisheries Committees and both industries dominate her constituency work.

She counts a visit by Scottish MEP George Lyon, who is preparing the Agriculture Committee’s response to the CAP review, as one of her major achievements to date. Lyon met farmers and food processers when he visited in February, and Dodds also organised a public meeting in Templepatrick where over 200 farmers had the chance to air their views.

His proximity to the province and his links to local farmers from his time in the National Farmers’ Union mean that he has a good understanding of Northern Ireland’s needs, Dodds adds. The Parliament is due to vote on his report in July.

Another priority has been opposing a £60 million disallowance in single farm payment, effectively a 5 per cent cut. The money had been wrongly paid out by DARD between 2004 and 2006 but has since been clawed back.

On 15 June this year, she asked José Manuel Barroso to look again at the policy, as DARD had remedied the original problem. Barroso said it was an administrative matter but Dodds to keen to keep up the political pressure, especially as the levy could be extended to cover payments from 2007 to 2009.

Dodds has strongly criticised the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) as a “disaster” and called for greater autonomy for the continent’s regions instead. The Irish Sea’s needs, for example, are different from those of the Mediterranean and Baltic. Ultimately, the DUP wants to withdraw from the policy.

It was put to her that national politicians would come under more pressure to ease fish quotas, but she responded by saying that was the Brussels bureaucrats’ view: “These are unelected bureaucrats who never actually have to meet a fisherman.”

In the Parliament, Dodds was the first MEP to organise a meeting of the Fisheries Committee’s British members, to agree the best voting lines for the UK industry.

Northern Ireland’s fleet of over 40 whitefish boats 10 years ago has now been whittled down to six, and she adds that the Irish Sea’s cod recovery plan was based on “insufficient scientific evidence”. Her view is that the industry knows best and would protect fish stocks as this is in its own interests.

Relevance

As well as her constituency office in Lisburn, Dodds has held monthly rural surgeries around Northern Ireland. “One of the most important things you can do is get out on the ground and talk to ordinary people about their issues and their problems,” she remarks.

Europe often seems “very, very remote” for people in the province but she estimates that over 2,500 pieces of legislation that will affect Northern Ireland have come from the EU over the last 12 months.

She is pleased to see community groups such as the Ballybeen Women’s Centre in east Belfast organising courses on European citizenship, using money from the Leonardo project, and is keen for others to do the same.

The stability and even the survival of the euro will, she predicts, be the big issue for Europe’s next year. Despite being one of the biggest currencies in the world, it has “no co-ordinated policy behind it” at a national level.

Safeguarding Northern Ireland’s £330 million single farm payment is also seen as essential but not just a job for MEPs. She calls on DARD and the UK Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs to back the industry up.

At a pesonal level, one of her priorities lies outside the EU but it is still one where Europe has influence.

Dodds, like the DUP as a whole, is pro- Israel and sits on the Parliament’s delegation for relations with that country. Delegations are groups of MEPs which develop contacts with states outside the EU.

She found Foreign Policy Commissioner Catherine Ashton’s first statement on Israel and Gaza, last December, to be pro-Palestinian and thanked her for taking a “more measured” stance in June. That statement followed the confrontation between Israeli soldiers and the flotilla off Gaza, which left nine protesters dead.

The Parliament, she says, needs to take a “much more balanced approach” to the Middle Eastern conflict and will “never be seen as an honest broker in any peace process” unless that happens.

Diane considers herself an MEP for the whole province and points out that people from both sides of the community use her rural surgeries and ask her office for assistance. “I have always been passionate about constituency work and do all I can to make it accessible across Northern Ireland. My door is open to everyone.”

Fighting federalism

The DUP member is strongly Eurosceptic, frequently warning about the EU’s federalism as she talked through her first year in office. In her view, that project along with EU-set targets and involvement in the “minutiae” of national life, must stop. Dodds’ alternative is a Europe of trading nations which co-operate where necessary.

She demands that David Cameron “holds his ground” and does not give away more sovereignty, especially with the Commission’s plans to vet the UK budget. Any moves to take away national rights needed to be resisted in the Council, which brings together governments of member states.

Dodds also expects Barroso and Herman van Rompuy to pursue a stronger federalist agenda, quoting Barroso’s statement to MEPs on 16 June that he was “committed to using this opportunity [the economic crisis] to reinforce economic governance at European level.”

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