Arlene McCarthy interview: Local-born MEP for North West England

Northern Ireland politics needs to break out of its parochialism, Belfast-born Arlene McCarthy tells Peter Cheney as she explains her work as MEP.

“Very often, I say to people that I felt tremendously proud to live through some very momentous changes in history,” Arlene McCarthy remarks. The Belfast-born MEP lived in Berlin when the wall came down and then looked on as peace returned to her home country.

Good memories stand out when she recalls her childhood but Northern Ireland’s divided politics was a major turn-off as she grew up. McCarthy now thinks the province is moving on but still needs to break out of its local mould.

Born in October 1960, McCarthy went to Dunmurry Primary School and Friends School Lisburn. Holidays on the coast, outdoor pursuits and the Girls’ Brigade kept her “out of trouble”. One of her school friends, though, was killed when a bomb exploded prematurely on the Lisburn to Belfast train in 1980.

“I suppose everybody’s touched by that kind of violence,” she reflects. After her brother went to university in England, the siblings followed, with McCarthy studying languages in London. Her interest in politics led to her joining the Labour Party in 1984.

“Part of that was to do with rejecting the politics of prejudice and intolerance that I didn’t like about Northern Ireland politics,” McCarthy continues. Many young people, she adds later, leave “to get a broader vision on life” and her own move away made her realise that the province was very parochial.

“I didn’t like the parties that were on offer. I didn’t like any of them because I felt each of them stood for something that was very specific to a community.”

She supports Labour membership in the province, to help overcome that parochialism.

118-119b “The world doesn’t stop at the borders of Northern Ireland or the South of Ireland,” McCarthy continues, pointing to climate change or the problems of the developing world.

“Having other parties and being exposed to other political influences is good in that situation. People develop their politics in a way that moves away from the kind of parochial politics that hasn’t given Northern Ireland a positive image in the world.”

That said, she believes, Northern Ireland has a lot to offer. “I think there’s been tremendous progress made,” she comments, “but then you have the kind of setbacks with the [Derry police station] bomb.” Those attacks are, for her, a reminder that some people do not want peace or progress.


“It always for me in politics is a fight for justice, giving people a voice who don’t have a voice,” she comments.

When 18-year-old Liverpool fan, Michael Shields was wrongly arrested for an attempted murder in Bulgaria, McCarthy took up the case. He was sent to jail but finally pardoned in 2009 after four years of campaigning.

Her attitude – “I won’t give up this case until we get him home” – made Shields’ dad say he was glad she was on their side, not the opposite.

She also ensured stricter import controls on convertible firearms, used in several killings, including those of two children in Manchester and Liverpool. The purchaser must now be licensed, not be a danger to themselves or others, and the weapon must be fully traceable.

Chairing the Parliament’s Internal Market Committee before the 2009 election, she also introduced legislation to reduce the cost of mobile phone calls. Constituents had complained of high charges when they went on short breaks to the continent.

McCarthy is now a Vice-Chair of the Economic and Monetary Committee. It passed legislation in July to limit bank bonuses and force banks to hold more capital, so risks are not taken with taxpayer’s money.

This approach, it was put to her, could restrict bank lending to small businesses. However, she says the banks could lend more if they invested money for bonuses into the market. The Bank of England’s financial stability report in June found that an extra £10 billion had been paid out in bonuses since the bail-outs, which would have generated around £50 billion for lending.

Press balance

McCarthy won her first European seat under first-past-the-post in 1994. However, five years later, Great Britain adopted regional lists whereby people vote for a party rather than an individual candidate. She thinks that she was voted in because she was a Labour woman, not on a personal vote.

More recently, the expenses scandal contributed to the BNP’s electoral success (see box). As well as that party exploiting public discontent, she also sees the media as “complicit” in the problem.

“The press, of course, has a duty to expose the wrong things politicians do but it also has a duty to report the good things we do. I think this extreme cynicism we now have in politics is promoted by the press.”

It’s clear that, despite her frustration, McCarthy still has an attachment to the province. She quips that she was known as its ‘fourth’ MEP when working with the local three on the Peace programme back in the 1990s.

“If Northern Ireland is to thrive and prosper and attract more tourists and be economically more independent it needs to have the good image of the peace process,” she says in conclusion. “Obviously, it still needs protecting and nurturing because we are not there yet.”

Opposing the BNP

North West England made the headlines in the 2009 election when BNP leader Nick Griffin was elected as an MEP. McCarthy strongly opposes the far-right party and says its support is built on “myths” that people are losing jobs to immigrants.

“The reason people are losing jobs globally, not just in the North West, is because globalisation means we are manufacturing less,” she adds. “We are seeing a lot of companies go offshore.”

While the BNP has seen the North West as “fertile ground”, she claims it is not interested in the region’s welfare. Indeed, Griffin stood for a London seat in the general election.

All mainstream British parties, she adds, need to ask: “Why are we not connecting and why are people not voting for us? We have got to reach out to the real fears and issues and find solutions to that, which the BNP doesn’t do.”


Profile points

• Vice-Chair, Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee

• Interests: Walking, learning languages (currently Turkish), family and friends

• MEP for North West England (since 1999) and Peak District (1994-1999)

• The region has eight MEPs (3 Tory, 2 Labour, 1 UKIP, 1 Lib Dem, 1 BNP)

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