Climate pressure

Climate pressure Time is running out in the fight against global warming, Bairbre de Brún tells Peter Cheney. The Sinn Féin woman is, though, pleased to see the Assembly taking Europe more seriously.

Action on climate change is well overdue and voters must press governments for urgent progress before the Mexico City talks. That was MEP Bairbre de Brún’s main message as the clock counts down to the round, scheduled to start on 29 November.

“People throughout the EU need to push their governments to ensure that the EU takes the steps that it needs to take,” de Brún remarks, “and that it takes a strong stand with others in the world to make sure that they take the steps that they need to take as well.”

De Brún plans to attend the negotiations as the GUE/NGL group’s climate change spokeswoman.

While the EU has signed up to a 20 per emissions cut over 1990-2020, it has pledged to reach 30 per cent if a global agreement is found. Some scientists go further, to 40 per cent. Their views, the lack of agreement and the fact that “time is moving on” make her conclude that 20 per cent is now unrealistic.

The developing world’s need for finance, either to prevent emissions or deal with global warming’s consequences, is the other difficulty, as it is unclear what, how or when developed countries will give.

“I’m very, very concerned that already there is talk of leaving it to South Africa in 2011,” de Brún continues. “The whole idea was to have something in place to replace the Kyoto Protocol when it runs out in 2012. If you’re not even reaching an agreement until December 2011, then clearly you’ve missed the boat on that.

“And if, as scientists predict, the way we’re working at the moment and the way that we’re operating at the moment could lead to catastrophic climate change in 2050, then you work back from there as to when you need to have started – and it certainly isn’t the end of 2011.”

Locally, she wants the Executive to draw up an integrated strategy to tackle climate change, focusing on energy efficiency, renewable energy and similar steps. This should be “at the very heart of our economic development because it can be opportunity as well as a challenge.”

Coming of age

Exiting the economic crisis is the other ‘big issue’ she sees coming up next year in Europe.

She is keen that any exit strategy does not undermine the so-called ‘social agenda’ e.g. equality and environmental laws introduced from Europe. A purely economic approach is a non-starter: “If all the various points of policy got narrowed to simply their employment industry perspective, we would all be the poorer.”

Since last June, she counts her main achievements as co-authoring Parliament positions on climate change, representing the Parliament at the Copenhagen talks, and bringing through the first piece of legislation, on pet passports, after the Lisbon Treaty came into force.

Closer to home, she put forward a petition from residents of Ringsend, near Coleraine, who were objecting to plans to build several waste dumps in the area. On the night before it was to be discussed in Brussels last October, Edwin Poots informed residents that one of the dumps had to go through a full consultation procedure, which otherwise would not have happened.

Gaza also stands out. De Brún visited the territory in January, as part of a group of MPs and MEPs, but was disappointed to see so little reconstruction taking place a year on from the war.

A further “shared achievement” is the better working relationship she now has with the Assembly and NILGA. The OFMDFM Committee, shadowing that department’s European work, formally receives reports from MEPs, and connections have been built up with the other committees.

This is partly due to the 2008 European task force report, which was sub-divided into specific policy sections and therefore easier for committees to follow.

“Part of it is also a coming of age of the Assembly and the fact that it’s finding itself slightly past the emergency stage and able to take on more,” she adds. “It’s a growing recognition of the importance of the European institutions and their impact.”

MLAs are increasingly realising that they are “not just taking things from Westminster” as 70 per cent of laws, in her estimate, have their origins in the EU. There is no exact official figure on this topic but the Foreign Office has estimated that 40 per cent of business regulations come from a European source.

Division

Farming and fisheries remains a large part of her constituency work, but this is far from the full picture. “A myriad of different situations” come up, including problems with cross-border trade and even people wishing to bring medication across borders.

Much of her work involves explaining the EU’s workings to students and groups promoting rights and equality. Frequent examples include representatives of disabled people, older people and Irish speakers.

De Brún thinks it is possible to be an MEP for the whole of Northern Ireland. If people have a problem that they want solved, “they really don’t care” about the MEP’s party label: “They want somebody to do something for them and they don’t need to share your politics.”

In some parts of the province, there is a pattern of “inviting some MEPs rather than others” but it is standard practice to invite all three to larger events. In contrast to the last European Parliament term, the three MEPs do work together “to put the voice of the constituency” where necessary e.g. by jointly meeting with the Fisheries Commissioner.

“Every MEP has their own difficulties,” she adds. “I mean our difficulty is a divided society. For some, it’s a huge constituency. If you’re an MEP in Finland, for example, the whole of Finland is your constituency.”

Going left: Sinn Féin’s group

The GUE/NGL group, of which Sinn Féin is a part, puts the party alongside the French, Greek and Portuguese communist parties. It has a total of 35 MEPs. Members include Die Linke, some of whose members were once in the East German communist party.

However, de Brún is keen to point out the group’s ‘confederal’ nature i.e. it is a loose gathering of green, feminist, hard left, communist and former communist parties, without a strong whip. The full name is the Confederal Group of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left.

“Die Linke, I think, is one of the examples of how the left is evolving in Europe; that is made up of people on the one hand who were in former communist parties and others who were on the left of the [German centre-left] Social Democratic Party, and have merged together in a new party.”

“Sinn Féin has the ability to vote [on] our party positions, our ard fheis positions and the interests of the constituency,” she stated.

Asked what the party’s American supporters thought of the arrangement, she repeats that there “hasn’t been an issue” because it is a confederal group and its members have more voting freedom “than in any other group in the Parliament”.

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