Bairbre de Brún interview: engaging Europe

Sinn Féin MEP Bairbre de Brún talks to Owen McQuade about her role, the need for a real debate about European issues affecting Northern Ireland and her deep interest in the fight against climate change.

What has been your involvement in Europe to date?

My role as an MEP would straddle a number of aspects: one would be my work in the Parliament working on EU legislation and the Regulations as they come through the Parliament. That would range across everything from nutrition and health to agriculture, rural development, health and safety at work, combating climate change, right through to the rights of immigrants and combating racism and xenophobia.

Some of the other work that I’ve been doing has been making representations and engaging with the Commission specifically on issues relating to the constituency here, specifically a body of work around the needs of the North West in terms of road, rail, broadband access, regional airports. It has also included getting the Regional Development Committee to visit the North last September and look at the cross-border work here, and Peace funding and the plans for the future in EU funding.

I’d also bring a number of groups over from the constituency to meet with groups working on similar issues on a EU level and for them to see how the institutions work and how they can best engage with the institutions.

Some of the other engagements with the Commissioners, for example, would have been the battle to get a Peace III and after that the discussions about what a Peace III profile would look like.

Finally, I would also meet groups from the constituency that have made their own arrangements to go to Brussels or Strasbourg and who come to me on a wide variety of issues. Also, I would travel round the constituency meeting with a range of sectors, making them aware of what’s happening in the EU at present and how they can best engage at this stage.

What political group do you belong to?

The European United Left and Nordic Green Left. It’s a broad federation of left groups. Because it’s a confederation, you work through the group but you also have your own freedom to hold your own positions within that. I would be fairly active.

As well as the work you would do for the constituency, you would also from the Parliament and from the MEPs that you work with, go further afield in Europe or beyond. For example, going to countries to look at the conditions of migrants and those held in detention through irregular immigration. I went as an observer to the Palestinian elections in 2006 and it was absolutely fascinating.

What role does the Regional Development Committee play?

The major legislative part of the Regional Development Committee’s work was in the early part of this parliamentary session when the EU funds were being brought into being for the period that’s now started.

During the first years after I was elected in 2004, the major part was in putting together the actual Regulations for the regional development funds and then negotiating with the other EU institutions on aspects of that which the Parliament was particularly involved in or concerned about, such as the participation of NGOs in programme building and a greater emphasis than there has been to date on the environment and access for those with disabilities.

What the Regional Development Committee does, in general terms, is look at and help develop the policies of the EU with regard to ensuring social and economic cohesion – that is ensuring that individuals, groups, areas and member states are more evenly balanced in terms of their ability to benefit and develop their economies.

In more recent times the committee is looking at specific aspects with a view to influencing the next round of EU funding. Some of the points under discussion, for example, are that there is still a wide variation within member states and between regions, and the specific role of cities and urban areas in regional development.

What were the main findings of your report on Peace funding?

Peace and IFI [International Fund for Ireland] programmes have benefitted peace and reconciliation, social and economic development and they have benefitted both urban and rural areas; local empowerment is essential to peace building, and the involvement of the community and voluntary sector helps decision-making. Local businesses are powerful actors.

I also found that the Peace programmes help the most marginalised sections of the community and those most affected by the conflict to become actively involved in making peace and in taking decisions that affect their areas. I pointed out the importance of cross-border work and said that this should continue, and there should also be a development of forums for the voluntary and community sector to work on a cross-border basis.

It concluded that the vital work that’s been carried on should not end when Peace funding ends, that government departments need to mainstream this work. Particularly at the moment, in terms of a gap between Peace II funding ending and Peace III funding beginning, there should be some help there. The Commission and the government departments should specifically look at how funding for victims’ and survivors’ groups can be maintained after Peace funding ends.

Have you engaged with the Commission task force?

I did and they were one of the groups where I pushed very strongly the idea that this is a real opportunity for us in terms of sustainable development, renewable energy and energy efficiency as we rise to meet the challenge of climate change. These are specific areas where we can benefit at the moment, not only in terms of EU programmes in the time ahead but also funding from the European Investment Bank. I think that would tie in very well with some of the discussions that have been happening around US investment.

Also, the specific possibilities in terms of conflict resolution in the time ahead. But I also think that, across the range of programmes, departmental civil servants are now beginning to engage more with the process in the European Union. Some departments had already good ties but others hadn’t.

One of the factors there was undoubtedly the fact that the money went to Westminster and the block grant then went here regardless of what happened. Civil servants from the South, for example, went out and whatever they got, they got and that didn’t happen here. From this year, funds are additional and through the work of the task force there’s a real chance there for networking, for getting money that isn’t promised to us as a block but is out there if we can go and get it.

How do you think that the relationship between Europe and the Assembly can be improved?

In terms of mainstreaming the elements into all of the committees, I think the task force report gives us a really good starting point. It’s broken down very clearly into discreet areas and the Assembly committees should now be taking the specific area from the task force report that applies to their committee.

They should be engaging with the civil servants and wider society on what the possibilities are there and if they feel that there isn’t enough ‘new’ there, they should be challenging the relevant departments to go and further engage with the Commission and the Parliament to ensure that more is achieved.

I also think that on an ongoing basis, there needs to be a form of reporting on what is happening at the time it is happening, rather than at the implementation stage. In the Oireachtas, for example, Irish Government Ministers go to an EU scrutiny committee before they go to the Council, to answer questions on the positions that they’re going to take there.

There should be a mechanism for the Assembly to engage with the MEPs on an ongoing basis. I myself make a point of going to the Assembly when I’m at home, on a Monday morning, to make sure that I can, to the best of my ability, match the work that I’m doing at EU level to the work that’s happening in the Assembly. But there’s no formal mechanism for that.

I also think that on the North/South Ministerial Council, there’s an ability and facility there to look at sectoral issues, including the approach to the European Union. Economic planning around a range of areas could be used to a greater extent to discuss common positions.

How long has the Temporary Committee on Climate Change been going?

The committee was set up in 2007 and its remit includes making proposals for the EU’s integrated policy on climate change and also what the Parliament’s position should be in the wider international negotiations for a framework on climate policy after 2012.

It takes a thematic approach. It works through the various strands of policy that both impact on mitigating climate change and that climate change impacts upon as well.

We went out last year to China. That was in advance of Bali and I think it was very useful that it was because we were able to discuss, with civil society, the main negotiator and the Chinese authorities, the effect that climate change would have on China itself, Chinese policy for tackling climate change and the need, which China accepts, to make some contribution to tackling climate change.

More recently, we visited Washington in the United States last week. Interestingly, the Chinese made it very clear that they were happy to engage with the EU because the EU had stepped up to the plate and already made certain commitments. That was clear as well when it came to Bali.

But they were making it very clear that they saw no reason for them to take major steps if other international actors weren’t, which was code for the US.

The message we were getting from the US was that they saw the need to take action but they wouldn’t be taking action unless others were taking action, which was code for China and India. Two interesting things in the US were a lot of the individual states and cities haven’t waited for the federal, they’ve just got on with it. There are also several Congressman and Senators who are attempting to bring legislation through, although this hasn’t been successful to date and the US Administration has not favoured it. What’s interesting about the time ahead is that all the remaining candidates for the US presidential race have all made commitments.

So really the pieces are there for an international agreement now. Part of the question is whether or not enough can happen in the US in the period that we need, because we’re trying to reach an international agreement by the end of next year, to send the kind of positive signals that would then bring China to make the kind of commitments that are needed there, taking into account of course their position as an emerging economy.

How do you think the European institutions are changing. Do you think they will have the same influence on Ireland as they had previously?

They have an ever-growing influence. Seventy per cent of the legislation that goes through at present, at more, arises from EU Directives and that’s a trend that’s set to continue. As some of the decision-making begins to move from unanimity to qualified majority voting, the kind of influence that the smaller states have had is likely to wane and that has implications for the amount of influence that the EU will have on Ireland, rather than vice versa.

There are aspects of it that I think are concerning, particularly in terms of the Third World. Ireland has always had a very positive influence, in shaping a policy that isn’t just about the specific advantages to Europe. The EU is a major arms exporter. They also have very specific trade interests that at the moment are pressurising the Third World countries, not just to dismantle trade barriers but environmental protection, social protections and workers’ rights. Ireland is one of those smaller countries that have held the line against some of the worst tendencies there.

How is the decision-making process changing in the institutions?

A lot more areas will be for co-decision between the Parliament and the Council in the future, which allows the Parliament to have more of an influence than it did in the past where its advice was sought and no more. At the same time, co-decision doesn’t mean on an equal footing, it just means more of an input. I think people will engage more with the Parliament and the MEPs on the areas of scrutiny that we have.

But by the same token, there will be other changes where there will be virtual EU embassies being opened if the Lisbon Treaty is passed and a diplomatic service that will be speaking on behalf of the 27 member states, and powers for the Commission to negotiate treaties without having to come back to the member states.

Even in the South of Ireland where there’s going to be a referendum, I don’t think the detail of those changes has come across to people, and I think the North is sleepwalking its way into it.

In general terms the big challenge is how to have a proper debate here in advance or while decisions are being taken in the EU. One of things that I have noticed, from my previous time as a Minister in the Assembly and my time before that working in the community and voluntary sector, is that people here battle to get a submission into a government department on the last day of the last week of a 12-week consultation, on something that was discussed and voted on in the EU maybe three or four years previously when they didn’t have any input at all.

At the moment, there is a huge debate going on on waste legislation. It’s not discussed at all; it has huge implications.

There isn’t the level of debate in the constituency here at present that there ought to be on that issue. And that’s just one issue. The big challenge for us is how to get that debate going and make sure that people here can have their voice heard.</P.

As an Irish speaker, I am delighted that Irish is now an official and working language of the European Union and that when I get up to speak in the European Parliament in Irish in the plenary, that it’s simultaneously translated into 22 other languages. The other point of interest is there’s going to be a growing demand for interpreters and translators. Careers guidance teachers, colleges and young people here need to be aware that there are virtually guaranteed positions if people can train themselves to that.

Profile: Bairbre de Brún

Bairbre de Brún was born in Dublin and lives in Andersonstown in west Belfast. A teacher by profession, she taught in the Irish medium education sector and was a Sinn Féin party staffer and negotiator before entering elected politics. She was MLA for West Belfast from 1998 to 2004 and Minister for Health from 1999 to 2002. She sits on the Parliament’s Regional Development Committee and is a substitute on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee and the Temporary Committee on Climate Change.

Bairbre enjoys hill-walking and reading light fiction and biographies of women who have overcome challenges, as well as listening to Irish music and eating out with friends.

“I’ve finally got to stage where I can at least do easy Sudoku,” she admits.

Related Posts