John O’Brennan (10 January, 2011)
It is somewhat perplexing for many Irish citizens when they find that individuals elected to political office very recently decide to jump ship, once a seemingly better career opportunity presents itself. It is only 18 months since the elections to the European Parliament took place in July 2009. The Parliament’s mandate is for five years, therefore one might expect elected members to commit to office for that period. Rather, we find quite a number of MEPs quite unsettled by the prospect of an Irish General Election and itching to move back to pastures domestic. Alan Kelly of Labour has already declared for Tipperary North whilst Mairead McGuiness is established as a high profile candidate for the Presidency. Sean Kelly is reported to be mulling on standing for Fine Gael in Kerry South. Poor Pat ‘the Cope’ Gallagher doesn’t seem to know whether he is coming or going, so many times has he shifted or been asked to shift, on Fianna Fáil’s behalf, between Dublin and Brussels/Strasbourg. He finally said ‘enough is enough’ in refusing to stand in the recent Donegal South East by-election.
Now before respondents get ready to jump in with comments like ‘the European Parliament is an unimportant backwater’ let me point out the central paradox in all this. The EP is the one European Union institution which has emphatically increased its power and influence over the last three decades. The most striking indication of this came in the autumn of 2010 when David Cameron and other EU heads of government had to swallow their anger and negotiate with Parliament on an increase to the EU budget. The new budgetary powers of the EP derive from the Lisbon Treaty, the latest constitutional change to improve the power and standing of the Parliament. The European Parliament is now a serious player in almost all aspects of policy-making within the EU. Thus, the question arises: why do Irish politicians continue to treat the European Parliament with such contempt? Why do they bail out at a moment’s opportunity?
There is an important question of legitimacy here. If, as seems almost certain, Alan Kelly is elected to the next Oireachtas for Tipperary North, his seat in the European Parliament will be taken by a nominated substitute – an unelected individual – for the duration of the EP’s five year term. There is no provision for a by-election or anything that might legitimize the transfer of the seat. Thus the individual who will succeed Alan Kelly as MEP for Ireland South will have to contend with the reality of having been appointed to office rather than elected. That poses a significant legitimacy problem in a context where Irish citizens already seriously question our membership of the EU. And it poses just as difficult a challenge for Kelly’s successor who will have to contend with the charge of ‘illegitimacy’ during his/her tenure in office. This is unfair both to that individual and, needless to say to the electors of Munster South.
Is it too much to expect of our political representatives that when they stand for office they do so on the basis of honesty, of sincerely committing to fulfilling their terms of office? At the very least we need to change the electoral system for European Parliament elections in Ireland so that the candidate who comes second in the election gets the chance to serve his/her constituency (note: across the EU there are different models in existence for replacing elected members who resign office). That may well mean that the political party which won the seat has to sacrifice it in order to get their man or woman into the Oireachtas. For the citizen, however, this would constitute a much more satisfactory outcome than one which sees an unelected individual sitting in the European Parliament on their behalf.