Jumping Ship from Brussels to Dublin: a question of legitimacy

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.

17 thoughts on “Jumping Ship from Brussels to Dublin: a question of legitimacy

  1. John,

    Aside from the moral issues which you discuss, is there any evidence to suggest that the chopping and changing of Irish MEPs reduces the efficiency of Ireland’s representation in the EP? Moreover is Ireland an outlier in this regard?


  2. Ireland can’t afford to have politicians of the calibre of Mairead McGuinness wasting away in the EP. She should be in the Dáil. The influence of Irish MEPs is not wroth a jot. The area were Ireland can have influence is at council level, not EP level, and that’s why the new Foreign Affairs minister needs to have serious EU credentials, pity Garret FitzGerald is too old, so as to rebuild all the relationships left to go to pot over the last 25 years.

  3. Desmond, I think your language betrays a distinct ignorance or lack of knowledge of the inter-institutional structure in Brussels. MEPs do not “waste away” in Brussels; that is a trope from the 1980s. The Parliament has accrued very serious powers in almost all areas of policy-making, and, at the least it cannot be ignored by the Council in the decision-making sphere. Irish MEPs now engage seriously with national officials in the Council when the process of legislative reconciliation takes place; they get to shape legislation not just accept whatever comes down from the Council. That is real power. They also act as Rapporteurs for major committees and have influence through their family groups. Some months ago Brian Cowen had to go before the ALDE group, which Fianna Fail is now attached to, and endure a harranguing after three FF MEPs abstained on ALDE motions criticising freedom of information laws in Italy and new gay rights proposals among other issues. Thus a national leader like Mr. Cowen can no longer disregard the political grouping his MEPs are linked within within the EP. For those interested in strengthening the power of the Dail relative to the executive in Ireland, we could do worse than examine the different ways in which the European Parliament now excercises oversight over executive action at EU level.

    • Actually the theory of what you say does not work in practice and no Irish MEP has made an impact in any of the areas they sit on committee. It’s debateable if that’s due to the MEP or for other reasons.

    • Alan, in many ways Joe Higgins is an even better example of the hypocrisy of Irish public representatives. He has railed against the so-called “democratic deficit” at EU level for many years, and indeed made this a central element in his critique of the Nice and Lisbon Treaties this past decade. He implicitly made a promise to the electors in Dublin in 2009 to represent them for five years, and he is now bailing out, presumably to be replaced by a nominated Socialist Party substitute who will have no democratic mandate from the people of Dublin. How do we incorporate such behaviour into models of the “democratic deficit? Don’t the citizens of Dublin deserve better than to have an unelected individual representing them in Brussels? I don’t know anything about Gay Mitchell’s plans. But I think we deserve an explaination from Mr. Higgins.

      • Your comments show a complete lack of ignorance of the political positions of Joe Higgins. Joe was quite upfront about his intentions to stand in the General Election regardless of the outcome of the EP elections so your claim of any implicit promise is false. Nonetheless, the electorate voted for him regardless.

  4. There are two practical solutions to this ongoing practice of European Parliament alternates:

    1. Have each candidate declare their alternate on the ballot paper so that you know who is next on the list if your candidate does decide to come home.

    2. We change the laws so that if someone does leave their MEP position, the role then goes to the second most successful candidate in the election.

    The first option is easier, but the second is a lot more fun for the political anorak…

  5. It may interest some to note that historically rules of procedure for members of parliament have made it difficult for them to resign office. In the eighteenth century, for example, MPs in the Irish parliament (and I suspect in the British parliament) could not resign their seats (I thank Dr. David Fleming of the UL Department of History for this information). At that time there was no law as such regulating the tenure of an MP – elections were held only on the death of a monarch (until 1768 when an Octennial bill came into force, which legislated for an election every eight years). But a 1705 standing order of the Commons prohibited MPs from resigning their seat. The situation changed in 1793 on the passing of the ‘Place Act’ which obliged any MP who accepted an office to resign his seat and stand for re-election (or choose not to stand). Liberals recognised that the acceptance of office provided the government benches with supporters. There was a similar piece of legislation in the British parliament since 1701. The rationale for adopting the 1705 standing order is not stated, but it may be guessed that MPs wished to avoid the potential for undue influence and corruption were MPs allowed to resign. Had MPs been allowed, it would have provided political magnates with an additional means of influence in closed boroughs or within a restricted electorate. Of course it may also indicate that once elected one must serve.

    With reference to John Fitzgibbon’s question, I was writing solely from the perspective of the normative legitimacy point of view. The utilitarian issues about efficiency may be interesting in and of themselves (I simply don’t know the literature well enough to be able to recommend reading) but I think the question of representative transparency is more important for our purposes. I take Andrea’s point that the publication of an alternate’s name may help bridge the legitimacy gap, but surely it is a poor substitute for being able to identify and engage with an individual who has the real and substantive authority that goes with elected office.

  6. Perhaps our friend from the Socialist Party could point us toward any public statement by Mr. Higgins where he signalled his intent to cut short his tenure in Brussels and resign his EP seat in favour of a return to Dublin? I would be very happy to correct the record if he can provide any links to such a statement by Mr. Higgins.

    • Well in 1999, Higgins said he would keep a dual mandate:


      So I assume his stance was the same in 2009 and for all Joe’s guff about being different his party doesn’t publish accounts about how it is funded and he doesn’t publish receipts for the expenses he claims.

      So don’t expect too much from the political class, of whatever side, and you won’t be disappointed.

  7. Mairead McGuiness may well be a very fine politician who should be on the national stage, but if you’re not genuinely interested in working at EU level, and taking seriously the responsibilty that comes with being part of the EP, then just don’t put yourself forward for the job. Simple as that. Find something else to do that interests you. I mean isn’t that what normal people do? Find something they’re interested in and then do it for money.

  8. On less of a whiny note, i think the idea that the Parliament’s increasing power implies it should be treated with greater respect is a misnomer. It is a highly cited paradox of the institutions’ development that participation rates have been consistently falling despite the EP’s growing muscle in legislative and budgetary matters. If anything, the Lisbon Treaty confirms this through its introduction of mechanisms such as the citizens action initiative, and national parliamentary subsidiarity checks as a means to bridge the ‘democratic deficit’. Brussels got tired of the debate, and tired of waiting on the EP to deliver as a source of democratic legitimacy for the project

  9. Switching between the EP and Dáil is no different than anyone else changing their job, it’s silly to suggest a person in Company A can never apply to Company B if they think Company B offers a better opportunity for them and if Joe Higgins or Mairead McGuiness think they would like to be elected to the Dáil instead of the EP, then I say go for it, the Dáil needs as many high calibre people in it as possible and the Dáil’s gain is the EP’s loss.

    The problem I see if the legitimacy of the person who replaces them but the system in place allows them to have a second person on their ticket so they are replaced by that person and until a different system is put in place, that’s how it’s going to be.

    I don’t think it’s an ‘either or’ choice – high calibre people are important in both places but like in the real world, we can pick and choose where we want to work and apply and sit interviews and if we do well, we get the job, so MEPs can stand for the Dáil, make their case and let the voter decide whether or not to give them the job.

    • Desmond, your analogy to buisness would hold if Ireland were merely an economy. But Ireland is not just an economy; it is a SOCIETY. And the relationshio between a citizen and his/her public representatives is fundamentally not the same as that between a consumber and company manager. Actually, it can reasonably be argued that our multiple crises have occured because too many people in political life bought into this idea that our society should be made subordinate to the economy and the market. This surely needs to change.

      • I don’t see why a person elected to a council, the Oireachtas or the EP shouldn’t be allowed to decide to pursue a different opportunitiy, the only caveat should be they face election – I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a councillor to commit to never standing for the Dáil or EP or vice versa.

        In fact it could be argued that it is precisely because such a mess has been made, that those elected to other bodies would decide they can do better and to ask for a mandate. If they get it, fine, if not that’s ok too.

        You don’t lose your job just because you went for an interview (well not usually!) and whether it’s a company or society, people are entitled to ask to play whatever role they think they are suitable for. IF the public don’t want them, they won’t vote for them.

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