Jessie Magee's Eurolink column on the Midlands-North West constituency
The European elections had more or less slipped off the country’s news agenda in all but a small corner of South Mayo when Europe’s last MEP was finally elected in the early hours of Thursday morning.
After over 18 agonising hours of counting spread over five days, Independent MEP Marian Harkin was deemed elected when her colleague, Pat the Cope Gallagher of Fianna Fáil, conceded defeat in Castlebar. It was the fourth and final seat in the Midlands-North-West constituency.
Fianna Fáil had requested a recheck two days earlier when it emerged that only 275 votes were separating the pair; less than 0.05 per cent of the vote.
The move was fully approved by Harkin who said she would have sought a similar recheck if she had been in the rear. When half a million recounted votes failed to show any significant change in the narrow margin between them, Gallagher gave up the fight and opted not seek a full recount. “I’m a realist,” he said, while Harkin paid tribute to her brother-in-arms. “If it could have been somebody else other than Pat here tonight, that is what I would have wanted,” she said.
Harkin has won MEP of the Year awards twice in recent years and is widely recognised as being one of the hardest-working Irish MEPs. The former North-West constituency can boast some of the best performers in the entire European Parliament over the past term, but Harkin topped the list with a total of 59 reports and opinions produced on a wide range of issues. She also recorded an impressive amount of speeches at plenary sessions and put numerous official questions to the European Commission.
Meanwhile, Gallagher's departure from Brussels will be mourned not only by his loyal followers in Donegal but by the fishing community of the western seaboard on whose behalf he worked tirelessly since he was first elected as an MEP in 1994. His long service also includes a stint as Minister of State for the Marine between 2002 and 2004.
Gallagher criticised Fianna Fáil's strategy in putting forward two strong candidates in the sprawling constituency. Although he did benefit from transfers when his running mate Senator Thomas Byrne was eliminated, Gallagher’s warning that the two candidates’ votes would effectively cancel each other out was borne out in the end.
Perhaps the most major loss to the constituency and to Ireland's presence on the European stage was outgoing Fine Gael MEP Jim Higgins. A star performer across a broad range of issues including transport, fishing, farming and health, he was also very popular amongst his Irish and European colleagues. Higgins was awarded the title of MEP of the Year in Transport 2014. His additional workload included the prestigious role of “quaestor” whereby he represented MEPs in administrative matters within the Parliament. Earlier this month, Higgins sent two new very serious Garda whistleblower files to the Minister for Justice.
In the aftermath of his defeat at the count centre, Higgins lambasted his party's election strategy as “absolute and utter lunacy”. He said Fine Gael HQ should have strategically divided the territory between himself and his running mate Mairead McGuinness.
“I've never been in an election – and I've fought 16 elections – that you didn't have some kind of a strategy as regards dividing the territory,” he told reporters. Higgins also derided the “major political mistakes” made by the government in the run-up to the government, including imposing water charges, withdrawing free phone allowances from senior citizens and threatening to remove medical cards.
“We have reaped the harvest on that. Fine Gael and Labour got a good kick in the transom, and maybe it's the best wake-up call we could get. We need to be more politically savvy,” he said.
When asked what the immediate future held for him, Higgins paused for a moment, smiled and replied, “I'm going to smell the roses.”
Higgins’ parting gift to his running mate Mairead McGuinness was his massive transfer of votes which helped her claim the second seat in Midlands-North-West. McGuinness thanked “her good friend and colleague” for the transfers, adding that this was her first election as part of a government party. The sub-text was that even though she won a seat, her vote was also dented by the profound anti-government sentiment driving voters. But McGuinness’ solid standing within the party and in Brussels, particularly on farming issues, brought her safely over the line in the end. She holds the position of vice-president of the largest political grouping within the European Parliament, the European People’s Party, a powerful role which adds to her ability to influence legislation.
The Sinn Féin tide which swept the nation saw young Monaghan councillor Matt Carthy surge home to claim the third seat in the constituency. Carthy arrogantly dismissed the outgoing batch of MEPs as “hard-working, but failures” during the campaign; it remains to be seen now how he will work with his politically-inexperienced colleagues to achieve their anti-austerity agenda.
The first Midlands-North-West MEP to be elected was, of course, poll-topper Luke 'Ming' Flanagan. Flanagan soon came up with the slogan of “compassionate Euroscepticism” to describe what will be his guiding principles in Brussels. He was quick to distance himself from the notorious Eurosceptic, right-wing MEP and UKIP Leader Nigel Farage, however; and stated he would have “no truck” with that man.
“The government has been told definitively that the people of Ireland are sick and told of being told what to do by Europe. If Europe doesn’t like what the Irish people thing, then I think we need to go one step further and reconsider our membership of this very, very bad union,” he said.
Flanagan has not yet decided which political grouping he will join within the European Parliament and may find himself struggling to make an impact unless he chooses his allegiances wisely.
Other casualties of the constituency include Labour candidate Lorraine Higgins. The Labour Party Senator has reported death threats made on her Facebook page during the campaign to the gardaí, including threats that she would be “hatcheted in the face”.
Independent Senator Ronan Mullen was eliminated early in the race.