- 01 Nov 19
Many Irish people were deeply shocked when four Fine Gael MEPs sided with far-right parties in the European Parliament to vote down a motion that supported providing humanitarian aid to migrants, and ensuring their safe passage to ports in Europe. So where does the party really stand on the issue?
A motion was put before the European Parliament last week by the Spanish Socialist MEP Juan Fernando Lopez. It didn’t exactly seem like incendiary stuff.
The motion called on member states of the EU to keep their ports open to NGO vessels that need to bring ashore migrants, who have been rescued at sea. It asked the European Commission to scrutinise the actions of member states which prevent rescue boats from entering their waters. And it sought an assessment, by the Commission, of whether or not actions of this kind are in contravention of the European Convention on Human Rights.
If passed, the motion would not be binding. But the intention behind it was to put moral pressure on governments that are currently adopting aggressively hostile policies in relation to migrants.
Reading the text, it seemed to me that the motion expressed the kind of ordinary, decent attitudes to people in desperate, immediate danger that one might have assumed most Irish people would share. People have drowned. Bodies have been washed up on the shore. None of us want to see more of that. So how did the Irish MEPs vote?
Left-leaning independents Mick Wallace and Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan, Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy and Martine Anderson (a Northern MEP) and Green Party MEPs Grace O’Sullivan and Ciaran Cuffe voted in favour of the motion. Those who weren’t there to vote included Independent MEP Clare Daly, DUP MEP Dianne Dodds, the Alliance Party’s Naomi Long and Fianna Fail’s Billy Kelleher. When the numbers were added up, the motion was defeated by just two votes.
There was loud, boorish cheering in the chamber when the result was announced. How often does that happen? Not very often. It is only when one group of MEPs or another think that they have made a point or secured an important victory.
Here’s the kicker. Four Fine Gael MEPs voted against the motion. These votes made all the difference. In doing so, the four individuals aligned themselves with the European far-right parties that have been engaged in stirring up hatred towards migrants all across Europe. During the debate, a Hungarian MEP argued that passing the motion would be “a clear letter of invitation to millions of people in Africa.” There is no point in trying to gild this particular lily: the Fine Gael MEPs have aligned themselves with this brand of disgusting xenophobia.
In effect, Mairéad McGuinness, Sean Kelly, Frances Fitzgerald and Maria Walsh won the day for the haters. I don’t like to personalise politics, when I see so many good people being done down wrongly in the court of ignorant public opinion. But I have to say that it is a moment about which all decent members of the Fine Gael party should feel deeply ashamed.
The Green Party MEP Grace O’Sullivan expressed her sense of shock at the fact that the Fine Gael MEPs had voted against the motion. “I was even more shocked,” she added, “because they sided with the far-right group in the European Parliament, who clapped when the resolution went down. That was such a disgrace.”
A lot of Irish people will share Grace O’Sullivan’s sense of revulsion. “I don’t know how MEPs could vote against a motion that was ultimately humanitarian in its intent, supporting the rescue of drowning migrants in the Mediterranean,” the Green MEP added. “It is soul-destroying to me. I am gutted.”
AGGRESSIVELY RESTRICTIVE POLICIES
On the face of it, the actions of these four MEPs blatantly contradict the views expressed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, who has been vocal in his criticism of the response to migration in Europe generally.
Coveney might best be characterised as a careful, intelligent Fie Gael moderate. He has grown in stature since the abortion referendum, during which he displayed a willingness to move from a dogmatic view to one that took other people’s conscientious beliefs and concerns into consideration. Throughout the Brexit negotiations, he has similarly been a consistent voice of reason.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney was unambiguous in what he said in the Dáil on the issue of migration. “It is not morally acceptable,” he stated, “for the European Union not to put resources into ensuring that people do not drown in the Mediterranean.”
He was right. And it is from people of similar views that Fine Gael will hope to gain votes in the upcoming general election here in Ireland. But the four Fine Gael MEPs seem to have chosen a different path.
The truth is that Fine Gael’s links with the so called European People’s Party have always been highly questionable. The grouping describes itself as centre-right, but – with ‘Christian Democratic’ parties at the heart of it – it has long harboured the potential to become a vehicle for hardline, conservative, religiously-motivated, right-wing politics. With the shift to the right that has taken place in parts of Europe, and the rise of an aggressive, new form of nationalism, that is where the EPP is heading. Fine Gael will have to decide if it is comfortable tagging along.
The Fine Gael MEPs have tried to rationalise their decision to vote against the motion. They are at pains to make themselves sound high-minded, claiming that the resolution played into the hands of people smugglers. Sadly, it doesn’t wash. Not even remotely.
“By calling for Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency to share intelligence about its operational activities with every boat in the Mediterranean,” the former Rose of Tralee, Maria Walsh said, “(the resolution) would endanger more lives by facilitating, instead of dismantling, the business model of smugglers and human traffickers. We could not support that.”
For a start, the resolution was not binding. It was aspirational. And in that regard, you either want to create an environment in which the emphasis is on delivering humanitarian aid – or on aggressively restrictive policies. At the moment, there is widespread concern that Europe is forcing migrants back into Libya – where it is an offence even to attempt to leave. The consequences for the individuals involved are almost certainly catastrophic. How genuinely concerned are the people who support this policy about the lives of those who are trying to flee dictatorships and oppression?
The only logical conclusion is that they don’t give a shit.
A VERY DIFFERENT PARTY
When it comes down to it, all you have to do is check who was in favour and who was against to see what the real lie of the land is. Are Fine Gael really saying that they know better than Medicine Sans Frontiers? Is it that they support the anti-NGO law that Hungary introduced in May of this year? Are they incapable of understanding how lacking in any genuine sense of morality their alignment with far-right parties really is? As a migrant nation that claims a diaspora of between 40 and 50 million – a multiple of seven times the population of Ireland – many of whom arrived, even in the recent past, illegally in the places where they now live, Ireland above all should be capable of showing solidarity with the migrants currently trying to reach Europe.
Not these four. In the face of a storm of criticism, the most senior MEP in the group, Mairéad McGuinness, decided to take a pugnacious line, insisting that she “will not allow anyone to challenge my ethics or morality around saving lives.” But the vote is there, permanently on the record. So is the list of people with whom she communed in voting ‘No’.
So let’s think about context.
• In November 2018, the owner of the Caiseal Mara Hotel in Moville, Co. Donegal – which had been selected as the location for a direct provision centre – was injured, and serious damage was done to the building he owned, in what was clearly a racially motivated arson attack.
• In February 2019, a similar arson attack was carried out on the Shannon Key Hotel, in Rooskey, Co. Roscommon – which had also been selected to house a Direct Provision Centre.
• In September, protests were again mounted, this time in Oughterard, Co. Galway, against the plan to turn the Connemara Gateway Hotel into a centre for refugees.
• A day before the vote was held in the European Parliament, 39 migrants died in the back of a lorry that was driven by an Irishman from Craigavon, by the name of Mo Robinson.
• In the few days after the European vote, the Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny, who lives in Aughavas in Co. Leitrim, was the victim of an arson attack, for speaking out in relation to housing asylum seekers in Ballinamore.
• On Monday morning, a Garda station in Monaghan was burned to the ground. No one knows the motivation, though it is almost certain that the same right-wing, Catholic, sub-nationalist forces were at work here as in Moville and Rooskey.
• A study by Dublin City University has confirmed that hate speech against groups such as Asylum Seekers and Travellers is widespread online.
To date, Ireland has been mercifully free of a political party around which the hate-mongers, xenophobes and racists can cluster. To their credit, Sinn Féin has been hugely instrumental in ensuring this. But that may be changing. So let us be clear: if there is any hint that elements in Fine Gael are engaging in a process of appeasement, and trying to appeal to the rottenness that is at the heart of the narrow, self-serving, entrenched provincial nationalism which has gained a foothold across Europe, then they must be punished at the ballot box in the next election. And if this isn’t the case, then they should come out and say so, openly and unequivocally.
Fine Gael is a very different party to the one over which Liam Cosgrave presided in 1977, when Hot Press was launched. In relative terms, it has become a socially liberal party. But that doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if it supports the brutal treatment of migrants in the Mediterranean – or vicious opposition to people of colour being afforded a place of refuge in Ireland. Racism is evil and wrong. So where does Fine Gael stand on the issue?
They really do need to tell us.