Life as an MEP is no gravy train

As we continue our series on Cork women running for seats in the upcoming European elections, COLETTE SHERIDAN chats to Sinn Féin MEP Liadh Ní Riada
Life as an MEP is no gravy train
Liadh Ní Riada, MEP South

EATING a sandwich in her Cork city centre office, MEP Liadh Ní Riada, of Sinn Féin, says she and her colleagues tend to keep their weight down because they’re always on the go, grabbing something to eat on the hoof when they can.

She has no time for people who claim that MEPs are on the gravy train and have ‘a grand old time in Brussels’.

“Make no mistake about it, we’re incredibly privileged to have this position. But it’s a tough position. I never see Brussels. You get on your flight which, if you’re lucky, is one flight. For me, it takes two flights and there’s a train and a car involved.

“You get into the parliament as early as possible. You’re there all day long, running and racing from meeting to meeting. I cover 3.5 miles a day just walking between meetings.”

While in Brussels, Liadh, from Baile Mhuirne in Co Cork, stays in an Air B’n’B. She has never been tempted to buy an apartment in Brussels as she doesn’t consider it home. But it’s where she spends most of the week.

“You can be getting up at 4am, catching a red-eye flight and thinking, ‘what am I doing?’ But then I think of all those people who have faith in me and to whom I have a responsibility.”

Fifty-one-year-old Liadh, the youngest of seven, was only four years of age when her renowned music composer father, Seán Ó Riada, died. Her mother died six years later. The older children reared the younger ones and Liadh says they had good neighbours and a supportive community.

Asked what drew her to politics, Liadh —who was a candidate in last year’s presidential campaign — says she still doesn’t quite see herself as a politician.

Liadh Ní Riada with Irish MEPs of the GUE/NGL group.
Liadh Ní Riada with Irish MEPs of the GUE/NGL group.

“Maybe that’s because I was a late bloomer. I’d call myself an activist more than anything else. I suppose as someone growing up in Baile Mhuirne, a marginalised community, I’d always have been aware of trying to get rights for the Gaeltacht people. There were services that we should have been getting. So it would have been bubbling away in the background.”

In 2011, Liadh joined Sinn Féin as the party’s national Irish language officer. That was her first foray into politics and she chose the party “because it was a natural fit. it was and still is, in my view, the only party that is in any way serious about the Irish language”.

Asked how she sees the IRA’s campaign of violence during the Troubles, Liadh says: “Our country went through a violent conflict with very real hurt caused by the many actors involved, which also includes the British state and the many loyalist gangs that it armed and facilitated. The violence didn’t happen in a vacuum. It came about because of a complex mix of historical and socio-economic issues and injustices. Of course, we would all wish it hadn’t happened, but it did and what’s important now is to find peace and justice for victims and those who lost loved ones, and to ensure that the issues which caused it in the first place don’t arise again.

“We all have to take responsibility for what happened. That includes republicans but it also includes the British government, despite the attempts by the British Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, to claim British killings weren’t crimes, while completely glossing over the issue of collusion.”

Prior to her political career which saw her being selected as the Sinn Féin candidate for the South constituency for the 2014 European Parliament elections, Liadh worked as a television producer and director.

“For 15 to 20 years, I worked for RTÉ and TG4 and as an independent producer. I loved that job which was about meeting people and telling stories. But it was difficult to make a living out of it. It served my purpose for the time when my three daughters were quite young. I was able to stay at home and juggle work while they were at the baby stage. I was delighted to be able to afford to do that. Now, it was a struggle. There was no secure pay, but we managed.

Liadh Ní Riada used to work as a tv producer and director.
Liadh Ní Riada used to work as a tv producer and director.

“My husband, Nicky Forde, a statue restorer, is very good. He works for himself and since I’ve become an MEP, he’s at home. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do this. The roles are reversed.”

Liadh’s daughters are 17-year-old Cait, who is doing the Leaving Cert this year, 15-year-old Ailsa, who is doing the Junior Cert, and 12-year -old Neans, who is making her Confirmation this year. Add to that Liadh’s campaign to be re-elected this May and it’s a busy time for her household.

In her campaign, Liadh will have to overcome the public’s perception that the European elections are not really of interest to them.

“Most people are concerned about whether they can buy a bag of groceries and pay the mortgage rather than what’s happening in Europe. Of course, Brexit has been a game changer (in upping the profile of Europe).”

Liadh is concerned about “the militarisation of Europe”.

She explained: “We should value and cherish our sovereignty more than anything. That’s a big issue for me. I sit on the fisheries committee and that’s about putting supports in place to make sure we have a sustainable fishing industry. I’m also on the budgets committee and the culture and education committee.

“But really, you have to be across everything and you try to be as impactful as you can. I may be geographically from Cork and very proud of that, but to be an effective representative, you have to represent everybody.”

Back home, she says the abortion legislation “was an incredibly sensitive issue but I think it was the right choice and the right result. People that campaign outside clinics protesting against abortion have no understanding of what women are going through. But it’s their choice. You have to be respectful towards people you don’t agree with but you have to be respectful of the democratic decision by the people of Ireland. That’s done and dusted now. Just get on with it and allow women to be in charge of their reproductive rights.”

Liadh Ni Riada is mum to 17 year old Cait, 15 year old Ailsa and 12 year old Neans.
Liadh Ni Riada is mum to 17 year old Cait, 15 year old Ailsa and 12 year old Neans.

Euthanasia could be the next big sensitive issue to be broached, some commentators have said.

Liadh says: “It would be no harm to have a debate around it. I’m sure if you meet someone who has a terminal illness and wants to take control of how they die, it should be a choice. Of course, you will have others saying that someone is not in the right frame of mind to make that decision.

“Personally, if I had some horrible prognosis, it would be nice to think I could choose my own exit as it were. But there’s many complications. It needs an in-depth conversation.”

For Liadh, the burning issue in Ireland is homelessness. She believes that everyone has a right to a home and an education, to take people out of the cycle of poverty and to allow them to live rather than just exist. But she says the cost of living “has reached crisis point”.

“Even if you have a reasonable income and have children, childcare and education costs a bomb. I’m not even talking about college. That has gone beyond the scope of a lot of people. But when there are children at school, there’s always something you have to pay for.”

Sinn Féin aspires to a policy (which is voluntary) that its public representatives only take the average industrial wage. But Liadh says she couldn’t afford to live on it. After tax, her take home pay is €60,000.

“That’s what I’m entitled to as a wage. I don’t take the full €60,000. I put some of it back into the constituency as I have another office in Enniscorthy. Also, we take delegations out to Brussels and we have to front load that.”

When she’s not working, Liadh finds playing music (the tin whistle and piano) with her daughters a great way of getting rid of stress. She also likes to bake and loves Sundays for the “domestic bliss” they offer. And then it’s time for the red-eye trip to Brussels. Not so much a gravy train after all.

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