"I think Europe has been good for Ireland and Ireland has been good for Europe"

In Women on Wednesday, over the coming weeks, we’ll be looking at the female candidates from Cork, running in the European Parliament elections, in May. Here COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to Ireland South MEP Deirdre Clune about her family, work and the burning issues at EU level — from Brexit, to climate change and the rise of the far right
"I think Europe has been good for Ireland and Ireland has been good for Europe"
Deirdre Clune, MEP, at her home in Blackrock. Cork.Picture: Jim Coughlan

IF Deirdre Clune had her way, there would be two Sundays in the week. It’s the day the MEP enjoys most before the manic Monday of an eight hour door-to-door commute from her home in Blackrock to Brussels. If she’s going to the Strasbourg parliament, it’s a 12- hour commute.

In the early days of commuting to work, Deirdre used to find it exhausting.

“But I’m more used to it now. When I started, I thought I’d never keep it up for five years but it’s amazing what you can get used to.”

Deirdre, who secured a nomination from Fine Gael to run in the European elections on May 24, must be loathe to leave her newly built, large airy house, full of light seeping through glass. But she “enjoys” politics, although she’s happy that none of her four sons wants to run for political office. While they are interested in politics, they are not going to be continuing the family tradition. (Deirdre’s late father, Peter Barry, was a former Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs).

Deirdre says the downside of political life is that the hours are hard on families. She would much rather that her sons (ranging in age from 32 to 22) pursue more secure careers.

Deirdre Clune, MEP.Picture: Jim Coughlan
Deirdre Clune, MEP.Picture: Jim Coughlan

Life has become less harried now that there is just her dentist husband, Conor Clune, and her dentistry student son at home. There is another son living in Cork, one living in London and one in Boston.

Looking back on her career, which included spells as Lord Mayor, senator and TD as well as her current role, Deirdre says she couldn’t have done it without her supportive husband, child-minders, the help she got from her mother and mother-in-law.

When flying, Deirdre reads her emails on her iPad and downloads documents.

“But sometimes, I sleep on the flight.”

When in Brussels, where she rents an apartment, Deirdre tries to make things as homely as possible. She has her porridge for breakfast and tea (Barry’s, naturally). She shops for vegetables and chicken fillets and makes stir fries.

Brussels tends to be “all work.” While in Strasbourg, they might go out on Wednesday for a bite to eat, “after the long busy days of Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The parliament sits until 11.30pm. But I wouldn’t be there all the time. I might be in my office keeping on top of paper work so that I’m free to visit groups when I come home.”

Deirdre tries to exercise as much as she can. “I go to the gym if I can or I go walking. Walking is my thing if I can do it. It’s not so easy in winter time in Brussels.”

Weekends are precious.

“I like to catch up on exercise and do a bit of gardening. I love to wander around town on a Saturday morning and go to the market to shop. I got that tradition from my mother who always shopped there. I buy fish, meat, cheeses and bread,” she said.

Being recognised doesn’t bother Deirdre.

“I’d chat to the person next to me buying fish. In Cork, there are no airs and graces.”

Deirdre likes to go out on Saturday nights to her favourite restaurant, Jacques (run by her cousins).

She also has a house in Baltimore where she spends the summer holidays and catches up with reading.

Deirdre Clune, MEP, at her home in Blackrock. Cork.
Deirdre Clune, MEP, at her home in Blackrock. Cork.

At the moment, Deirdre is reading Milkman, the recent Booker Prize winner by Anna Burns. She is also reading Fear by Bob Woodward which is giving her an insight into Donald Trump’s reign.

When Deirdre retires, she plans to sort out her file full of clippings of recipes from newspapers. She likes to cook when she has the time, experimenting with different ingredients.

On Deirdre’s bucket list is a wish to travel more.

“I’ve done China. I’d like to go to south-east Asia and South America and I hope I won’t have crooked knees or hips! I’d like the luxury of going away for three weeks, doing it myself, and not worrying about home.”

Aged 59, Deirdre says she feels much younger mentally. She hasn’t thought about retiring apart from planning to travel when she has the time.

Deirdre thinks “it’s probably a good time for the European elections because polls show that people are more engaged in politics and realise that Europe is important.”

She thinks Brexit “is a tragedy”.

The MEP said: “The island of Ireland’s peace has to be protected. If you take the Good Friday Agreement, that has to be maintained separate to our membership of the European Union. British commentators are only now realising the implications of the Good Friday Agreement. It’s an international agreement and it can’t be walked away from.”

The only Irish member of the European Parliament’s committee on transport and tourism, Deirdre describes herself as “pro-European.”

She continued: “I think Europe has been good for Ireland and Ireland has been good for Europe.”

Asked what are the burning issues, Deirdre says that apart from Brexit and all its implications, transport connectivity, the agri-food sector and reform of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) are all exercising her. (The housing crisis, she says, can only be solved by building more houses, including social housing.)

An engineer by profession with an emphasis on the environment, Deirdre says that “climate change is a really critical issue. If we keep going the way we’re going, we are in trouble. There are targets established to reduce our emissions. We need to produce more green vehicles such as electric cars and electric buses as well as reducing car usage and encouraging bicycles.”

Deirdre Clune, MEP.Picture: Jim Coughlan
Deirdre Clune, MEP.Picture: Jim Coughlan

Deirdre says that Ireland’s food production is “one of the most carbon neutral anywhere. Yes, methane is a problem which is going to have to be addressed. Forestry needs to be developed because forests are carbon sinks. That means that trees take in carbon dioxide. So one the one hand, you have emissions of carbon dioxide but the trees absorb it. It’s all interconnected.”

While Deirdre wouldn’t say that plastic should be banned, she said: “we need producers to take more responsibility. It’s a cheap product, it’s clean, easy and pliable and is very important in medicine and surgery. But we need to focus on recycling it because a lot of what is being produced is not recyclable.

“There’s lots of funding coming from Europe to support innovation and develop products that can be recycled. We all need to reduce our use of plastic but to ‘ban’ it is the wrong word.”

Deirdre says there is a need to move towards a more carbon efficient society.

“Maybe there could be a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles. All these things create awareness. The tax on the plastic bag is a great success. We were the first in Europe to introduce it — and boy, did it change habits.”

As to other burning issues? The move to the far right in Europe “is something we’re watching and very conscious of,” Deirdre said.

“Viktor Orban (Prime Minister of Hungary) is a member of our EPP (European People’s Party) as well. There is a mechanism by which we can investigate and carry out a report on whether or not countries are breaching European values of democracy, freedom of speech and media. If they are, sanctions can be imposed against them. There is a concern about immigration and migration. We don’t have it so much here. It’s a problem that needs to be addressed on a European-wide level.”

Deirdre says that the rise in anti-Semitism is also “very worrying. That’s why history is so important,” she added.

If only President Trump paid attention to history. Does he worry Deirdre?

“You get used to him. That’s the strange thing. But he has caused me to read up on who votes for him. It’s people who’ve been left behind. The term ‘globalisation’ is thrown around. Trump uses it as if it’s a dirty word. But in fact, it’s not. It’s about interdependence. I don’t think Trump is being fair (to his supporters.) He is promising jobs in industries that are no longer viable, such as coal-mining. Do people even want to go down the coal mines? They don’t. The world is changing. There’s a need for up-skilling and lifelong learning. Trump’s people are being sold a pup saying he can bring it all back.”

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