Irish Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan is talking animatedly about same sex marriage, abortion and gender equality. It makes it hard to believe that just over 50 years ago, her fellow citizens were publicly burning the books of celebrated Irish novelist Edna O’Brien, accusing her of undermining the country’s austere sexual and social values. So, it seems odd to ask a question like, ‘What has the EU done for Ireland?’. “To be honest", she says, "we (Sinn Féin) didn’t support joining.”
However, she admits membership has brought its benefits. “It has brought peace; nobody can doubt that. We were also quite a conservative country. We’ve seen progress in women’s rights, in gender equality, in workers’ rights and conditions and in environment policy, so we’ve undoubtedly benefitted in all of those areas. But I think the EU is just too stretched, trying to reach into too many areas. It’s become bigger, and the bigger you get, the more disparities you create.”
According to the Dublin native, these disparities, although similar to those of Ireland’s early EU membership, have a more worrying direction. “I think that many eastern European countries [that joined in 2004] are quite socially conservative, much as Ireland was when we joined. I’m a progressive with liberal attitudes towards most EU policies, but the pace of change is much quicker now. So, I think many people in those countries – rightly or wrongly – feel that it’s all happening too fast. And we see a kickback in terms of the governments they are electing and their actions, particularly in Hungary.”
For Boylan, the actions of the EU, particularly the European Commission, are feeding the growth of Europe’s extreme right. “You hear that we have a problem, that the latest Eurobarometer poll highlights how trust in the institutions is falling, about the rise of the extreme right. Yet they then seem to go off and do things that feed right into the plans of these people.”
She believes that the campaigning against the EU’s giant trade deals has galvanised opposition, “with people now saying, hang on a second, there’s a problem here, we’re losing jobs to other countries, we’re not feeling the benefits and wages are coming down. In Ireland, we are seeing the complete hollowing out of the middle classes, people who had what were thought to be ‘safe jobs’, jobs where they could afford to pay their rent or to buy a home. I think there’s anger, not thankfully in Ireland, that is causing people to go to the right, but I believe the actions of the European Commission are feeding the problem.”
But what of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s White Paper on the future of Europe? Boylan’s dissatisfaction is clear. “Again, we’re hearing that Juncker only gave it to the cabinet about two days in advance. They didn’t want him to go ahead, but he was adamant that he was. Well, that’s just symptomatic of his approach. There’s an increasingly smaller circle of people making the decisions. I believe that in his White Paper there’s no talk of treaty change. For me, I think we’re going to have to have treaty change, we’re going to have to have a very serious conversation about the direction of Europe and tinkering around the edges is not going to cut it.”
Boylan’s Sinn Féin party sits within the Nordic Green left of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group in the Parliament, which is in favour of returning more powers to member states. “Where it makes sense to make policy at EU level then we’ll work together, for example on environment and areas like food regulations, but certainly on economic policy, on common security, foreign defence, we believe that they belong to the member states.”
A constant issue for Ireland in its relationships with other member states has been its commitment to neutrality. “That was one of the key reasons for voting against Lisbon. We got wishy-washy assurances that it wouldn’t affect Ireland, yet we constantly see our neutrality eroded. The Irish don’t want any part of a European army.”
Boylan is also scathing about the result of Ireland’s 2012 fiscal compact treaty referendum. “At the time, people were saying this is going to tie the hands of future governments. Yet we were scared into voting for the fiscal treaty – we called it the ‘austerity treaty’ – and now, lo and behold, the same governments that were telling us that we had to vote for this are now saying that it’s too restrictive.”
Boylan says it’s interesting that fiscal rules on economic policies are binding, while social rules are more lax. “Social rules are fluffy. If you don’t meet your targets, well, then you’re fine. But if you don’t hit the fiscal targets, well, then it’s ‘we’re going to have to come in there and do something’. I’d like to see that reversed, going back to the original social solidarity model of the EU.”
However, isn’t that backwards looking? In the face of growing Euroscepticism and with Brexit imminent, doesn’t the EU need to become stronger and more unified? “We’re certainly seeing from the likes of Guy Verhofstadt this idea of a United States of Europe, with one flag, one national anthem and one army. And yet the most recent research from the Pew Institute last June, around the time of Brexit, 42 per cent of those surveyed said they wanted power returned. Only one in five wanted more powers given to the EU. People like Verhofstadt are completely out of touch, but he’s not alone. Brian Hayes, my colleague from the EPP group, and I were talking to a national broadcaster about Juncker’s White Paper. The interviewer said, ‘Oh, Brian Hayes says there’s no appetite for treaty change’ and I’m like, maybe not in the Brussels bubble, but talk to people and they are saying they’re not happy. People want fundamental change, not tinkering around the edges.”
The issue of a possible two-speed Europe is back on the EU’s agenda in the wake of the UK’s decision to depart. Could that alleviate some of the divisions within the bloc on its future development? “I don’t mind a two-speed solution, but can we also go down a gear?”, says Boylan, adding, “and also allow countries to step out of certain areas? This is why we think we need the treaty change. Two speed is probably the more practical solution. There are some countries that really do want to push ahead and feel frustrated; of course, these are the countries that are thinking ‘great now there’s Brexit, these guys have been holding us back for a long time’.”
Although they joined then European Economic Community at the same time in 1973, the paths of Ireland and the UK are now veering in very different directions. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s plans to seek a second independence referendum have opened a Pandora’s Box, signalling a potential breakup of the UK. While Scotland’s place, both in the UK and the EU, has been a headline issue since the Brexit referendum last June, little coverage has been given to Northern Ireland, which – like Scotland – also voted to remain in the EU.
Complicating matters is the fact that Northern Ireland and the republic in the South, under the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement, now share an open and borderless common travel area between two EU members. Following Brexit, that border could see the return of customs and security controls. “Putting aside concerns around the Good Friday agreement and the peace process, Ireland’s biggest trading partner is Britain, taking around 40-50 per cent of our agri-food production. So, Sinn Féin is making the case for the north to have a special designated status. This is also about the peace process; we cannot return to a hard border. If you ask people what, in their eyes, constitutes a hard border, nobody can agree. Whether British Prime Minister Theresa May or Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny are visualising army checkpoints like the old days, that’s not what it’s going to be. But without that special status there will have to be some sort of a border.”
Boylan says Parliament’s AFCO committee has already recognised that any form of a border between the north and south would require changes to the Good Friday agreement. “So that’s a big problem for us and we’re very concerned.” One potential solution could be to move it out to the Irish Sea, which would do away with the need for checks between north and south but maintain checks between Ireland and Britain.
Complicating matters further was the success of Sinn Féin during recent elections to the Northern Ireland assembly, which put Boylan’s party within a single seat of becoming the biggest grouping, breaking the traditional pro-British Unionist majority for the first time. That result sent shockwaves through the region and led to calls for a ‘border’ referendum in both the north and south on unification. Although a poll remains highly unlikely, the shock election result is being viewed as a direct reaction to the UK’s plans to leave the EU, which the majority of Northern Irish voters opposed.
Although a great result for Sinn Féin, she says, “nobody’s focusing on the progressive element of the result now that the so-called Petition Of Concern veto in the assembly has been broken.” The Petition protocol allows a group of at least 30 members of the Northern Ireland assembly to block a decision by requiring a show of cross-community support from a majority of both designated unionist and nationalist members. With traditionally more than 30 members, the Unionist DUP party has been able to block the introduction of new social and rights legislation.
The loss of the DUP’s majority will be a boon for marriage and gender equality rights in the north, says Boylan. “Unionists have lost their hold and the media are focusing on that and on the Green/Orange divide. However, it’s actually more about young people that have tried to have marriage equality in the north. Yet because the unionists had that magic number of 30, they were able to block change. They no longer have that. It’s reflective that it’s not just about the unionists. They are so deeply conservative it’s affecting them among young voters. So, it will be interesting if the assembly does get up and running [Power sharing talks failed to take place last week]. What will happen around those Petitions of Concern in and around access to abortion, gender equality or same-sex marriage.”
A strong critic of the CETA trade agreement, Boylan says the controversial deal is symptomatic of the way the EU institutions have become subordinate to the desires of big business while ignoring the social and societal concerns and aspirations of citizens. “With CETA, we appear to be giving up an awful lot for little economic benefit. We always talk about multinational corporations, but most people are employed by small and medium enterprises that don’t even trade within the EU, let alone with Canada. In Sinn Féin, we believe that we need to change our approach to trade. People don’t feel any trickle down, that economics doesn’t work for them anymore.”
A substitute on Parliament’s employment committee, Boylan also sits on the European Globalisation Fund working group – which provides support to people that have lost their jobs as a result of globalisation. “I see redundancy packages coming in, looking for funding from multinational corporations that are then leaving and going to countries where we are doing trade deals. It just seems that it doesn’t add up. We need a more social approach to trade that’s in the interest of citizens.”