A former presenter of ‘Ear to the ground’, an Irish television programme, these days it’s more eyes on the sky - the sky being the upper echelons of power in the European Parliament - for MEP Mairead McGuinness.
A recent contender to succeed Martin Schulz for the House’s top job, she was narrowly beaten by Antonio Tajani to secure the EPP group’s nomination and, ultimately, the presidency.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom; Tajani made McGuinness Parliament’s first Vice-President – perhaps tellingly, a position he himself held until nabbing the Parliament’s throne.
An MEP since 2004 and having been initially elected without any political experience, it’s fair to say McGuinness has had a rapid ascent through the ranks. “I’ve never looked at it that way”, she says, “but I suppose I’ve managed. I’m a great believer that if you’re given the opportunity - and it’s a tough battle to even get elected - then you have a duty to make a mark. I want to make sure that the voice of Ireland is heard at many different levels.”
She adds, with a smile, “I suppose because I come from a large family - eight children, five girls and three boys - that there was a lot of competition in the house and perhaps I learned, being one of the middle children, that you do have to try and make a difference if you get the chance. I always say this in schools: if you get the chance, don’t flinch.”
You get the sense when speaking to McGuinness that she is not one to back down in the face of adversity, that once she has set herself a goal, she will stop at nothing until she’s achieved it. If she hadn’t become involved in politics, she certainly would have made a decent motivational speaker.
When asked if getting her start in politics was challenging, she says the hardest part was getting elected and that nothing has been tougher since. “I imagine there were moments when I thought, ‘What am I doing here? This is really tough’, but then you get a good night’s sleep and you get on with it and move to the next challenge.
“It’s been really positive for me. When I first came here, I knew nobody. I wasn’t from a political background and I had not been involved in politics before, so I had a lot to learn, but I’m a quick learner.
“I also know that it took quite an effort for people to realise that I was there, because people who have been here for longer obviously are involved and know each other, so I had to break through the knowing and getting into the network. I worked very hard to make sure that people knew I was serious about being here, that I was determined to contribute fully on the committees I was involved in.
“I think I also made people laugh occasionally. I like working with people, and sometimes in this House we’re dealing with such serious business that we do occasionally need to just let our hair down and enjoy each other’s company.”
She is also grateful to her group, the EPP: “They were prepared to give me the chance. They didn’t overlook me because I was from a small member state, or indeed because I was female.
“They looked at me because I was a credible candidate to be a Vice-President and to take rapporteurships, because - I hope - I’ve always delivered not just for the group, but for the Parliament. I take the work very seriously.”
Looking to the future, McGuinness says she plans to run in the next European elections, and if re-elected, she may look to a second presidency bid.
“If the opportunity arises, of course I would. Why not? If you don’t take risks and you’re not prepared to lose, then you will never do anything. The worst thing you can do is hold back because you’re afraid. At least give it a go. In the losing, you can win.”
McGuinness scoffs at the idea of being the most powerful woman in Parliament - “There are many powerful women in this Parliament, and many powerful men” - but she does acknowledge that given her relatively high profile role, she is in a fairly strong position to champion gender equality.
“The issue of gender was always something I was aware of when I was quite young, but I believed it would sort itself out by the time I reached the age I am now. However, it hasn’t. My background was always to work in areas where it was predominantly male, so to some extent I just got on with that and dealt with it.
“I now realise I have a responsibility to talk more and do more in giving visibility and a voice to women, not just in politics or on boards but also in every facet of life. Their input, whether it’s in rural areas or in business or in politics, should be both visible and increasing, and that people understand the value of having such a balance.”
But, she is quick to add, “This isn’t a battle between men and women. It’s a battle for men and women.”
She also believes that women are, to some extent, responsible for their own empowerment. “I always say - stand into the photos. If you’re not prepared to be visible, how will your sons and daughters see this need for balance that we talk about?”
A different kind of balance - or imbalance, really - concerns the leadership of the three main EU institutions, the Council, Commission and Parliament. Not only are they all led by men, they are also all members of the EPP political family.
So what does McGuinness have to say to those that express concerns that the EPP is too powerful? “All three positions were democratically decided - Donald Tusk’s appointment was decided by 27 member states, he received support because he is well-regarded and has done a very good job. Antonio Tajani stood and had to get support across the House. And Juncker won through the Spitzenkandidaten process.”
For McGuinness, “The EPP is a responsible party. Power is not for glory, it’s about responsibility and delivery. We are in very strong leadership roles but we don’t want to rest on our laurels, there is an awful lot of work to be done.
“We have a duty to use the positions we are in responsibly, so that Europe is stronger and better. We understand that with power comes responsibility, and we will be judged on whether we deliver and what we deliver.”
As first Vice-President of the European Parliament, McGuinness has her own share of responsibility. She is in charge, among other things, of ensuring the implementation of article 17 of the EU treaty, which deals with interreligious dialogue, a role she says she is excited to take on.
“It’s not just about interreligious dialogue - it’s about much bigger and deeper engagement with church leaders, faith communities and non-confessional organisations. It’s about dealing with all of the churches and these other organisations in a way which gives them a voice. We listen and we engage.”
The Irish deputy believes this is especially important, because these organisations “will have a lot to say about the future of Europe. They are very much based within communities, so they have a lot to say on social policy, on migration, on crime and terrorism because these affect their communities. I think we have an obligation to reach out to all citizens.”
McGuinness is also responsible for relations with national parliaments, “a hugely important area. There is a sense that national parliaments are in competition with the European Parliament, which is not a good place to be. We should complement each other and add value to each other. There is real hunger for that, we just don’t know how to do it properly, or maybe we’re all too busy.”
However, she notes that Brexit has, “resulted in much more direct contact between parliaments, with many more delegations coming to the European Parliament. In a strange way, Brexit might help us to engage better with our colleagues in the national parliaments.”
The problem, she says, is that national parliaments have a tendency to blame everything on the EU; “Lots of problems in the member states can conveniently be tagged on to Europe, when in fact they very much have their roots and origins in the member states. If we had stronger relations we could say these things, and there are a lot of things we could help national parliaments with.
“We could share information and support each other in our work at committee level. If we had better engagement, there wouldn’t be such shock when legislation is passed here.”
McGuinness explains, “We are both legislators and we reflect the concerns of citizens. They do it at national level, and we do it at European level, but the citizens are the same.
“Those parliaments I talk to realise that if we continue to criticise Europe blanket-fashion and without foundation, then we’re going to weaken it.
“It’s very easy to knock down what we have created here, this unique cooperation between countries, it’s very easy to damage that by constantly attacking it, but what do you replace it with when it’s gone? And when you put those stark choices to people, they say, ‘There’s a lot we don’t like, but there’s an awful lot that’s really good about this’. So let’s fix the pieces that we think need fixing.”
Part of the Brexit result, believes McGuinness, is down to “theconstant critique of the EU within the UK without any balance about what was really good about it.” But what’s done is done, and article 50 has now been triggered.
For the MEP’s native Ireland particularly, Brexit could have huge consequences. “Unfortunately Ireland is impacted by a decision it did not make. Ireland is committed to EU membership, and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, but the UK is determined to bring all parts of the UK out of the EU, including Northern Ireland.
“The economies of Ireland and Northern Ireland are intertwined. Membership of the EU helped that, as it has helped build peace in Northern Ireland. We cannot allow Brexit to turn back the clock and see borders reappear on the island of Ireland. We cannot countenance their return.
“The unique circumstances on the island of Ireland must be given special attention in negotiations. It is heartening that the EU is fully aware of these special circumstances and of ensuring that the Good Friday peace agreement is supported. There is a particular responsibility on the British government to put forward solutions to meet its stated commitments of not wanting a hard border.”