Maria Walsh interview: A sense of community

Like many of Maria Walsh’s class of 2019 colleagues, her route to becoming an MEP was unconventional. She tells Brian Johnson why she believes it’s important to bring other voices to the table.
Maria Walsh | Photo credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Brian Johnson

Brian Johnson is Managing Editor of The Parliament Magazine

29 Sep 2020

Born in Boston Massachusetts and brought up in rural Ireland, Walsh first came to the public’s attention when she was crowned the Rose of Tralee, an annual festival for women of Irish descent, in 2014 – becoming the first gay woman to do so. A passionate sportsperson, she‘s cracked a few legs playing Gaelic football while still finding time to serve a couple of years in the army reserves and of course becoming a Fine Gael MEP last May.

Walsh says she was raised with a strong sense of community, centred on local social activism. “We were a household that didn’t really discuss politics so much; when we sat around the dinner table, we were more likely to be discussing community projects. My parents were heavily involved in projects like the local St Patrick’s Day Parade, Senior Citizens Dinners, or church collections. You name it, we would be there, always around and helping out. I guess that culture I grew up in certainly serves me well now, but it aligns me to more social issues.”

“As a young Irish gay white woman, who is privileged, has a good education and comes from a stable home, I have to be very conscious of the fact that I, don’t just represent people that look the same and agree with me. I have to bring other voices to the conversation”

Active in Irish youth organisations from an early age, Walsh has a strong affinity to younger people and the issues that can affect them, particularly alcohol and substance abuse. “I was always involved in youth organisations such as the No Name Club (founded to provide an alternative to pub culture for Irish youngsters) which celebrates young people for just being that, being young and not having the pressures of alcohol and other substances to deter them from having fun.”

She was also a member of the Pioneer Association, another abstinence organisation linked to the Irish Catholic Church. Walsh’s involvement in community projects and social issues coincided with a period of historic and cultural change in Ireland. “In the latter half of my 20s, Ireland went through a transformation and I was able to bear witness to that, and to be involved in some of the major issues around marriage equality and the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment on abortion rights, which was essentially around a woman’s right to choose.”

She also worked on a conference honouring women who were confined in Ireland’s controversial Magdalene Laundries. Also know as Magdalene Asylums, these workhouses for so-called ‘fallen’ or ‘seduced’ women were run by the church and supported by the Irish state running from the 18th to the late 20th centuries. Criminalised and socially ostracised for being unmarried mothers, many had no options other than prostitution or entering the violent and brutal world of the Magdalene Laundries.

“Unmarried mothers and women with intellectual disabilities were put into these Magdalene Asylums. I was involved with this amazing organisation that supported and honoured and looked the surviving women and said, we can’t have this repeated.” Following her work on the Magdalene Laundries in 2018, Walsh said to herself, “what do I want to be when I grow up?” Politics was on her radar, but more “behind the scenes”, she says.

“One thing led to another, however and I ended up running as a candidate for Fine Gael in the 2019 European elections. “I come from rural Ireland and I’m a young gay woman. So you start wondering “Where the hell do I fit in?” And I guess, at the end of the day that’s why I put my hand up and got involved in politics” “But how can you be Catholic and be gay?” is a question frequently asked of Walsh, who usually responds pragmatically, “Why can’t I be?”

She explains, “My parish priest certainly hasn’t turned me away from my local church, and in many times of great triumph and hardship I’ve found myself sitting in the pews just saying a prayer and speaking to the man or woman above. I’m not being ignorant of the fact that there are issues within the church that certainly need to be addressed and called out; I would be the first to acknowledge that. The Magdalene Laundries conference also really questioned my faith. But I always say - and I don’t mean this in any jovial sense - that in every organisation, there is middle management team who don’t always put their best foot forward when it comes to protecting their employees the way they should.”

Like most of us Walsh balances the contradictions in her beliefs as best she can. “When I get to the pearly gates, I’ll have an honest conversation with a few members up there and see if they’ll let me in. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to my views and to respecting God and whomever he is. But much like anything, you can’t walk away from the table when you want to see change, and if I’m not at the table and being vocal about the fact that I’m a gay woman, and also involved in the church, then, I’m not really doing a service to myself, or to anybody else who might be listening to me.”

Recently the European Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup staged a protest in front of Parliament’s Altiero Spinelli building, with 32 MEPs, including Walsh, dressed in different colours of the Pride flag. The cross-party display of solidarity aimed to send a no-tolerance message to the Polish government over continued attacks on the country’s LGBTI community. “What we’re seeing in Poland, we’ve seen for many years; it didn’t just start in the last year. LGBTQI community members have been calling out for support for donkey’s years.”

She argues that financial sanctions often have the greatest effect in dealing with recalcitrant Member States and says she would like to see financial sanctions against Poland based on conditionality in the MMF. “And if they’re breaking the rule of law and they’re stepping away from fundamental rights for their citizens then that should apply.”

Walsh says she was pleased that European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen alluded to the issue during her State of the Union Speech earlier this month. “What was really positive to hear from Ursula’s speech was the fact that although she didn’t necessarily call out Poland directly, she certainly called out their actions. As we say in Ireland, we need to put our ‘shoulders to the wheel’ and ensure that we take action. What we saw with the Intergroup’s action was a visual display of solidarity by MEPs, but now we need to go back to our committees, back to our political groups and start saying, “Right, what are we actually going to do now?” Because we need to keep up the pressure on the Commission and the Council, and we need to keep calling out when the rule of law is broken again and again.”

As well as being a member of Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup, Walsh is also a co-chair of the MEP Alliance for Mental Health and is a big fan of the institution’s cross-party groups. “The only way they survive and actually do great work for citizens is if each party member comes together. So, that LGBTI Intergroup protest was only successful because each and every one of us left our prejudices and our beliefs and our party affiliations at the door.”

Her interest in mental health is also linked to her community and social activism upbringing. “Within a very short distance from where my home on the west coast of Ireland, we’ve lost a number of people to suicide. I believe that mental health has to be brought to the political forefront.” Over the course of the 2019 European election campaign, she talked to farmers, fishermen, men, women, college students, those with young families, and mental health she says consistently came up. “I am very vocal about the issue of mental health and I believe the Union needs to wake up to the fact that mental health needs to be an EU competency. We never look at people in a holistic way and that desperately needs to change.”

Walsh tracked down Stella Kyriakides, shortly after she was appointed as European Health Commissioner and asked her what could be done to make mental health an EU priority. “Because we can talk for all we want but if we don’t turn the talk into action for our citizens, then what are we doing here?”

Talking of common threads and Commissioners, what does Walsh make of her Fine Gael colleague Mairead McGuinness’ elevation to the College of commissioners? “If there is one person, who I know will create and put their own mark on a portfolio it would be Mairead. You know you don’t become a European Parliament Vice-President, or a European Commissioner Designate without having great tenacity. I’m really pleased for her and proud that she has such an important role covering the financial services portfolio. She started out as a TV journalist on and now will become a European Commissioner. So, for any young person in a rural setting, Mairead is certainly someone to aspire to. A staunch advocate of equality, does she feel frustration with what’s happening in Poland and other parts of Europe and at the slow pace of change?

“I think we certainly have different degrees of equality in different countries. It’s almost like we’re living in two worlds with the online world being very discriminating against minority groups and women in particular. When you arrive here in Brussels and look at the institutions, where the average MEP is a 55-yearold man in a suit; that’s problematic. If you look around at some of the resolutions we’ve been passing, like the LGBTI resolution earlier this year, like the resolution we had for Black Lives Matter, it’s clear many communities are under-represented, particularly women of colour and people from minority groups, various creeds, orientations, and disabilities.”

“Within a very short distance from where my home on the west coast of Ireland, we’ve lost a number of people to suicide. I believe that mental health has to be brought to the political forefront”

She believes there’s a strong “us and them” undercurrent running through European politics, one that doesn’t empathise, but focuses on hard borders and keeping out people out, one that doesn’t want to talk about the impact the COVID-19 crisis is having on domestic abuse numbers. “When we try to talk about online issues or when we see the anti-discrimination directive still being held up in Council (since 2009) because they can’t figure out how best to protect our citizens, yeah, you do get frustrated, but that certainly doesn’t mean you walk away from the table.”

“It’s really important that we bring real stories and not just statistics. As a young Irish gay white woman, who is privileged, has a good education and comes from a stable home, I have to be very conscious of the fact that I don’t just represent people that look the same and agree with me. I have to bring other voices to the conversation and I don’t know if all 705 MEPs have that kind of sounding board, but we certainly need to keep working at having that.”