The scene: The Irish EU commissioner is strolling down the Rue Archimedes to work one crisp Tuesday morning, two years after Brexit.
Voice from behind bin: Psst!
Paddy stops, strolls over to the bin. A man in a long coat and hat, with an enormous false moustache is hiding.
Charles: Paddy! It’s me! Charles! (lifts hat)
Paddy: Charles? What the f**k are you doing? Is that a real moustache?
Charles: No, I had to go in disguise. If the euroskeps knew I was here I’d be done for treason!
Paddy: Oh yeah, I suppose. Eh, what can I do for you?
Charles: Is there any chance you could stop having meetings about things that affect us?
Charles: It’s just that you keep discussing things that affect us, and we’re not in the meeting, and it’s very awkward. See this? Stuff like this. (removes a sheaf of paper he had shoved down the back of his trousers)
Paddy: Where have you been keeping this Charles? Look at the state of it.
Charles: Yes, sorry, Cameron and I have to be very careful that the Taliban don’t see us reading draft EU directives. It’s kind of heresy now. The official line is that nothing the EU does affects us. So we have to read them in the jacks in Downing Street. They’ve people everywhere.
Paddy: What’s this anyway?
Charles: It’s the draft proposal on pension funds, putting a tax on funds leaving the EU. That’ll hurt the City.
Paddy: So? This is an internal EU matter.
Charles: Yes, but it affects us! There’s a load of countries in a room talking about stuff that affects us and we’re not there!
Paddy: Yeah, I can see that. Alright, I’ll see if I can put in a word.
Charles: Thanks Paddy, we really appreciate it. Have to go: I’m meeting the Dutch behind that skip on Square Ambiorix.
Paddy: Sure. Take care, foreign secretary.
I knew your father/mother/social welfare officer well!
The first election campaign I was ever directly involved in was the 1991 local elections, where I canvassed for Jeananne Crowley in the Pembroke Ward, a seat I’d contest myself in the 1999 elections. After that, I campaigned in local, general, European and by-elections, and in a number of referendums. And that’s not counting the internal party elections I campaigned in. Between 1991 and 2005, when I resigned from the Progressive Democrats, I experienced a fair bit of Irish politics, and came across what I would regard as fairly solid general rules of Irish politics. They are general, there are always exceptions, but broadly speaking I believe they’re true:
1. With the possible exception of Sinn Fein and the Alphabet Left, and maybe in by-elections, there is no longer such a thing as party machines in the traditional sense. Successful candidates have to effectively build their own teams of, for the most part, personal loyalists. Many if not most of the party members who turned up to vote at the convention will not end up knocking on doors.
2. Irish people vote for people over ideas nearly always. People are far more likely to vote for a person they like but disagree with politically over a person they agree with but dislike.
3. It is possible to be interested in the politics of ideas, or the politics of winning elections, and never have anything to do with the other. Indeed it is getting more and more likely.
4. The one characteristic a successful candidate absolutely must have over everything else is physical stamina, and a willingness to keep knocking on doors and talking to people over and over again. It is possible for a stupid candidate to be elected again and again. A lazy candidate will probably only be elected once, and only because he/she is related to someone.
5. The lack of knowledge displayed by voters, and their pride in that lack of knowledge, about how the political system works, and how decisions are made, will never cease to amaze you.
6. By international standards, it is relatively easy for a small group to change things in Ireland if it has determination, courage and organisation. The failure to bring change has usually been because of a lack of one of those three factors. The Provisional IRA and the Progressive Democrats proved that.
7. Irish people take a masochistic comfort in believing that an uncontrollable force, be it the Brits, the IMF, or potatoes, is responsible for their woes, and are comfortable with people knowingly lying to them.
8. “The Rich” are people who earn €15k more than you per annum. “The Ordinary People” are your friends and family.
9. The fact that we ask candidates the same questions in both local and national elections explains a lot about why Ireland is the way it is today.
He found one of those apps that tells you how much time you spend doing things, and it gave him a fright. Apparently he spends two-thirds of his day on Twitter trying to pick fights with people back home. What’s worse is that they’ve got the measure of him now, and just ignore him. He doesn’t get mentioned on the news, or in papers. He’s just gone. Like he’s dead.
He was going to show this crowd out here in Brussels, boy was he! But of course they’re well used to him and others like him coming out and shouting. Even Paisley tried it back in the day. Know what happened? Nothing. They ignored him. Anti-Christ this and Anti-Christ that and they just ignored him and went for lunch, and this guy ain’t no Big Ian.
He finds that he’s getting up later in the day, and watching a lot of boxsets in his apartment. The other MEPs from his country, the men and women from the parties he was going to make a holy show of when he got out, now just treat him like one of those fellas you buy a Club Orange and a pack of Tayto for down the pub on a Sunday afternoon. They don’t even argue with him now, just give him that “ah, bless, the poor creature” look. The women ask him is he OK? One even offered to sew a button that had fallen off his good jacket back on. He spent a whole day walking around not knowing that he was trailing a long piece of toilet paper on his shoe and nobody’d said anything. One of the Dutch MEPs thought he’d been trying to make some sort of avant-garde protest about waste.
He’s afraid to spend too long on the phone back home because he knows some bastard will FOI it, and he can’t even go home because it’ll effect his voting record, the one thing the public (or at least the media) seem to get stroppy about at election time.
What on Earth was he thinking coming out here?
The irony was that he was never into the European thing at all. Sure, he gave the usual pro-EU lip service when he was in the national parliament, but it just didn’t really float his boat. Then he became a minister, just as his member state took over the presidency. This, he thought to himself, is gong to be an awful drag, chairing meetings, flying off to Brussels at some god awful hour.
But the strangest thing happened. He loved it. One thing that was always said about him, he was a people person, a deal maker. That was how he got ahead in the party at home, but now, out here, it all clicked into place. Haggling with the Austrian fella in the corner, leaning on the Belgian, sympathising with the Greek, doing a favour for the Portuguese guy on his pet thing on the agenda, he was in his element. And what’s more, the other guys and girls liked him too. He cut through the bullshit, got actual decisions made, and got everybody out before midnight most nights. One thing about him: he didn’t have airs or graces, and wasn’t above pointing out “Look lads, if you’re all going to repeat what someone else said will you just say I agree with what she said, so we can fucking move on!”.
When the presidency ended, he was sure. This was what he wanted, to be out here, doing the business. Of course, the money was good too, and with him and the wife having parted ways the parade of stunning parliamentary assistants and stagieres didn’t go unnoticed either. The prime minister owed him a stack of brownie points, mostly for beating the crap out of the PM’s enemies in the parliamentary party, and so, sure enough, he was sent on his way.
It’s a different life: no constituents, actually getting to bed at a reasonable hour, and within a few months he has his parliamentary committee eating out of his hand by treating them as his new constituents, taking them for coffee or something stronger, working out their pet issues, remembering birthdays and kid’s names (that stuns them), doing favours where he can. The grub’s good too, he notices as he needs to treat himself to a new suit (or three, sure, he can afford it) on Avenue Louise. This, he thinks as he lies in bed on Sunday morning with a German MEP and divorcee who looked at bit like Catherine Deneuve, whom he sparred with only a day ago over subsidies to something or another, is the way it should be.
It’s a form of political colour blindness. No matter what the result, there’s a peculiar type of British Eurosceptic view that interprets things in a way completely different from the rest of people on Earth.
When 75% of voters vote for pro-EU parties, that’s a massive endorsement for euro scepticism. When a former prime minister of Luxembourg, publicly nominated months in advance, is picked for Commission President over an unnamed invisible nominal alternative candidate pushed by the British, that’s a slap in the face for democracy.
There’s a whole “Fog in English Channel, continent cut off” feel to the thing, that the opinions of the editors of The Daily Mail or the Daily Express matter more that the votes of millions of Europeans, and if you can’t get that it’s you, sir, that has a problem!
It’s not that euroscepticism is not a legitimate point of view, or even isolated just to Britain. It’s that weird brand of British Euroscepticism that borders on a neurosis.
It causes grown adults to ask for the flag of an organisation Britain has been a member of for over 40 years to be removed from camera shots for fear of triggering emotional hysteria amongst people who are politically special.
It causes them to turn their backs when a specific piece of music is played.
It causes them to genuinely believe that there is a comparison between the European Union and the tyranny of the Soviet Union, a country of secret police, one party rule and slave labour camps.
These are actual adults, the fathers (in UKIP’s case, grandfathers) of children, people who have held responsible jobs.
What’s most striking is that such behaviour would be regarded on any other subject as just plain odd. If Sinn Fein MPs did the same over the Union Jack or God Save The Queen, or Tory MPs over the Zimbabwe flag, they’d be regarded as not the acts of rational people. Yet when it comes to the EU, all manner of surreal behaviour is tolerated.
One can’t help wondering is there a massive case of emotional transference going on here? That mostly middle aged angry men have seen their society change, seen women and minorities and gays all no longer defer to them, and have lashed out at social change, stumbling across a symbol of all that change? Has the EU, as a symbol of trying to manage modern global change, become the epitome of the change they hate, the very antithesis of The Good Old Days when the darkies and the poofs and the skirt knew their place?