Yes commissioner: The unapologetically ambitious Mairead McGuinness

Our EU commissioner is among the guests at upcoming Irish Times Winter Nights festival

 Mairead McGuinness has known the taste of defeat – at the 2007 general elections and the 2011 presidential campaign. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Mairead McGuinness has known the taste of defeat – at the 2007 general elections and the 2011 presidential campaign. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

This article relates to the upcoming Irish Times Winter Nights festival. More details at the bottom of this page. For full line-up and tickets go to irishtimes.com/winternights

Last January on the eve of Brexit, with vice-president Mairead McGuinness presiding, Nigel Farage delivered his final speech to the European Parliament.

Near the finish, with a characteristically juvenile flourish, he and his Brexit buddies proceeded to applaud themselves and wave a host of little British flags. McGuinness cut his microphone. Idiocy cannot be helped but flag-waving is expressly forbidden in the parliament chamber.

“If you disobey the rules, you get cut off,” she said in a tone that suggested some serious, inner eye-rolling. “Could we please remove the flags? Resume your seats, put your flags away – and take them with you if you’re leaving now, goodbye.” It made her an instant online hit. No mean feat for a serious parliamentarian.

Within the year, she has leaped from vice-president of the European Parliament to the European Commission, filling the seat vacated by Phil Hogan following his Covid-busting Irish holiday. She didn’t hang around for an invitation since one was not coming her way. She simply said out loud that she wanted the job and was more than capable of doing it.

Canny enough to know the decision would be down to Brussels, not Dublin, she directed her energies accordingly.

As Miriam Lord wrote at the time, that directness explains why certain Fine Gael lads call her “Elbows McGuinness . . . The ones who can’t really be doing with a ‘pushy’, unapologetically-ambitious woman such as Mairead. It would never, ever occur to them to label a male politician with similar personal qualities (plenty of them) in such a way. He’d be a hero.”

They tried and failed miserably to look pleased about her elevation but could find nothing to complain about. She got a better-than-expected portfolio (given the embarrassing kerfuffle over Hogan’s exit), knows Europe inside out, is extremely media savvy and was a constant, highly-articulate, take-no-prisoners presence on English news channels at the height of the Brexit battles.

Take the leap

Arriving at her new commission office, she found a note of congratulations from Hogan on the desk.

Ironically, it was Hogan who had persuaded her to take the leap from journalism to politics with an inspired decision to parachute her on to the Fine Gael ticket for the 2004 European elections.

It was a risky turning, whisking her away from her relative comfort zone as a well-known, well-connected figure working within her agriculture speciality, editing the Irish Independent farming supplement and presenting RTÉ’s rural affairs programme, Ear to the Ground.

She topped the poll first time out.

But she has known the taste of defeat. Her inner steel was tempered in the 2007 general elections when she failed to win a seat in Louth and in the 2011 presidential campaign when Gay Mitchell won the party’s nomination.

Indeed some questioned whether she was “regal enough” for the Áras job. “While no one doubts her impeccable grasp of CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] reform or the collapse of the suckler herd, is a former television reality show host [the dreaded Celebrity Farm] the right person for the job?” wondered the Irish Independent at the time.

When she finished second to Antonio Tajani as the European People’s Party nominee for the European Parliament president four years ago, one Brussels admirer reckoned she was hard done by, considered “too green” (environmentally) and could have been nicer to the Germans and their cars while Tajani was locking up the southern Europe old-boy network.

Safest seat

But by 2020, after 16 years as a member of the European Parliament, hers was probably the safest MEP seat in Ireland, a monument to hard work, competence and attention to her base. In 2019, she was elected for the second time as a vice-president of the parliament with 618 votes from a total of 702.

At the commissioner-designate’s hearing when she was asked about the oddity of three Irish citizens (Paschal Donohoe, Philip Lane and now McGuinness) holding senior financial roles in EU institutions, she said there was no plot, no conspiracy. “I don’t think you should fear the Irish, we have ways of working which can help sometimes – we crack a joke occasionally when it’s really difficult and stressful.”

Her mission as EU commissioner for financial stability, financial services and the capital markets union is to put people front and centre of the EU’s vision for financial services and to focus on improving financial literacy as well as fair access to finance. Not much to quibble with there.

One political observer describes her as one of the few who has managed to keep all the positives from a media career, transport them to the political stage and then add substance – which is not nearly as easy as it sounds. Think Donald Trump or Boris Johnson for benchmarks.

The Irish Times Winter Nights festival is a series of online talks and events taking place from January 25th to 29th.

On Wednesday, January 27th at 6.30pm, Mairead McGuinness talks to Kathy Sheridan in an event titled “Yes, commissioner”.

For full line-up and tickets, see irishtimes.com/winternights. A single ticket costing €50 admits ticket holders to all events at the festival. The Irish Times digital subscribers can purchase tickets at the discounted price of €25. Just make sure you are signed in and the discount will be applied automatically.

The festival is supported by Peugeot

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