Hungarian politics, climate shaming and broadband at Fine Gael launch
Party launches candidates for European and local elections at event in Moate
Fine Gael TD Andrew Doyle – the party’s European candidate for South. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has strongly rejected Micheál Martin’s claims he has been “equivocal” in dealing with the authoritarian policies of Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán.
Mr Orbán’s Fidesz party belongs to the same political grouping in Europe as Fine Gael, the European People’s Party (EPP). His government has ousted independent judges from its highest courts.
Mr Varadkar in turn accused the Fianna Fáil leader of being “silent” on the presence of Ano, the lead party in the Czech government, in his party’s parliament grouping in Europe, the Alliance of Liberal and Democrats for Europe (ADDE). He said Ano had taken a very strong anti-immigration stance.
The Taoiseach said Mr Martin also did not mention the fact that “up until five years ago, Fianna Fáil were in the group that included post-fascists from Italy”.
Mr Varadkar denied that Fine Gael, or the EPP has been equivocal on Mr Orbán’s party and its policies. “Victor Orbán and Fidesz have been suspended [from the EPP]. That suspension may lead to an expulsion depending on how they behave.”
“European political parties are broad churches, and are umbrella groups. There are strange customers in all of these groups,” he said.
Mr Varadkar was speaking at the launch of the party’s European and local election campaigns in Moate, Co Westmeath on Friday. The party is fielding seven candidates in the European elections and will have a total of 405 candidates standing in elections for the 30 county and city councils.
Fine Gael hopes to add to its total of four MEPs and to re-establish its status as the largest party in local government by winning 280 seats. The party lost 105 seats in the local elections five years ago, dropping from 340 seats to 235.
MEP for Midlands North West Mairead McGuinness, said the EPP in parliament had very strongly called out what was happening in Hungary, amid concerns about judicial independence and freedom for the media and academics.
South MEP Seán Kelly said if Mr Orbán was not prepared to accept the values of the EPP, he would be expelled.
Frances Fizgerald, one of the party’s candidates for Dublin, said “defending EU values in the next parliament will be very important in terms of the rise of populism and nationalism”. She was speaking about the anticipated rise in support for nationalist and anti-immigration MEPs. “You can rely on Fine Gael to do that unequivocally,” she said.
Ms McGuinness and her constituency running-mate, Maria Walsh, denied there were divisions between them. This follows claims of incursions into allotted territory last week and a remark Ms Walsh made about her marksmanship skills with a rifle in the context of the competition between them.
Ms McGuinness said she did not believe in division and that both Fine Gael candidates were determined to win two seats, as she and Avril Doyle had done in 2004.
“I did frisk her before coming through the door,” joked Ms McGuinness.
“I have fought all sorts of campaigns and never let negativity [deter me]. I am delighted that Maria is on the ticket and we will win two seats. I am not fond of division.”
Ms Walsh said that her reference to her skills with a gun in the Reserve Defence Force was “jovial” and she had not intended it as a knocking comment.
Mr Varadkar defended the Government’s national broadband plan which is likely to cost close to €3 billion.
“No one should doubt the importance of it. We are aiming to bring high-speed broadband to one million people who don’t have it now.”
He said as Taoiseach he has to think a lot about the future. He said that already a fifth of Apple employees work from home, and there would be more home-working in future.
“Rural people who don’t have broadband are excluded from that,” he said.
He said that education was going online, and already children in island schools were being taught lessons in some subjects by video link. He said much more in healthcare was being done by video link and those services should be open to all.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney defended the relative absence of agriculture in the climate change section of the party’s European manifesto. He said the party wanted to work with farmers rather than isolate them and that Ireland had built an industry around food and farming.
“It’s a sector that is in transition from a climate and sustainable perspective. We will work with them to drive change that can keep them in business and can make sure they manage our emissions footprint.”
Ms McGuinness said “climate shaming” did no one any good, and said farming was moving towards more environmental delivery.
The party’s candidate in the South electoral area, Minister of State for Agriculture Andrew Doyle pointed to the “Talamh” smart farming programme which improved profitability through more efficient and environmental farming.