Mairead McGuinness rightly focused on Brussels as Dublin dithered
Commission’s focus on gender balance may aid Fine Gael MEP, but process not over yet
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Brussels will basically pick Ireland’s next European commissioner, which is a complete reversal of established precedent. File photograph: Fran Veale
The Government’s decision to propose Mairead McGuinness and Andrew McDowell to succeed Phil Hogan as European commissioner comes after a week of protracted turmoil at the top of Fine Gael.
The process now moves to Brussels, where European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen will interview the candidates before deciding who Ireland’s next commissioner should be and what portfolio they will be allocated.
The expectation in Fine Gael and Government is that McGuinness will be selected. Unlike other competitors, she realised at the beginning of the process – or perhaps before it – that the crucial audience was not in Dublin but Brussels, where she has built a formidable reputation and network of allies in the European People’s Party (EPP).
Once Hogan resigned she put them to good use, using contacts in the EPP and the commission to press her case. She was stunningly successful as, within days, von der Leyen was letting it be known to Dublin that she approved of McGuinness’s candidacy.
Meanwhile, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney was only getting his candidacy up and running, concentrating on how he might retain the powerful trade portfolio held by Hogan. But McGuinness – sensing that this portfolio was gone – was way ahead of him.
A crucial, perhaps decisive advantage she had over Coveney was her gender. Von der Leyen has made gender equality a central plank of her presidency and this is an opportunity for her to almost equalise the numbers of men and women in the College of Commissioners. Pointedly, she sought the nomination of “a woman and a man” from Dublin.
Privately, the Government understood that there was a considerably better chance of a decent portfolio with a woman as the nominee. Not fair, squealed the Fine Gael men. Tough, smirked the women.
McGuinness’s achievement is all the more considerable given the hostility she faced from the higher echelons of Fine Gael, reflecting a lack of popularity among the parliamentary party at large.
There are people in the party who believe Coveney was treated shoddily
Party leader Leo Varadkar was more than unenthusiastic about her candidacy and, at first, he was actively opposed. He put aside thoughts of moving to Brussels himself quickly and backed Coveney, but it became clear that Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan were wary of sending just Coveney’s name to Brussels given von der Leyen’s request for two.
Frances Fitzgerald emerged as a possible candidate, perhaps to block McGuinness. Then former Fine Gael economic adviser Andrew McDowell’s name began circulating as Coveney agonised. Almost a week after Hogan’s resignation, Fine Gael TDs and Ministers were almost pleading for the leadership to just get on with it.
Three other points are worth mentioning. Firstly, nobody has been appointed yet. The portfolio expected for the Irish nominee – financial services – is, on the face of it, more suited to McDowell – who has just finished a stint as vice-president of the European Investment Bank – than to McGuinness.
Some Fine Gaelers tickle themselves with the idea that after interviews von der Leyen might come around to this view, but McGuinness seems unlikely to flunk any test now, and besides, the commission is a group of politicians, not policy experts.
Secondly, whatever fallout there is will be in Fine Gael. It was a Fine Gael-EPP nomination which turned into a Fine Gael-EPP wrangle that lasted all week. There are people in the party who believe Coveney was treated shoddily and that Varadkar should have done more for him. That will pass, but it won’t be entirely forgotten.
The last point is the most significant. Assuming the appointment of McGuinness goes ahead, Brussels will basically have picked the Irish commissioner, which is a complete reversal of established precedent.
It may be one a future Irish government – and maybe even this one – has cause to rue.