Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Una Mullally: Fine Gael MEPs’ actions on migrant vote abhorrent and pathetic

Aligning with far right to defeat resolution on Mediterranean rescues is disgusting

Coast guard divers prepare to go down to salvage a migrant boat that capsized and sunk off Lampedusa, southern Italy. Photograph: Pasquale Claudio Montana Lampo/EPA

When an unspeakable tragedy occurs, it's often hard not to think of the final moments of those involved. Thirty-nine people dead in the back of a lorry in Essex, after trundling over borders, their lives coming to an end in the most horrifying way. What must they have thought and felt in those final, brutal minutes? It doesn't bear imagining. Lucky us, who get to just imagine.

The same week, a resolution to better assist people fleeing countries and attempting to cross the Mediterranean was defeated by two votes in the European Parliament. Two votes. Four Fine Gael MEPs – Maria Walsh, Frances Fitzgerald, Mairead McGuinness, and Seán Kelly – voted with their EPP block against it.

Those MEPs claim that their issue was with an aspect of the resolution that asked for the European border and coast guard agency, Frontex, to share information about vessels in distress. The resolution “calls on all actors in the Mediterranean to proactively transmit information related to persons in distress at sea to the competent authorities for search-and-rescue operations and to, where appropriate, any potential vessels in the vicinity that could imminently engage in search and rescue”.

In 2015, Peter Sutherland said that EU countries are more concerned with stopping smugglers in the Mediterranean than saving the lives of refugees. The narrative that more information being available to vessels in the Mediterranean would somehow assist traffickers, as Walsh attested – even if that unproven hypothetical were true – chimes with Sutherland's belief. Oxfam's EU migration policy adviser, Raphael Shilhav, sharply criticised the outcome of the vote.


No one is saying that these Fine Gael MEPs don't care about people drowning in the Mediterranean. They're not monsters. But teaming up with far-right politicians in the parliament, who cheered when the vote was lost, is, frankly, disgusting. Fine Gael MEPs may say they care about refugees, but those people don't. So pick a side. "We will have to go back to the drawing board," Walsh said, using in this context a meaningless cliche. Claude Moraes, an MEP from the British Labour Party, said that he had expert knowledge on the issue, and did not believe the reasons the EPP gave for not voting for the resolution.

Bubble burst

What does this mean for Walsh? It certainly bursts the PR bubble of her happy-clappy election run. Walsh leaned heavily on her youth and compassion during her campaign. As a gay woman, Walsh has also been vocal on LGBTI+ rights. But what about LGBTI+ migrants crossing the Mediterranean? What about their rights, their safety, their protection, their lives?

Her first high-profile play as an MEP has been roundly criticised, but there was worse to come. Walsh went on to deliver a disastrous performance on Morning Ireland on Friday, where she sounded unprepared, and, astonishingly, when asked in the context of this vote whether her party was proud of their achievements, she responded: "Not at all." What's going on? Walsh was neither here nor there; she was in that doomed territory politicians who've just done the wrong thing end up in, discombobulated in a radio studio: welcome to JustificationLand.

Fine Gael requires a series of veneers to deflect from the truth of the politics at work

After listening to Walsh, I imagined what she would have said if she had been an MEP in one of the party groupings that voted for the resolution, and the vote was won (let's say that Clare Daly and Billy Kelleher who didn't vote at all had voted for the resolution too). Maybe Walsh would have been on Morning Ireland talking about how, although the resolution wasn't perfect, it was a step in the right direction, that we as Europeans recognise the dangers faced by those taking treacherous journeys, and while we can't sort out all the complicated moving parts right away, this vote sends a message that Europe cares and will act to save lives. Maybe people in their kitchens or in their cars would have thought "fair play to her". Maybe it would have shown integrity and empathy. But that's not what happened. It must suck to be on the wrong side.

More justifications

More justifications were to come. “None of us would ever be associated with them,” Seán Kelly said about the far-right cheering the result in parliament, absolutely shocked by the baddies’ behaviour, which is a difficult line to pedal when you’ve just voted with them. The day of the vote, Kelly tweeted about the swiftness of his journey from the European Parliament to Frankfurt Airport, where he was enjoying a burger, which he took a photo of, and put on the internet.

McGuinness, Fitzgerald, and Kelly have been Fine Gaelers for a long time. Walsh, not so much. Was her stumbling and reticence on Morning Ireland the sound of someone realising they’ve fallen in with a bad crowd?

In order for Fine Gael to maintain its success as a party at a time when vulnerable people are suffering not just in the Mediterranean but in Ireland, the party requires a series of veneers to deflect from the truth of the politics at work. One of those veneers is spin, and one is people. Having unobjectionable people in a party with objectionable politics is very useful. One’s participation in that machine might seem personally strategic at the time, but then the party takes over. You are subsumed. When the PR evaporates, the metric for judgement is actions. Fine Gael MEPs took action last week in Europe. They voted at a time when people are dying in the sea and in the back of lorries. Their actions were abhorrent, and their justifications were pathetic.