As we launch the Roscommon People Podcast series, Editor PAUL HEALY talks to MEP Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan about his life and times…
(PH = Paul Healy, Roscommon People Editor; Ming = Luke Ming Flanagan, MEP)
PH: You’re a native of Castlerea, Ming?
Ming: By the skin of my teeth I wasn’t born in London! Three out of the six children in our house were born in London and three of us in Roscommon Hospital. My father (Luke) was a carpenter. He’s retired now…my mother (Lily), according to my birth cert, did nothing. But I can only assume they didn’t put down a profession for her because they couldn’t fit all that she did for me and my brothers and sisters in that small little box on my birth cert. My mother was a cook, she was a psychologist, she was a hairdresser – not great at it – she was every profession under the sun, depending on what was needed on the day. But we call them housewives in Ireland. My father worked in England for a number of years, he came home on summer holidays, and met my mother. They ended up getting married, she headed off to London with him, loved the place. Part of her I think regretted that she came back, part didn’t. My father worked on the building sites in London as a carpenter. They came back here in 1971 and built a house, I think it cost about 1800 pounds.
PH: What age were you when your mother passed away?
Ming: I was 37.
PH: When you were elected in 2011 (to the Dáil) you were very emotional….you dedicated much of that to your mother, and to your father…obviously your parents were a huge influence on you?
Ming: I would say that the main emotion that my parents experienced about me in my first seven years as a politician was terror and fear…as to what exactly is going to happen to our son. I didn’t have children at that time, and I didn’t fully understand that…I now understand it in spades. I actually wonder why they weren’t even more worried about me.
PH: Why would they be worried?
Ming: Because you’d never see the police or the guards coming to my door when we were growing up. And they raised me very well…and then saw me enter a world where because of what I was protesting about…whether that be legalisation of cannabis or the bog (issue) where armed police were standing on a bog road, trying to stop turf-cutting…they wouldn’t really have been used to that. You mentioned how I spoke about my mother in 2011. I’m an atheist, and I don’t have much faith that she heard me, but I wanted to put it out there, that you (his mother) don’t have to worry about me any more. When I got elected to the Council they stopped worrying, they saw that a wage was coming in, a future for me…I know it would have put the tin hat on it for my mother if she had been around when I got elected to the Dáil. People might say that they don’t care what the neighbours think…but they do. And it bothers them, and it gets to them. And I’d have liked if she was there, at that moment, so the neighbours could talk about me being a TD behind her back, instead of saying ‘What’s he at?…them drugs’.
PH: When did you first take cannabis?
Ming: The first time I ever tried cannabis was actually in my second year in college. It might amaze some people that I actually got through a year in college without trying it!
I went to Galway RTC in 1989-1990 and I did science. It was during that period – and I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back it was so bleeding obvious that it’s scary that I couldn’t spot it – I was seriously, seriously depressed. I remember one day, I pushed the snooze button on my alarm from 8 in the morning to 7.30 in the evening. Now you might say it was obvious you were depressed, but I just couldn’t see that. I ended up falling out of college.
I applied then to Sligo RTC, as it was called at the time, to do mechanical engineering. So it was around then that I tried cannabis for the first time, and I liked it, I enjoyed it. I knew it was illegal of course, but only when you use it and you discover the consequences of this illegality does it really dawn on you how significant this law is. I tried it there and it inevitably became an issue for me.
PH: At some point, you served a short period in jail?
Ming: I had adopted the view that if I was caught in possession of cannabis, I would not pay the fine, which would obviously result in me being sent to prison. While I didn’t want to go to prison, I knew that if I did, it would attract quite a lot of publicity for this idea that it should be legalised. I must also say that I gained an experience that I believe every politician in the country should get an experience of – some may say they should do more than just visit prison, but rather stay there! From the point of view of educating me on how this country works, what needs to change and how it doesn’t work, I would say going to prison was the best educational experience of my life. I went in there with a sort of contempt, fear, dislike or even downright hatred of the people in there, and I came out scratching my head, thinking that if 99% of people started off the way 99% of the people I’d met there grew up, we’d have ended up in the same place. That isn’t to say that people shouldn’t take responsibility, but if you try and sow spuds in concrete you can’t get mad at the spuds for shrivelling up and dying.
PH: The nickname ‘Ming’, and indeed ‘Ming the Merciless’ (from ‘Flash Gordon’) in earlier years, is it one you’re comfortable/uncomfortable with?
Ming: I am immensely comfortable with it! My father is not a politician. My father is not publicly well-known. If the name Luke Flanagan went on the ballot paper, it wouldn’t have as much effect on the public as Luke Doherty or Luke Leyden. So I thought to myself, “Well, no disrespect to my father, a great man, I need something that’ll make people sit up and look when they see the ballot paper. What exactly is that going to be?” So I decided that I would call myself ‘Ming’, and people would remember me.
PH: At this point I take it that you had the ponytail and the goatee?
Ming: At this stage I’d a shaved face, a Hare Krishna ponytail and Hasidic Jewish locks. That was the image at the time, and where the look came from. It garnered me a lot of attention, and my view was, ‘Now that I’ve got attention through this cacophony of ridicule, I’m going to be louder than that cacophony and people are going to hear my message’. And they did, eventually.
PH: Perhaps the big political breakthrough happened in 2011 when you were elected to the Dáil?
Ming: For me, I think the big political breakthrough was getting elected to the council. Getting elected to the council is difficult, and getting re-elected to the council is difficult again. It’s very intense because everything is local, so every little thing you do, there is no escaping from it, good or bad. So I would say that that was the achievement. But I think one of the worst things you can do as a councillor is care too much, because it’ll kill you eventually. What I mean by that is that you’re in an impossible situation in that job. You have two roles – one of them is to hold the council to account, and the other is to get something for your community off the people you’ve just told, ‘You’re wasting money’ – and that’s a serious flaw in the system.
PH: What is the status of Castlerea swimming pool, and your commitments over the years to that project?
Ming: I would absolutely love to see it open all-year-round. I produced a feasibility study that proved it could be open all-year-round. I produced plans that showed how it could be done in a financially efficient way. But I made one big mistake, and I said it to you earlier. I made the mistake of trying to stop Roscommon County Council from wasting their money and they didn’t like it, and no matter what I did after that, they were not going to do what I wanted them to do.
PH: In 2011, you were elected to the Dáíl and spent a few years there before turning your attentions to Europe. What are your reflections on those few years?
Ming: It was a massively steep learning curve, so steep it was almost undoable if I’m being honest, and that would be the case for many people when they’re first elected to Dáil Eireann. I have to say for the first while I found it overwhelming. I went from a situation whereby I would’ve sought publicity to establish myself politically, to a situation where I would rather have talked to the Devil himself than to a national journalist. The reason why I say that is, I entered our national parliament to become a member of the legislature and try and improve the country, and I met a media that were interested in nothing more than the sort of stuff they pull you up on in school as a bully, (a media which) points and shines a light on all your failures and turns off the light for everything you’ve accomplished.
I believe I was the first TD at the time when we passed the private members’ motion on the turf-cutting, to get the government to vote for a private members’ motion, in I think about 13 years. In the end I discovered that actually, the power didn’t lie in Roscommon, the power didn’t lie in Dublin, it lay in Europe. I discovered it when it came to turf-cutting, I discovered it with the bank bail-out. I discovered it with the Common Agricultural Policy.
PH: There is a perception, or indeed a reality, that we lose touch with some of our MEPs, some will say they don’t have great knowledge of what our MEPs are doing. What are your thoughts on that?
Ming: That is definitely true, but all you have to do is look at our national newspapers and look at the number of correspondents they dedicate to European Union politics. As far as I know, Independent News & Media has no one assigned to it. So from the point of view of people finding out about it, the Independent, the biggest newspaper, don’t cover it, so how will people know? Then you look at our TV, you look at our national broadcaster – we have a European Parliament programme that goes out at a time when, if you’re up, you’ve probably had a few pints! I have actually contacted RTÉ and told them that I would not be participating in programmes starting at that hour because I think it’s a waste of time. I also contacted other MEPs and suggested we boycott the programme until they put in on at another time. Now RTÉ came back to me and told me it is on at a good time – I wrote back ‘If it’s on at such a good time why don’t you put Fair City then at that hour of the night?’
PH: You’ve spoken about having mental health struggles over the years. How has that manifested itself with you, and how are you coping with that?
Ming: I spoke earlier about my experience in college and pressing the snooze button, that should’ve been an alarm for me. But I have had this all my life. I remember as a child, sitting in front of a fire and just looking at it, trying to get lost in it. I just didn’t like what was happening in the world, in my life, whatever it was. It wasn’t because of my family or anything, it was just the way my mind works. Throughout my life, bit by bit, it becomes more and more obvious that there is any issue with it. It affects every day of your life because you have to convince yourself every single day to get up and get going again. I can’t do that all of the time but most of the time I can. The mechanism I have found works best for me personally, was doing intense exercise. A walk helps, but for me I prefer a run. It’s about doing the things that my body was genetically meant to do – go out and use up a lot of energy, not be staring at a screen and sitting down all the time.
So to deal with my mental health issues, I started running. I did that after the 1997 General Election in Galway. I started then and on and off, I’ve been running since. During the European Elections, every morning, before the day started, I had to go for a run, because if I didn’t there would’ve been an empty chair at quite a lot of the debates. I just wouldn’t have been able to face it.
PH: Are you angry? Sometimes you seem angry – is that something you use to get things done, to get things noticed?
Ming: Well, when you have people contact you and tell you their son who has a brain injury is now in an old people’s home even though they’re in their forties – what emotion should you have to that? If you’re not angry, you’re emotionally and politically dead. Anger can be used in a good way or it can be balled up and destroy you. Fortunately I had a vehicle to express this, and tell people about it. If I expressed it with any other emotion, it wouldn’t be doing service to the people who contacted me in the first place. So yes, I’m angry with what has been done to the people of this country. I’m very angry about it, but I’m not angry all the time, I’m angry when I’m talking about it. I’m sad about it too – and I said it on my first day in the Dáil – I’m sad about the fact that so many members of my (extended) family had to go to England to look for a job. Looking at Michael Noonan saying, “It’s all for the experience”. Well it wasn’t much of an experience for my mother crying at the door. I use that anger for positive ends.
PH: Have you confidence in the new government?
Ming: Looking at the programme for government, it’s very waffly. The area I focus on most now, and it’s an area I knew nothing about, and definitely an area I knew nothing about growing up, is agriculture, the production of our food and what we eat. I’m looking at the programme for government and if the Green Party think that’s going to make us more enviromentally friendly in this country, they’re wrong. The big issue that should be talked about in the west of Ireland isn’t whether we’ve got a minister or not, it should be the very boring and dull issue of whether convergence of farm payments happens or not.
PH: You’re married to Judy and you have three daughters, Isobel, Katie and Saoirse. Home life – is it Brussels or Castlerea, or both?
Ming: At the moment, it’s Castlerea until most likely next October, because really, travelling there just to come back and isolate for two weeks wouldn’t add very much to my productivity. Whereas if I stay here, I can vote, I can speak at meetings, I can put in amendments, I can take shadow meetings, technical meetings…
PH: In normal circumstances, you’re based in Brussels with your family?
Ming: Because we had a newborn baby, our plan was that the whole family would come over for the first two years. After that, my two teenagers daughters, they’d walk home if the got the chance because they discovered something. While they’d love to have loads of cinemas in Roscommon, and an ice-skating rink and basically every shop in the world at the end of your street, life in Roscommon is better even without all of that at the end of your street. The freedom they have here and the life they have here is far superior. So when I set off to Brussels I’ll be heading off at three o’clock on a Monday, and coming back every Thursday at about twelve o’clock at night. So come October, I’ll be doing that three out of four weeks of the month.
PH: What are you prioritising in the next couple of years?
Ming: In the last Parliament, I tried to cover areas like Euopean defence, copyright directives, and agriculture, whereas now, as they say, if you have a dog, you don’t bark yourself. Areas like security, defence and environment are otherwise covered and I am pretty much exclusively focusing on agriculture and rural development. Some people might say, is that not a bit narrow? Well I asked a school one day “Who would be interested in pursuing agriculture?”, and one or two students put up their hands. When I asked “Has anyone in the classroom eaten steak?”, everyone put up their hands. What we eat and how rural Ireland survives, that’s going to be my core between now and the end of this term. The more I concentrate on that, the better job I can do.
PH: Are you concerned about the so-called decline of our rural villages and towns or do you think it’s been overstated?
Ming: It depends what way we approach climate change, and it depends what way we sell it to people. It can be sold in a really good way that leads to a brilliant future for Roscommon because doing something about climate change means we’ll have to start baking our bread in our own towns again. It means producing our own flour and sugar in this country. If done right, it means that anything you eat on any given day will have been produced here, locally, which means there will be jobs here locally, and there will be life here. My big fear is that the West of Ireland will do the heavy work when it comes to climate change and the rest of the country will grow our food while we look out at forestry all around us. That’s something that I want to fight.