‘This is my job, it’s not razzmatazz, it’s not sexy’!

We report from Brussels on how, still outspoken, still colourful and still passionate, Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan is settling into his new role as an MEP…

Never one to resist a bargain, when I stumbled upon a two euro flight to the bustling city of Brussels, the lure of beer, chocolate waffles and the prospect of high tea in the picturesque city of Bruges was too much to refuse and so I boarded a plane, notebook in hand, in the hope of adventure.

  Charmed by the friendly natives, an impressive array of art galleries and a range of truffles to whet the appetite of every chocolate-loving tourist, I and my companion decided a little bit of culture was in store – and having already taken in the sights of the Grand Place and Antwerp, there was just one more place to see – and one more person to meet.

  Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan MEP greets us in Place du Luxembourg with a warm handshake which we’re happy to accept. After all, it is minus 5 – “this is warm” he tells us with a laugh.

  Amiable and engaging, he seems happy to meet two Irish people in a country “where thankfully not everyone knows my name” and confidently ushers us into the building which is both imposing and impressive all at once.

  It’s a maze of corridors and escalators but the man from Castlerea has it sussed and weaves around it effortlessly, now a regular presence there since being elected to the European Parliament two years ago. He admits though that the move doesn’t come without sacrifices and that it takes a certain degree of adjustment.

  “Well, I travel over and back home a lot but when I say ‘home’ I mean Ireland  – I could be anywhere but here I have to travel too a lot, I was in Strasbourg yesterday. It takes time to get used to things and my children now go to school here.” (Ming’s wife Judith and their young children – ages thirteen, eleven and one – are now based in Brussels).

  Dozens of diverse faces and nationalities pass by us and alluring accents linger in the air as we pass through a hallway which is heavy with security and with his own office situated deep somewhere in this fusion of corridors, ‘Ming’ offers us an intriguing glimpse of the Chamber where elected MEPs make and pass the laws that will ultimately influence us here back home.

  “There are twenty-three different committees and eleven Irish MEPs – that’s a lot of committees and you might ask ‘how does it work?’ Well the simple answer is that it doesn’t,” he states –“that’s why the turf cutting issue happened, it was devised out here and passed into Irish law without a full understanding of it.” He is referring, of course, to the deeply controversial restrictions on turf-cutting which ‘Ming’ and others have so vehemently – and successfully – campaigned against.

  “My own role is to keep an eye on the commission and on what the national government are doing. I’m on an environment committee, an agricultural committee and a budget checks committee…unlike the Dail we have more of a say, even though we’re a smaller group.

  “However if Britain pull out,” he continues, “you will have the bizarre situation where 90% of them will be speaking English and while there is no language barrier in the traditional sense here – the language they use is a barrier. What’s an ‘am’? (short for amendment). What’s a big (short for a budget committee)…”

  Checking his cubby hole for post from home en route for coffee in what he calls “the Mickey Mouse café”, Luke says he keeps in close contact with events back home (including via the Roscommon People!) and with a General Election looming, shares his own opinions on what it takes to fulfil the role of public representative.

  “Look, you have to knock on doors. When I ran in the General Election in 1997 I didn’t knock on doors and had an impact anyway, but when the local elections came around there was no door, no house, that I didn’t call to and whatever about getting you elected, it’s one hell of an education. I’d be of the opinion that if you didn’t know what was going on by knocking on people’s doors you’ll never really know.”

  Warming to his theme the animated politician says there are four theories that need to be blown out of the water if you’re running for election.

  “One is ‘don’t canvass on your own’ – do canvass on your own. It is a private matter, just the same as going to confession or to your doctor’s; you don’t have someone there advising you.

  “The second is ‘don’t canvass too early’ – canvass at half-ten in the morning, absolutely no problem.

  “The third is ‘don’t go to certain houses’ – do go to those houses. There was one particular house I went to that was owned by a Fianna Fail organiser and people were asking me if I was going to go to his house and my attitude was if he annoyed his own children about FF as much as he annoyed me, then I would – and I got his vote and his wife’s vote too.

 “Fourthly, this thing of ‘don’t stay too long in someone’s house’ – stay as long as it takes. I once stayed three and a half hours in one house, the man was over ninety and a strong Fianna Failer and I heard afterwards that he had voted for me.

  “On another occasion I went to a house and the guy was working on a tractor and he said – excuse the French – ‘If you think I’m going to vote for a fecker like you, you have another think coming’. I stayed there for two hours and fought for my number three and he came back down the road after me and said ‘if you’re willing to spend that much time with me you might actually do something’ – so you’ve got to knock on doors and get over any fear you may have – and I did have a fear.”

  So what of the impending General Election, the date of which has yet to be announced?

  Reflecting on the situation, Luke says that the water crisis “is going to have some impact on Fine Gael, whether it’s fresh enough in people’s memories I don’t know…then again the people who voted for Fine Gael got what they expected so I don’t think they are going to be punished that much now. At local level they got what they expected – but in Roscommon for example the hospital and turf-cutting really continues to be an issue.”

  Singling out two local men for particular mention, it is clear that Luke keeps his finger on the pulse, even from afar.   

  “I think we have two of the most exceptional TDs in Michael Fitzmaurice and Denis Naughten. They are excellent at what they do. You will not find two better TDs in the whole of the country and while I don’t agree with them on everything – I don’t agree with Michael on everything and I might agree even less with Denis – they are so well briefed personally without having to rely on the outward grain like Enda Kenny and so many other people.”

  Always interested in current affairs, Luke says he was heavily influenced from his early days at national school.

  “I always had an interest in politics –  we were taught in national school by a John Healy, a poet who was the founding member of the Communist Party of Ireland.

  “It was the early eighties and the Falklands War was on at the time and he would have the radio on in the classroom and be smoking a fag, so he was a little unusual.

  “One day he handed out a sample ballot paper with a number of candidates on it and it brought home to me the issue of a lack of choice – even at the age of nine I had a sense of the lack of choice out there. But people are educated enough now to do what they want and if they’re not happy, look, they can run themselves.”

  It’s all go in the cut and thrust world of politics it seems and after a candid chat the Roscommon man escorts us back into the bitter Brussels air – but before we go I ask about the future and how long he sees himself making his home in Europe.

  “Well, when you come here at first you say I won’t be here forever because that’s the way you cope with it and realistically it would be hard to achieve everything you’d like to achieve in five years because first of all you’re just trying to find your feet and see how the system works.

  “Look,” he concludes, “you sit here and wonder can I have influence or can I not have influence? You don’t hear a lot about me now unless I don’t turn up for a week or my wife is sick or there’s a court case – but this is my job, it’s not razzmatazz, it’s not sexy. It’s the period I’m in at the moment and I’m still learning…”

  And with that we bid farewell and I and my companion head out in search of the Six Nations Bar, a roaring fire, thoughts of home – and some Belgian waffles.