IRELAND'S four new MEPs attended their first day in the European parliament in Strasbourg last Tuesday. Arriving in the French city on Bastille Day, Labour's Nessa Childers and Alan Kelly, Fine Gael's Seán Kelly and the Socialist Party's Joe Higgins were among the 736 MEPs to
sign the roll and take office in their new jobs.
After a historic week when Hungarian lawyer Dr Adam Kosa became the first deaf MEP to address the parliament,
the four new Irish MEPs recounted
their first impressions to the Sunday Tribune.
Labour MEP for Ireland South
"The most memorable moment of the week was when a member of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, offered his help to the Irish 'No' campaign in the Lisbon treaty referendum. This is someone who is so pro-British that he is willing to campaign hand-in-hand with Sinn Féin to make sure a treaty that enhances democracy does not get passed. It seemed quite bizarre.
"Aside from that the week was really about selecting the committees and finding your way around the building. It is a pretty awesome size but once you get to grips with it, it is easy to manage. In previous jobs I would have worked with many of the European institutions so I knew what to expect.
"It is a unique institution though and one that serves a unique purpose of co-operation between 27 countries across a very diverse continent and it is a privilege to be part of it.
"While the main language here is English, you find yourself having to learn a kind of Europhile language with plenty of euro-specific phrases like 'Hemi-cycle', which is the name of the main parliamentary chamber in Strasbourg.
"Everybody was extremely friendly on the first day. Most of the MEPs are happy to walk around and introduce themselves to new members and that made me feel very welcome. The other Irish MEPs have all been very friendly, offering travel advice and explaining the intricacies of the various administration systems at work here.
"I would have to praise my Labour colleague Proinsias De Rossa particularly in this regard. It is a new departure for Labour to have such a strong delegation. We have increased our membership by 200% and we are a force that can drive change within our parliamentary group. We are one of the few within the Labour group in Europe who did well in the elections so that has caused its own popularity.
"Anyway, I'm really looking forward to sinking my teeth into some of the work for the parliament here.
"Obviously the Lisbon treaty is not going to be far from the mind and it is my ambition that Labour will lead a huge campaign to secure a 'Yes' vote, which is vital to our ability to influence decisions here. It is critical to our interests right now."
fine gael mep for ireland south
"On Tuesday last, Bastille Day in France, I officially became an MEP. It was the first time in my life that I have had the role of a political representative. The parliament sits in Strasbourg for its plenary sessions and I have to say that the historical Rhineland town is very appealing architecturally, culturally and socially.
"We flew from Farranfore Airport to Frankfurt-Hahn in Germany, which is about a three-hour car journey from Strasbourg.
"The first thing that struck me as we drove along was the proliferation of windmills. Obviously, the Germans are a long way ahead of Ireland when it comes to wind energy – and we have far more wind, both natural and political!
"The parliament itself is a huge, impressive building. The meeting place for its 736 members is an amphitheatre called the 'Hemicycle'. The only other similar experience I have had is the GAA congress but congress is about half its size and is usually conducted in one language, with some Gaeilge occasionally.
"The other MEPs here have been very helpful and welcoming. All Irish MEPs are cordial and friendly, as it should be. Indeed, without their co-operation, I would have got lost in a maze of corridors and rooms several times. Mind you the lift is a bit rickety and occasionally makes a big bang as it moves up and down. I must bring over a can of oil next time.
"Thankfully, most people speak some English although some French is very useful – si'l vous plait et merci beaucoup. The pronunciation of the Irish names is amusing as no doubt are our efforts to pronounce their names. Frequently, I am referred to as "Monsieur Seen Kellii" and some think I am the great Irish cyclist from Carrick-on-Suir by the same name. "Sean Kelly, le cycliste, tres bien," they say.
"Has the first week been a daunting experience? Ah now, Kerrymen aren't supposed to talk like that. If you can survive a GAA congress you can survive anything.
"Now that the first week is down I am looking forward to settling and playing my part in the European parliament. There is much work to be done but there is a good working environment here and once the committees are finalised it will be all systems go.
"As we say in the GAA, the ball is in and the game is on. Strasbourg, here we come."
socialist mep for dublin
"I went out early on Monday morning via Frankfurt and it is a bit of a haul after that as you have a two-and-a-half-hour bus journey to Strasbourg.
"The parliament opened on Tuesday and my first impression was that it was a bit of an unreal world. It is a world of political fiction that is all about consensus, so we have a president of the parliament who is a member of the Christian Democrat group, who are otherwise known as the European People's Party, of which Fine Gael is a member, in a grand coalition with the Social Democrats.
"They all pretend they are one big happy family and there is not a word about the fact that a lot of them are backing domestic governments that are pushing families into poverty by hammering the wages of the working classes and the supply of services to them across the continent.
"In reality they all share a similar kind of ideological foundation which is that the system is in crisis and working people have to pay for it. There is a huge disjoint from the masses of ordinary people out there in Europe and this was not really a surprise.
"The trend over the last several years is that there has been a general shift to the right and the parliament reflects that as it is seen more graphically in Europe.
"My political differences with the other MEPs do not end when I cross the sea. Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour supported the same candidate for the president of the parliament, Jerzy Buzek. He is the former Polish prime minister who slashed workers' wages. I am part of the European United Left group and we lost the vote by a majority of 559 votes to 89.
"The parliament is different to the Dáil as your speaking time is much shorter. As there are 736 MEPs, I only had one minute to speak. I used this time to criticise the grand coalition in the parliament that is united in the idea that ordinary working people should have to pay for the financial crisis.
"They are also united in seeking to have the Lisbon treaty pushed through, which is not in the interest of the majority. I have challenged other MEPs to come to Ireland and debate in front of public audiences about why we should support a project that is not in interests of the European working classes.
"I have about 1,000 emails in my account that I have not had a chance to go through so it will be a lot of work looking after such a big constituency, as well as getting emails from all over Ireland and even from groups across Europe."
Labour MEP for Ireland east
"I went over on Sunday evening as there was a meeting of the Socialist group on Monday. The Labour Party now has a delegation of Proinsias De Rossa, Alan Kelly and me and we are members of the party of the European Socialists.
"From 5 June until last Tuesday I was termed an 'MEP-elect' but I officially became an MEP after we elected former Polish prime minister Jerzy Buzek as the new EU parliament president. After you vote for the president, your email address is activated and you are transformed into an MEP at that point.
"I will serve on the environment committee and as a substitute on the culture and education committee. I had my first meeting of the environment committee at lunchtime on Thursday.
"It takes a number of months for a new MEP to get settled in as we have to get somewhere to live and get staff appointed so I have been over here over the last few weeks getting sorted out.
"Proinsias is helping me to familiarise myself with the institutions. I have found that when you meet up with the other members of the Socialist group, this is where you begin to find out how the system works.
"You also get a sense of how the parliament works from the socialist group's secretariat and you find out which networks you need to engage in and how the place works.
"I have found an apartment to live in and I am settling in well. I used to speak fluent French from the age of about five to 15. My father had fluent French and I had a French au pair who made me speak the language.
"It is beginning to come back to me so I expect that after a few months I will be able to converse in French. It is a good language to have out here and I will try and pick up other languages.
"I haven't seen much of the other Irish MEPs so far but I would expect that we will see a lot of each other and work together. I would intend to very much fly the green flag with the other Irish MEPs as it is important for us to co-operate.
The 11 of us who are in favour of it will work together for the Yes to Lisbon campaign. Already, it is coming up in debates and Lisbon seems to percolate into most conversations and it is the sub-text in a lot of conversations.
"During that first plenary session on Tuesday I looked around and saw the 736 MEPs and I thought to myself: 'What an incredible achievement for a body set up after World War II to have all these MEPs, largely speaking, all engaged in one common purpose. We should not take that for granted."