A little bit of Derry in Brussels

VLUU L200  / Samsung L200
VLUU L200 / Samsung L200

Many people face a long commute to work these days but few face a journey of 17 hours on a Monday morning to get to the office.

‘Journal’ reporter Michael McMonagle visited the European Parliament in Brussels last week and spoke to Sinn Féin MEP Martina Anderson about her work in Europe, the impact of European legislation on Derry, and the difficulties she faces travelling to and from the parliaments.

Many people face a long commute to work these days but few face a journey of 17 hours on a Monday morning to get to the office.

However, this is the situation Martina Anderson faces when she travels to Strasbourg for sittings of the European Parliament.

Since replacing former MEP Bairbre de Brún earlier this year, Ms Anderson spends three weeks of every month at the European Parliament, dividing her time between the parliament’s two sites in Brussels and Strasbourg, and the remaining week at home in Derry, carrying out constituency work across the North.

The MEP was appointed shortly before the European Parliament went into recess for the summer and has just completed her 13th week in the job. She said that she is still “on a learning curve” but said she is “excited by the challenges of her role.

Ms Anderson’s office in Brussels may be hundreds of miles away from her home in the Bogside, but she has tried to bring Derry to the heart of Europe. A picture of the Sean Dolan’s GAA team from Creggan hangs on the wall of her office alongside a portraits of republican leader Countess Markievicz and trade union leader Jim Larkin. A tricolour flag also hangs near a plaque of the coat of arms of Ballymena, a gift from a cross community delegation who visited her office earlier this year.

Discussing the practicalities of travelling halfway across Europe twice a week, Ms Anderson said it is something she has had to learn to live with.

“The travelling can be difficult but it is just part of the job,” Ms Anderson said. “It is something I have had to get used to. The fact that the parliament is split between two cities presents difficulties. I describe moving between Brussels and Strasbourg as a travelling circus. Millions are spent each year on administering both sites and moving people and materials between the two. I would be much happier if the parliament had just one base, in either city, or in a new location.

“Travelling to Strasbourg presents particular difficulties. It takes me 17 hours from when I leave Derry to get to the parliament building in Strasbourg. The journey involves a lot of transfers and train journeys and when I do get there the parliament can sit until late into the night so it can be tiring.

“But I’m not complaining. It is a real honour to be here representing the people of the North and MEPs from all over Europe have similar stories of long journeys; it is just part of life at the European Parliament

“Fortunately these days with a laptop and a smartphone I can work almost anywhere so the travelling doesn’t eat into my working time too much. I can often be found in an airport with my laptop. It is the transfers and getting through airports that I find frustrating because I feel that is time lost where I could be working,” she said.

The regular travelling also poses another problem for Ms Anderson, who cares for her elderly mother. “It is difficult being away from my mother when I was so used to seeing her every day. It has been particularly difficult recently because unfortunately she has not been in good health,” she said.

A number of weeks ago Ms Anderson got a call while she was in the European Parliament telling her to come home immediately because her mother’s condition had deteriorated.

“That is my worst fear. I had to rush home and that was the first time I found the journey difficult. I found that journey home more difficult than the journey to Durham jail. Every minute felt like an hour. I was worried that I would not make it home on time and was preparing myself to arrive home to funeral preparations but thank God my mother rallied round.

“At times like that you feel very far away,” she said.

Ms Anderson paid tribute to her family who help with looking after her mother while she is away on European business. “I could not do what I do here or carry on with my work representing people if it was not for the support of my husband and family; they have been great. They are a real rock for me,” she added.

Discussing her work in Europe, Ms Anderson said there are many funding opportunities for communities across the North and Derry in particular.

“I represent the entire community in the North and feel very privileged to do so but, as a Derry woman, I will always lobby for the city. I am equally happy to represent communities from Newry, the Shankill, Ballymena or Strabane and will always seek out opportunities to advance all communities in the North but with the City of Culture events getting underway in just a few weeks, this is a time when Derry can really benefit from Europe,” she said.

The Sinn Féin MEP encouraged local groups to take advantage of European funding streams. “Europe won’t come to Derry; Derry has to go to Europe and I see that as part of my job. In the past we have been slow to realise the opportunities of European funding but that is starting to change.

“Huge opportunities exist in the area of research and development, particularly in e-medicine and Derry is very well placed, though the fantastic work being carried out at facilities like C-TRIC, to avail of those. I think that is where Derry should be positioning itself to become a world leader in this field.

“We also have great links with Boston and we should be using that, together with the European opportunities, to really promote and develop our research and development capabilities.

“This would also support the plans for the expansion of Magee,” she said.

She also said it is important that communities like Derry have a strong voice in Europe.

“Increasing amounts of legislation which impact on the day to day lives of many people originate in Europe and often people do not realise that.

“In Irish terms, having a strong voice in Europe is more important now that it has ever been.

“The involvement of Europe in Irish affairs, particularly in the south, has grown since the bailout.

“Often Ireland is regarded as a model European state who have accepted the bailout. It is important for myself and the other Irish MEPs to reflect the reality of the situation at home where nine people are leaving Ireland every hour to seek work in other countries,” she explained.

The MEP also warned of the danger of the rise of extremists as the recession continues to bite across Europe. “With growing levels of unemployment and youth disengagement there is a danger of a flight from democracy. I think it would be foolish to ignore the fact that there are people who would like to see system of government which are more akin to fascism . Even in Ireland I hear worlds like ‘foreigner’ being used more frequently and that is a worrying trend.

“The growing numbers of young people leaving Ireland are ‘foreigners’ in the countries they travel to. Those who advocate that type of ‘me féin’ should remember that,” she said.