Irish women in the European Parliament

Béibhinn Thorsch

During her 2008 presidential campaign trail, Hilary Clinton said, “The remnants of sexism are alive and well… I am running to break through the highest and hardest glass ceiling.”While there are no American representatives in the European Parliament, this quote illustrates the global experience of women seeking to succeed in politics. For a country the size of Ireland, the chance to make a real impact on the world is much closer for the elected members of the European Parliament (MEPs). For Irish women who break into the sphere of European Politics, it is a monumental opportunity.

Ursula von der Leyen has further paved the way for women in politics, by becoming the first female President of the European Commission. Von der Leyen is a German politician and became President of the European Commission in 2019.

Previous to her time in the European Parliament, Von der Leyen was the longest-serving member of Angela Merkel’s cabinet in Germany, from 2005 to 2019. She was also the first woman to serve as German defence minister.

Looking at her personal life, Von der Leyen was born and raised in Brussels. Her father was one of the first European civil servants. Von der Leyen was brought up bilingually in German and French.

Von der Leyen studied economics at university, and at the height of the fear of communist terrorism in West Germany, she fled to London. Her family had been told that there were plans for Von der Leyen to be kidnapped as she was the daughter of a prominent politician. She spent over a year in London under the name Rose Ladson, and with the protection of Scotland Yard. She enrolled at the London School of Economics.

Mairead McGuinness is from Ardee, Co. Louth, and made a name for Irish women in politics by becoming the First Vice-President of the European Parliament in 2007. She first became an MEP in July 2004 and is a member of Fine Gael and the European People’s Party.

Before politics, McGuinness studied Agricultural Economics in UCD, becoming the first female graduate of that course. She began her career as a journalist in RTÉ immediately after college, working initially as a radio producer before becoming a researcher for The Late Late Show. McGuinness became a well-known presenter in her own right, and the key driving force behind Ear to the Ground, a successful television series on farming. She was also the editor of the Farming Independent for seven years.

Francis Fitzgerald has been an MEP since 2019 and is a member of Fine Gael and the European People’s Party. She has served in Irish politics since 1992, ranging from working in the Seanad for the Labour Panel to serving as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and Minister for Justice and Equality, among other roles. Most recently, she served as Tánaiste from 2016 to 2017, where she was shrouded in scandal.

While serving as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, she spoke out forcefully against the Catholic Church’s role in covering up child abuse.

Fitzgerald was the second Fine Gael politician to ever hold the office of Tánaiste. In the European Parliament, she is a member of the Committees on Economic and Monetary Affairs, Women’s Rights and Gender Equality and the Delegation for relations with the People’s Republic of China.

Fitzgerald is a mother of three sons and is from Limerick. She studied in UCD and the London School of Economics.

Clare Daly is from Kildare and has been an MEP since 2019. She is a member of Independents 4 Change and is part of the European United Left-Nordic Green Left. She served as TD from 2011 to 2019.

Daly was elected as a Socialist Party TD in 2011. She had previously been a Socialist Party Councillor. In 2013, she founded a new political party called United Left, where she redesignated herself as a United Left TD. In the European Parliament, she is Vice-Chair of the Delegation for relations with Afghanistan.

Daly is a long-standing atheist, though her brother and uncle are in the Catholic priesthood. In February 2012, it was reported that she would introduce a bill to provide for limited access to abortion where there is “real and substantial risk to the life” of the pregnant woman, in line with the X Case. The bill was defeated before its second reading on 19 April 2012. She also announced that she would not register to pay a new household charge brought in that year, calling it “reprehensible”, and telling the minister responsible: “You can’t bring everyone to court”.

Grace O’Sullivan is a member of the Green Party. She is from Waterford, and part of the European Green Party in the European Parliament. She previously served in the Seanad as a senator for the Agricultural Panel from 2016 to 2019. O’Sullivan is also known for her activism during a 20-year career with Greenpeace.

O’Sullivan is an ecologist and environmental education specialist, as well as a mother of three. She was also an Irish surf champion, as she is from a seaside town. By the age of 16, she had joined Tramore Sea and Cliff Rescue and was helmsman with the Tramore RNLI by the age of 18. She also spent some time as a lifeguard during the summer months.

Maria Walsh is a member of Fine Gael and is one of the youngest members of the European Parliament. She is a member of the European Parliament Committee on Employment and Social Affairs and the Delegation for relations with the United States.

Walsh was born in Boston in the United States, to two Irish parents. They moved back to Ireland in Walsh’s childhood. However, after her college education, she emigrated back to the U.S. She first rose to national attention when she was crowned the International Rose of Tralee in 2014 and came out as a lesbian five days after her win.

In 2019, Walsh was a serving member of the Army Reserve, as a trooper in the Defence Forces Training Centre in Curragh Camp.

Ireland has had, as have many countries, a mixed history of women’s rights and success. While we have had two female presidents, the first being Mary Robinson in 1990, followed by Mary McAleese in 1997, we still haven’t had a female Taoiseach. We continue to unearth scandals against women’s rights, as recently as the cervical check scandal and even the abortion referendum. While we celebrate our successes women will, and should, continue to strive for more of what they deserve.

Béibhinn Thorsch

Image Credit: European Parliament