We have an excellent record of collaboration with Germany and we are very proud of that. It is something that is a part of our government’s initiative to re-engage with our European partners. It is really very much a priority for us. This week is my first bilateral official engagement here in Berlin and I will also be in Paris. I have only been in office a few weeks so I think that gives a sense of how much of a priority that is. I’ve had excellent meetings particularly in the chancellery with the Minister of State. We had a really long and constructive meeting this morning, talking about ways in which we can forge closer relations and work together in our common interests. I think Ireland and Germany have a lot in common; we are two countries that have been enthusiastic about the European project since we joined as well as having been founders of the Euro currency and the monetary union. It is a relationship in which we have particular pride and interest.
Q2. Ireland decided, like most of the European countries, to commit to the intervention in Libya. Are you satisfied with the way the Libyan National Transitional Council and the United Nations Humanitarian Response Depot collaborated in order to protect the Libyan people?
I think in very difficult circumstances they have done a reasonably good job. I mean it’s never perfect when there are civilian lives lost in a military intervention like that. We did support the UN resolution. We felt that with UN support, it was appropriate. Genocide could have happened in Libya and Europe cannot afford to stand by while these atrocities occur in neighboring regions. So I think it’s an intervention that we can say genuinely did prevent the murder of potentially thousands of Libyan citizens. Unfortunately lives have been lost but I think that the alternative would have been a far worse scenario.
Q3. A special sitting of the Dáil was held recently to mark ‘Europe Day,’ while focusing on where Ireland and the European Union should be by 2020. Could you tell us more about this sitting, and if you think that it will contribute to strengthening the relationship between Ireland and its European partners?
Most definitely because I think that there is almost a perception that the European institutions have nothing to do with us, that they are made up of faceless bureaucrats and that the Irish politician are all at home. What we did on Europe day was we brought all of the Irish MEPs to a joint sitting with our members of parliament in the Dáil. That was a first. We also had the Irish Commissioner Máire Geoghegan–Quinn and it was a really fruitful and evocative debate which involved people from all sides of the arguments in relation to Europe. It was an opportunity for members of the Irish parliament to question members of the European parliament on issues of concern so it was a very healthy exercise and we will certainly do it again, perhaps even on a bigger scale. I suppose the issues that people were raising and continue to raise are the issues that concern all member states at the moment; the future of the currency, the future of Europe, how we can work together to get through the crisis we are experiencing now and in the future. It was very constructive and very helpful.
Q4. In 2010, you were appointed as party Deputy Spokesperson on Justice with special responsibility for Immigration, Integration, and Equality. Do you think that the European Union should implement special measures in order to control the immigration of people from North Africa?
I think we should have special measures but I don’t see it as an opportunity to close down our borders. I feel that given the very exciting democratic revolution that we have all encouraged and welcomed, it would be most bizarre to then shut down our borders and to shut out people who are fleeing very difficult circumstances in Libya and in other North African countries. My view would be that we as Europeans and as Irish people have an obligation to assist these people in a time of crisis. If we were in the same boat on the continent of Europe we would look to our nearest neighbors for assistance-that’s what our neighborhood policy is all about. I would add that in Ireland the minister for Justice, Alan Shatter has just announced that we are going to take a number of asylum seekers in Ireland to help alleviate the situation. I think this is an important signal of where the Irish government stands on the issue. I think the Schengen issue, as we’ve seen it unfold in recent few weeks is a little concerning. We are not part of the Schengen agreement. From my point of view I think that’s unfortunate but it’s because of our geographical location and our particular special relationship, from a border point of view, with the UK. Schengen is a really positive thing in the EU. It’s a very fundamental element of what it is to be European, to be able to cross borders. It is something I want to see protected, strengthened and restored.
Q5. Ireland has never used nuclear energy and the only nuclear station that was planned to be constructed actually never came to pass. Could you explain Ireland’s policies regarding sustainable energies in the future and are there plans to expand these energies?
Yes. It’s a core component of the government’s plans, both for economic recovery and to prepare our infrastructure for the future. We know energy prices are climbing all the time right across Europe and this is a concern for Ireland in particular because we are an island. Our plans are firstly to connect to the continent which is a very important component of our energy policy, but also to develop our own infrastructure in Ireland. We are one of the most geographically advantageous member states despite the amount of rain we actually have a greater exposure to sunlight for solar energy. We have our wild Atlantic coast for coastal energy and wind energy too so we have really big potential to grow that sector. We have lots of innovation happening in Ireland at the moment and the government is very enthusiastic in supporting all of this and we’ve big plans for the future. We are only at the beginning of our mandate. We will hopefully have a 5 year mandate and I think you will see significant changes over the next couple of years.
Q6. As a former vice president of Youth of the European Peoples Party, do you think that young people play an important role in strengthening the European Union and in what ways can they do so?
I absolutely do. I think the younger generation perhaps doesn’t appreciate why the EU exists, where it was born and how it was born. However if anybody has benefited from it, it is us because we have been able to live and travel and work in other European countries without any of the hassle or fuss that our parents or grandparents would have had to encounter. I think things like the various educational and cultural programs such as Erasmus have created great opportunities for young people. There is a challenge in communicating with young people, in order to engage them with the EU. They must not become consumed by listening to populous messages and cynical tabloid media. We need to engage them in the process more. By preserving the cultural programs and maybe even expanding them within the constraints of the European budget, there is a big opportunity to really engage young people. We don’t have enough young people in Europe so the more young people we can encourage to stay in Europe and the more we can encourage young people from outside Europe to come to here, the better.
Q7. A common theme with Irish students has been their tendency to not actually learn a language, but rather just study it specifically to pass an exam. And although they may achieve a high score on the exam, they have not actually mastered the language, and eventually end up dropping the course. How can students be encouraged to continue with languages, which would provide them with better communication skills with their European partners, while further improving their own career prospects?
I think you’re absolutely right. The problem for young people is that once they conclude their secondary education, unless their studying a language at university, they don’t tend to pursue and maintain those language skills. Then they lose those languages after a couple of years, and I’m guilty of that too. I think we have to broaden the Erasmus program. We have to communicate better in our universities in Ireland and to ensure that Erasmus is available to people who aren’t studying modern languages. It should not be a daunting or an off-putting prospect to study abroad in a language that maybe you are not 100% fluent in. You will become fluent very quickly. I think that there is a task force within our universities to promote that and to encourage uptake in the Erasmus program and other programs. I think we really need to use it and in fact maximize the benefit we get from it.
Interview conducted by Orla Colclough