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Brexit: Six former Northern Ireland MEPs on work and life at the European Parliament

While politics in Northern Ireland could be a fraught and hostile business, our MEPs often worked together constructively and in a spirit of co-operation at the European Parliament. As the UK exits the EU, six of them tell Political Editor Suzanne Breen about the characters and controversies


The Union flag is taken down outside the European Parliament last night

The Union flag is taken down outside the European Parliament last night


The Union flag is taken down outside the European Parliament last night

Compared to the Rev Ian's Paisley's shenanigans in the European Parliament over the years, Nigel Farage's last hurrah in Brussels was a tame affair.

Brexit Party MEPs waved Union flags and shouted "Hip hip hooray!" as their leader delivered his final tirade against EU. "Please sit down, resume your seats, put your flags away. You're leaving and take them with you," parliament vice-president Mairead McGuinness told him as she turned off his mic.

Sitting right beside the Brexit Party contingent, DUP MEP Diane Dodds surprised some when she didn't join in. "I'm not into stunts," she says.

"I voted consistently for Brexit. I don't have anything to prove, but it's now a time for reflection. There are lots of different views out there and I wanted to convey that."


Causing uproar: Rev Ian Paisley denounces Pope John Paul during his speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg

Causing uproar: Rev Ian Paisley denounces Pope John Paul during his speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg

Causing uproar: Rev Ian Paisley denounces Pope John Paul during his speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg

Her former party leader was less restrained in his 25-year European parliamentary career. In 1988, as Pope John Paul II began his address in Strasbourg, Paisley rose to his feet and roared that "the Antichrist" wasn't welcome. He waved a poster denouncing the pontiff as he shouted a quotation from a 16th century Protestant martyr.

Other MEPs wrenched the banner from him, and he was hauled out of the chamber while the Pope looked on with amusement.

But, despite the occasional fireworks, Paisley formed an unrivalled partnership in Brussels with Northern Ireland's next most famous MEP John Hume.


Jim Nicholson

Jim Nicholson

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Jim Nicholson

Former Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson completed an influential trio. "As we huddled together in Brussels to discuss things, other MEPs would look on expecting a fight to break out. It never did," he recalls.

"John would sometimes exclaim 'My God!' or 'Oh Jesus!' and Ian would jokingly reprimand him for taking the Lord's name in vain, but that was the height of it."

They always put "Northern Ireland PLC" first, Nicholson says. "The constitutional issue didn't arise.

"This was mostly during direct rule. There was no Stormont executive. The three of us were the voice of Northern Ireland abroad.

Union flags have been taken down in and outside European Parliament buildings in Brussels as the UK leaves the EU.

"We worked together through awful times - the Shankill bomb, Greysteel and other atrocities. We had to learn a different style of politics in Europe.

"Our system at home was so combative. Over there, it was all about compromise. You realised you didn't always get your own way and you learned to make friends."

Nicholson says his proudest moment came when the trio met the then European Commission president Jacques Delors in 1994 after the IRA ceasefire.

"Delors said, 'What can I do for you gentlemen?' We said 'It's what you can do for the people of Northern Ireland. They need help from the bottom up'. Out of that meeting came the EU's Peace and Reconciliation Fund which has delivered over $2bn for Northern Ireland."


Naomi Long

Naomi Long

Getty Images

Naomi Long

Alliance leader Naomi Long wore suffragette colours - purple and green - as she delivered her final speech in Brussels on Wednesday.

"I wanted to mark how far Northern Ireland has travelled," she says. "I grew up watching three male MEPs representing us. We left the EU represented by three women."

Elected eight months ago, Long was just starting to find her way around the parliament. "I got lost loads of times," she laughs. "It's a vast and confusing place at first. I got locked in the Visitors' Centre one night. I had to take photos on my mobile phone and send them to my assistant to come and rescue me."

Long previously sat at Westminster as East Belfast MP. "The Brussels parliament had the feel of an airport terminal," she says.

"The House of Commons is very different. It's steeped in history. It's beautiful and atmospheric but the chamber is small and it can be very crowded.

"The European parliament was built for purpose. It's much more civilised and comfortable. You had your own seat and desk.

"I liked the u-shaped chamber compared to the oppositional Commons. Everything in Brussels was about being inclusive and securing a consensus, not just a majority. I will take that away with me and I hope we can do it at Stormont."

Long describes the parliament's Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt as "a real character".

"If people think I talk a lot, they need to hear him. He wasn't always helpful in what he said but he did do battle for Northern Ireland".

The "most intriguing" MEP Long met was the Brexit Party's Claire Fox. She was "a left-winger in a right-wing party. I felt she was a person of genuine principle when so many of her colleagues were just there for the publicity and the ride.

"She genuinely engaged with the Remain argument. She was intellectually stimulating but politically frustrating for me."

Long describes the journey to Strasbourg - where the European parliament sat one week a month - as "a camel trek". It involved "numerous planes, trains and automobiles" and could take up to 12 hours.


Michel Barnier and Diane Dodds

Michel Barnier and Diane Dodds


Michel Barnier and Diane Dodds

DUP MEP Diane Dodds agrees and says the parliament should "be like every other one and sit in one place".

She accuses the EU of double standards: "It aims to become a zero carbon economy by 2050 but it adds significantly to its own carbon footprint by the travelling circus of moving from Brussels to Strasbourg once a month."

Being an MEP meant "a very transient lifestyle", Dodds says. She was first elected when her daughter Robyn was 11. "It was difficult for both of us. Sometimes I tried to come home mid-week but that wasn't always possible."

Like other MEPs, she lived for years in hotels - not apartments - in Brussels and Strasbourg. "I didn't mind. I'm a relaxed person. I don't fuss," she adds.

Having grown up on a farm, the highs of her MEP role was whenever the focus was on agriculture. The lows were the 2016 Brussels airport and metro station bombs which killed 35 people, and the 2018 Strasbourg Christmas market attack.

Dodds says: "After the airport bomb, Arlene Foster and Peter Robinson rang me to see if I was okay. I was in my office on the phone when I heard a thud.

"Another bomb had gone off at the metro nearby. I don't think Brussels has ever recovered its equilibrium.

"Two years later, I was sitting in a restaurant in Strasbourg with staff after visiting the Christmas market when suddenly police burst in, turned off the lights and ordered us away from the windows. A gunman had shot dead five people in the next street."

Martina Anderson

Like Dodds, Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson found the journey to Strasbourg taxing. "During Storm Brendan, it took me 36 hours and four flights to get there - from Belfast to Cardiff to Paris to Amsterdam to Strasbourg. It was a demanding job, and you had to be up for it," she says.

There were other challenges. "My mother Betty had Alzheimer's and we cared for her at home. Near the end, it was very difficult," Anderson says.

"Three times, she was at death's door. I got phone calls to come home and I thought I wouldn't make it. I was terrified she would die before I got to hold her one last time.

"My husband put the phone to her ear so I could talk to her. She pulled through twice. The third time, she didn't but I did make it home to be with her before she passed away."

Another "awful time" was in 2017 when Anderson was told Martin McGuinness had died. "I headed to the airport immediately. I was distraught. It was the worst journey of my life. I just wanted to be with him as he was brought home," she says.

"I was too upset to drive. A friend came to Dublin Airport to pick me up. I'm sure the speed limit was broken many times. As we came down the flyover we could see Martin's coffin coming to Free Derry Corner. I just got out of the car and ran to the cortege."

Anderson is most proud of "working so hard with the EU to get them to understand that the Good Friday Agreement had to be protected in all its part and of securing a protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement ensuring there will be no hardening of the border".

In her Brussels office, she had a photo of a Derry GAA team, Ballymena's coat of arms - a gift from a cross-community delegation - and portraits of 1916 leader Countess Markievicz and trade unionist Jim Larkin.

"I've taken them home with me but I've left my clothes and other bits and pieces with charities in Brussels for those in need," she says.

Jim Allister

TUV leader and former barrister Jim Allister was a DUP MEP for five years. He found the travelling made the job "surprisingly more exhausting than being at the Bar even though it was much less intellectually demanding".

Living in a hotel four nights a week was a "big adjustment", he says, "although I'm not sure if it was a burden or a relief to my wife Ruth".

He adored Strasbourg. "It had a stunning historic centre on the River Ill, a beautiful cathedral and some nice parks. It was lovely in summer but very cold in winter," he says."Outside of Grand Place, there wasn't much to like in Brussels."

Allister says while he went to Brussels "a Eurosceptic and left an even stronger one as a result of what I saw", it was still "a great privilege to stand up and speak on behalf of my country and I took it seriously".

He felt the multiplicity of languages killed the parliament as a debating chamber.

"It was a stilted place. The interpreters are very skilled but there's still a natural lag between the spoken word and when you hear it in your ear," he says. "It ruled out the cut and thrust of debate.

"The other thing I struggled with was the restricted speaking time. Your mic was turned of if you went over two minutes. Saying what you wanted became an art."

Allister sat near Nigel Farage whom he came to know well. "He's a fantastic orator - he has it down to a tee. He was utterly fearless, I had a lot of time for him."


Fond farewell: Nigel Farage in celebratory mood at the EU Parliament this week but Diane Dodds is more reserved

Fond farewell: Nigel Farage in celebratory mood at the EU Parliament this week but Diane Dodds is more reserved

Getty Images

Fond farewell: Nigel Farage in celebratory mood at the EU Parliament this week but Diane Dodds is more reserved

So did the teetotal TUV leader socialise with Farage who is known for his love of a pint? "We had the occasional meal together. But no, I didn't 'go out on the tear' with him as you put it."

He was also impressed with Tanaiste Simon Coveney when he was an MEP and Fine Gael's Mairead McGuinness. They were "very knowledgeable" on agriculture and "made their mark".

He didn't rate Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald. "She sat on the far side of the chamber with the communist brigade. She was in the early stages of her career. I never thought she was someone who would go far," he says.

"Her contributions were mediocre. She would now appear more capable than she came across then so maybe the European Parliament just wasn't her thing."

The TUV leader didn't warm to then EU Commissioner Lord Mandelson who was his "usual aloof self".

Allister's time as an MEP was dominated by the Lisbon Treaty which he had strenuously opposed.

"I stood up for British sovereignty but I was swimming against the tide.

"I saw Denmark, Holland and the Republic reject the Treaty but the EU wouldn't take no for an answer. Brussels bared its teeth and bludgeoned them into changing their minds.

"I was a dissident voice on the constitutional affairs committee against the encroaching bureaucracy. It's a role with which I'm entirely comfortable," he adds.

Lord Kilclooney

Lord John Kilclooney was a UUP MEP from 1979-89. He would often invite high-profile MEPs to Northern Ireland. Danish parliamentarian Kent Kirk, who invaded British fishing waters in his boat in 1983, came to meet the fishermen in Annalong, Kilkeel and Portavogie.

Kilclooney's most famous guest was Austrian MEP Otto von Habsburg, a devout Catholic who had helped eject Paisley from the parliament after he challenged the pope. "I took Otto to meet Cardinal O' Fiach in Armagh," Lord Kilclooney recalls.

"We arrived in an RUC car. O'Fiach came down the marble staircase totally overdressed in his full regalia.

"It was 10am and he said to Otto 'Will have you a wee one?' I said 'We'll just have coffee' and O'Fiach replied 'What kind of an Irishman are you?'"

As the UK bids au revoir to the EU, Northern Ireland's 47-year relationship with Brussels comes to a close. When politics at home was bitter, it was usually different over there. We will all surely miss the colour, the controversy and, most of all, the characters.

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