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Ireland’s maverick MEP finds friends in all the wrong places

The left wing politician Clare Daly is no stranger to controversy, but this time her anti-war rhetoric is being used as ammunition by Russian media

Photo: Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images. Graphic: The new European

In 2019, Ireland’s Private Eye-style magazine The Phoenix said the late entry of Clare Daly into the race for one of Ireland’s seats in the European parliament injected excitement into a mundane campaign.

“Despite her radical political profile, Daly is also a media darling, even though she keeps dangerous political company and has formed several strange alliances in recent years,” the magazine said.

As we might say in Ireland: that isn’t the half of it. 

Daly, who did win that European seat, started her political career in Ireland’s Labour party, where she was a member of the Militant Tendency faction before she was kicked out in 1989, along with other Militant members, for creating a party within a party. 

The expelled group formed the Socialist party in 1996. Three years later, Daly was elected a county councillor in Dublin and, after many failed attempts, finally won a seat in the Dáil (Irish parliament) in 2011. She left the Socialist party in 2012 and won a second term in the Dáil in 2016 as a member of the Independents4Change party. She was then elected to the European parliament in 2019, joining forces with her long-time political ally and close friend Mick Wallace.

So much for her political trajectory. Daly is best known for her passionate stance on issues running from abortion rights to Garda (police) reform to the rights of refugees. Often her causes are laudable – she is one of several MEPs campaigning to appeal against the draconian sentences of two Afghan men jailed for 50 years for people smuggling – but her radical actions often defy convention, and sometimes can feel strangely, if not dangerously, naive in a complex world.

Daly and Wallace were dubbed “embarrassments to Ireland” in 2021 after they visited the Iraqi headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Forces – a state-sanctioned umbrella organisation of mostly Shi’ite militias backed by Iran. The group, which has been accused of rights abuses, posted footage of the visit online. 

Fianna Fáil senator Malcolm Byrne said at the time, “As if their support for Lukashenko in Belarus and Hezbollah in Lebanon wasn’t bad enough. They are an embarrassment to Ireland… Seeking to understand issues in a conflict is a good thing; not doing due diligence on a group in advance and allowing themselves to be used as propaganda tools is foolish.” 

That epithet – an embarrassment to Ireland – was in use again last week after Daly criticised sanctions on Russia during a speech at the European parliament, as well as excoriating the bloc for its “lack of scruples” with regards to previous US-led conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen. 

“So the EU solution to the war in Ukraine is more war; pile in the weapons, splurge on militarism, threaten to engage in all-out economic and financial war against Russia,” said Daly, whose father was a colonel in the Irish army. “So the same things you were doing already and expecting a different result; the true definition of madness.”

She said the sanctions would never bring about peace, but would unleash economic devastation on Russians and Europeans, leading to energy price rises, inflation and a catastrophic decline in living standards. 

“Talk about shooting ourselves in the foot,” she said.

In an email response to The New European, Daly said her criticism of sanctions was “not because I am ‘soft on Russia’ but rather than there is no historic example of sanctions ever ending a military conflict or succeeding in regime change, to that end then what is their purpose?”.

She said: “It is not the case that they will hurt the Russian oligarchs, who I am sure can do without a yacht or two, but they will inflict hardship on the people of Russia, including those opposed to the war, but increasing also the citizens of Europe, where the drive to outlaw the purchase of Russian gas and oil could see millions of jobs lost in Europe without having any impact on ending the war or assisting anybody in Ukraine. Quite frankly, I think that is lunacy.

“There was a lot of criticism by certain politicians and the mainstream media for my speech, but actually very large numbers of Irish people and people internationally were very grateful to hear those comments made. The idea that there can be only one view on how to end a conflict is a bit frightening, to be honest.”

Although Daly said Russia bore responsibility for the conflict, she also blamed Nato and said the EU had become a “tool of Nato and the military-industrial complex”.

This is probably why her remarks were later shown on Russian state TV. A clip was edited to remove the mention of war and Russian responsibility, and broadcast as part of a panel discussion on Channel 1, according to the Irish website The same clip was shown on another Russian channel where Daly was described as “the voice of reason”.

Daly’s problem is that although some of her points – on the use of sanctions and their initial failure to deter Russia, in this case – might be worth debating, one person’s free speech can easily become another person’s propaganda in a mediatised conflict where winning the online battle is almost as important as the fight on the ground. 

In March, Daly and Wallace were among 13 MEPs who voted against a resolution to condemn the Russian invasion. Writing in the Irish Times, they said President Vladimir Putin bore sole responsibility for the invasion, but said they couldn’t back the resolution because it also expressed support for Nato and called for weapons to be sent to Ukraine.  

“Our vote was not against condemning Russian aggression. It was against flooding Ukraine with weapons. It was against a retaliatory spiral of military escalation, endangering all of Europe. It was against cynically exploiting an invasion of Ukraine to advance the interests of the fossil fuel industry during a climate crisis, endangering the whole planet,” they wrote.

Irish Mirror columnist Pat Flanagan was having none of it. 

“These MEPs are an embarrassment to those of us on the left who see Russia under Putin for what it is – a fascist state hellbent on recreating the old Soviet empire,” he wrote. “As well as defending the genocidal monster that is Vladimir Putin, Daly spouted complete nonsense about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

Daly told The New European: “I did not vote against a motion condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I voted for the aspects of that motion which condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and which respected the territorial integrity of Ukraine, those votes are a matter of public record.

“What I did not support was the idea of the EU arming and sanctioning Ukraine and interestingly, given that these are the policies which have been in place since 2014 and have been escalated now and they haven’t succeeded in stopping the war, I think I am totally justified in that.”

Some did agree with Daly’s take and supporters online hailed her for speaking truth to power in her speech last week. 

Although the war in Ukraine appears to have strengthened European unity and given a shot in the arm to the bloc’s sense of collective purpose, there are still divisions and they do not just come from Daly and Wallace, described by the Irish Mirror as the “loony left”.

On the same day that Daly delivered her diatribe last week, Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt argued fiercely in favour of tougher sanctions. He said the current measures were not damaging enough and that tightening the screw progressively was not working. 

“Progressive packages of sanctions, with an autocrat, do not work. That works with a democracy, with democrats who have a public opinion, a real public opinion. In Russia there is no longer a real public opinion,” he said, calling for full sanctions to be placed immediately on the people closest to Putin.

“You need to tackle the 6,000 people around Putin. The real people working with Putin, and we have the list,” he said. “All the rest will not work. All the rest will prolong the war. All the rest will mean more killings on the Ukrainian side.”

There is clearly a debate to be had on sanctions and on the EU’s Ukraine policy in the weeks ahead, but Daly’s rhetoric will have done nothing to advance that valid discussion and neither will her record. Sometimes passion must be tempered with political nous even when you are what The Phoenix described as “an enigmatic and inscrutable politico”. 

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