No Airs, just Grace: MEP Grace O’Sullivan’s meteoric rise as a leading force for activist politics in Europe.

Current Affairs Editor Alana Daly Mulligan talks to MEP Grace O’Sullivan about Food Security, Brexit, the oceans and youth engagement with politics. 

Grace O’Sullivan is somewhat of a local celebrity in Tramore, Co. Waterford. Starting at 21 as an environmentalist with Greenpeace, she’s travelled the world protecting the planet, been deported from Haiti (among other places) for going into underground nuclear test zones, arrested but never charged, survived a French Secret Service attack, as well as reaching the distinguished position of Crew Manager for Greenpeace International in Amsterdam. In the last decade, we’ve seen her rise up the ranks of the hemorrhaging Green Party following the economic crash in 2008, becoming one of the best-known voices in the Seanad, and now, a European Representative to 13 counties of Ireland. She’s also casually Ireland’s First Female Surf Champion, UCC alumnus and a single mother to three daughters: her life is more akin to a superhero backstory than your average person in politics. But she doesn’t flaunt it. She shows me her daughters’ artwork that decorates the house, proudly displays her new lockdown home-tattoo, and tells me that she goes for a swim every morning. “I’m a waterbaby” she declares, and you can understand why. Those from Tramore often have this ocean quality to their being, and it’s in Grace: something calming and methodical about the way she navigates the world, an approach only someone who has weathered many different storms could possibly have.

Photo by Guillaume Périgois on Unsplash

Since becoming an MEP, O’Sullivan has played an important role on a variety of committees in helping bring her eco-eye to European policy decisions. One of the oldest and most influential committees O’Sullivan sits on is the PECH Committee as coordinator of the Green Group. The PECH Committee traditionally concerned itself with fisheries but in recent years, O’Sullivan tells me younger parliamentarians are pushing discourse to expand to ocean health at large. “Fish, if it’s properly managed, in terms of conservation, but also in terms of a brilliant food product, can lead to food security. An island like Ireland, surrounded by 7500km2 of coastline, should have fisheries as a strong component of our economy.” The Committee looks at TACs or Total Allowable Catches, an often controversial aspect of European debates. This system often does not consider the replenishing abilities of fish and could cause decline should the policy of maximum sustainable yield not come into play. Apart from being a large environmental issue, the role of this committee is heavily wrapped up in Brexit relations. 

As coordinator of the Fisheries and Oceans Committee, O’Sullivan has been in conversation with Michel Barnier over the last few months, trying to resolve what is looking to be a skinny deal. “Things aren’t looking good” O’Sullivan tells Motley; “Boris Johnson’s government has a very strong pull to have a crash-out in the end. We have until December 31st and because of COVID it’s really difficult. What Barnier is trying to create is a level playing field so as a result of leaving the EU, Britain doesn’t go off creating its own regulations that will undermine the EU’s and that even in terms of fisheries, they have some waters where Ireland and a number of member states can fish in UK waters, and what we’re trying to come to an agreement with the UK on,  is that the stocks will still be managed sustainably and that also we will all gather data for the international scientific body to consider collectively.”

MEP O’Sullivan also sits on the ENVI committee, which encompasses all things Environment, Public Health, and Food Safety. She’s the coordinator for the Greens working group on biodiversity, so O’Sullivan is at the table when it comes to talking about the impacts of fossil based plastics, public health, everything we consume, breathe, all those conditions that we need to live healthy lives, and then food safety, (like your Bord Bia mark etc.) among other things.

“We have a massive issue with food security and food safety,” O’Sullivan tells Motley, believing that our current globalised food production mentality is no longer fit for purpose, being both economically unsustainable for those farming in the EU, but also environmentally damaging. “Feeding the world is not our job. The first thing we need to do is feed our own people and to feed them well…I think if we’re going to build resilience we should pull back…I think our market should be the single market in Europe, we should not be pulling in food anymore from far off countries, so we’re going to have a big battle on trade, there’s no doubt about it.” 

We continue to discuss this, how Ireland is slowly but surely going more plant-based in the last decade, how that doesn’t reflect the product export given Ireland is the 5th largest beef exporter in the world. The European Green Deal is offered as the solution to our ever-increasing international market’s craving for meat but how this will be effectively enforced is anyone’s guess.  While we are still a country fuelled by agriculture, this isn’t sustainable and we need to make the change to organic living, something which O’Sullivan and I agree on. While the blame often goes on farmers, O’Sullivan feels it is worth remembering their role as “stewards of the land” who are ecologically conscious about the decisions they make for their animals and nature around them. 

O’Sullivan continues that we need to see a sense of accountability as to where our food comes from and a drive to educate people on such. We also need to see an increase in people supporting local producers, shopping local. But there are barriers to this too of course. A cost blockade often deters students from swanning around the English Market and is a huge reality for a lot of people. MEP O’Sullivan agrees with me. “People need to be able to afford it. We need to subsidise to make sure that organics are available to everyone and so it’s not exactly like someone on a high income can go out and buy their very fancy food and good organics and then others are forced to buy a product which comes from much further away at a cheaper price.” Quite simply put, this is a matter of human rights, and one that the EU must prioritise so as not to fall into the same patterns as the United States. 

While we discussed a wide range of topics, ranging from the Palestine Conflict (O’Sullivan is on the Delegation for relations with Palestine) to sexism in politics, and the current floundering of the Green Party as they continue to navigate their first few months in the coalition government, I was curious about students, and how we fit into ever-evolving Green politics? How can we vote Green when the party leader falls asleep? The soft-capitalist euphoria we loved and cherished nine months ago has withered. 

O’Sullivan’s response is one I’ve heard often from Greens over the past few months: compromises will be made and people might not like them. “we’re in it for the long run, we recognise that we can’t be, we’re not going to be, perfect and we will be compromising…I think the mistake some people make, and not just Young Greens, is that they come in and become a member of the party, it’s grassroots, it’s bottom-up, and the fights start happening…I think when people realise that the fighting won’t achieve a lot, collaboration and discussion will achieve a load.” 

But why are young people struggling to come to terms with the slowness of progression? O’Sullivan offers an answer; “Ireland is coming of age. Because of my experience I’m really excited and I welcome it and I love the engagement with younger people, but I think some people are just struggling with it. So it’s like an identity crisis in a way. I think the government should be doing more in terms of supporting and helping to ease that tension.”

Our three-hour chat was informative, fun and inspired hope in me that there is someone in Europe looking out for the future, looking out for young people. Through it all, O’Sullivan was unassuming about my knowledge, patient, and willing to explain the European system, which is what we need when it often feels like politics are designed to be confusing. There were no airs or graces, just quite simply talking change with a changemaker, the way it should be.