CEO, Vulcan Consulting and former Minister of European Affairs for Ireland
Lucinda Creighton is a former Irish Minister for European Affairs and former Vice-President of the European People’s Party. In 2013 Creighton was expelled from her party, Fine Gael, following her decision to vote against her party in relation to the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill which legislated for circumstances in which abortion could be legally carried out in Ireland. Creighton subsequently went on to establish a new Irish political party, Renua (the Irish for “new era”), and contested the 2016 General Election as Party Leader. After ultimately being unsuccessful in that General Election, she left politics and established a new public affairs firms, Vulcan Consulting, which advises Irish and international companies.
Interview by Hannah McCarthy
Lucinda, you originally trained as a barrister and then you were elected to Dublin City Council at the young age of 24. Soon after that you were elected to the Dáil (the principal chamber of the Irish parliament) and after the General Election in Ireland in 2011, you were appointed the Irish Minister for European Affairs. From an outsider’s perspective that is a quick ascent. What were your expectations around receiving a ministerial position in 2011 and how did you position yourself for that role?
I had absolutely no expectations of being appointed to a ministerial role for a number of reasons, including the dynamics within my party. I was lucky (there is always an element of luck in politics) but I had also spent my younger years before I was a city councillor and politician involved in European politics. I was involved in the youth branch of the European People’s Party (“EPP”), which was an amazing way to meet more young people who were interested in politics across Europe. At age 27, I was considered young to be elected to the Dáil, but I had a lot of practical experience from travelling to other countries and an understanding of different political environments.
In the Dáil, I was a member of the European Affairs Committee and a member of the European Scrutiny Committee. That was a great training ground and I was fortunate that European affairs was so relevant at that time, as Ireland was going through a European Union (“EU”) bailout programme. Ireland’s reputation across Europe was in poor shape and having somebody who knew the ropes was one of the reasons I was appointed as Minister for European Affairs.
Politicians are generally older and maler than the average member of the public. As a young female minister working at the EU level, what was your experience?
Since the Irish Foreign Minister was also Tánaiste (deputy Prime Minister of Ireland), he was consumed with the financial crisis at home so I was deputised on his behalf to attend meetings at the EU Council and other multilateral bodies. There were probably two female ministers on average at those EU council meetings with 27 foreign ministers, and then 28 when Croatia joined, but I was used to that. The Dáil has low female representation; it has improved slightly which is great, but it is mostly a feature of the current political environment.
During your time as Minister for European Affairs, what would you say were your biggest challenges?
There were three things:
Rebuilding Ireland’s reputation internationally, both within the EU and externally with other third countries around the globe. I spent a huge amount of time travelling and meeting people and explaining the situation in Ireland;
Reducing Ireland’s debt burden. This was an international challenge because it was a decision that had to be taken by our European partners. It was an all-Government effort and I worked very closely with the Taoiseach (the Irish Prime Minister). I attended European Council meetings which were complex and we endured many overnight sessions negotiating the terms and conditions of our bailout arrangement; and
I also ran the Irish Presidency of the EU Council, but the referendum that we had to hold in Ireland on the Fiscal Compact Treaty was really the third challenge. There was hope that a referendum might not be necessary because of the terms of Ireland’s bailout and the deteriorating sentiment towards Europe; there was a real Eurosceptic movement growing. I embraced the referendum and thought it could be a good thing because it would force us to explain why solidarity with our European partners was essential and that the referendum would effectively allow us to set up the European Stabilisation Mechanism (the ESM). We managed to succeed in passing the referendum by a margin of 60:40. Simon Coveny, who is now the Deputy Prime Minister, was the Director of Elections for the referendum and I was his deputy. We ran an effective campaign with all of the stakeholders in Ireland and oppositions parties (well, some of them). It was a big challenge but it allowed us to explain the EU to the public.
As someone who was involved in running a campaign for a complicated EU referendum, what went wrong with the Brexit referendum?
First, the UK establishment cannot spend 40 years basically telling UK citizens that Europe is bad and then reverse that mentality in a matter of three months. That mentality has been perpetuated by the British media and engrained in the British psyche; it will take a long time to be undone, if it can be undone.
Secondly, it was a lacklustre campaign and half the UK Cabinet were equivocal. Many of the ministers opposed Brexit publicly, but the likes of Theresa May sat on the fence and tried to stay out of the discourse; they advocated against Brexit because it was the least worst option, rather than because Britain’s place in the world is amplified by the EU. The campaign was characterised by political cowardice and it was deeply disturbing to watch.
I was in the UK regularly during the campaign with a group called “Irish 4 Europe,” who did a lot of good work trying to engage with the Irish community here in the UK. When David Cameron announced the Brexit referendum, I was sitting in a lounge at the Brussels airport watching his speech and I turned to my colleague and said, “it is just not going to be possible to pass that referendum”.
You also served as the Vice President for the EPP, which is the largest political party in Europe at the EU level. Could you explain how you ended up in that role?
It is vital for Ireland to be part of these alliances at the EU level. For Fine Gael, being part of the EPP has been hugely beneficially. Fine Gael were in opposition in Ireland for many years and they were strategic in their membership of the EPP. While Enda Kenny was leader of the opposition, he spent a lot of time cultivating relationships with people like Angela Merkel and other key players across the EU, which stood to Ireland in the financial crisis and continues to do so today.
I got the highest vote of any of the candidates for Vice-President at the EPP congress and one reason was because I had been so involved in the youth of EPP. I had been Deputy Secretary General of the youth of EPP which meant that I participated in the political bureau of the main EPP. I had a lot of contacts and networks in every EU capital, and I was Minister for European Affairs so I was known from that role too.
The result was that at the EPP Congress, I was not only representing my country as a national candidate, but I was also the candidate supported by the EPP’s youth organisation, which spans over 40 countries.
You then resigned as Minister for European Affairs two years after your appointment due to your decision to vote against your party, Fine Gael, in relation to the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill. Do you have any regrets about the circumstances of that resignation?
I was forced to resign, I did not resign voluntarily. I was expelled from my party for not supporting that legislation and I still believe the decision was heavy-handed and wrong. The interesting thing is that all of the political parties in Ireland now have a free vote on conscience issues. I don’t see myself as having resigned, I see myself as having been forced out most unfairly and after working around the clock for two years for my country. I have no regrets whatsoever. Of course, I would have loved to have continued as minister but I think if you don’t stand for anything in politics there is very little reason for being there.
Is there anything you would have done differently if you knew you would only have two years as Minister for European Affairs?
I’m not sure if it would have been humanly possible to pack anything else in. The Irish presidency completely dominated and we also had the chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) - I did a lot of work in the Balkans with them. We also had the referendum on the fiscal stability treaty and the bailout negotiations.
My priority as we ended the EU Presidency was to develop a white paper on Ireland’s relationship with the EU; we had not really examined the relationship and where we fit in since the 70s. The EU has changed but our approach to is hasn’t really developed. That is what I would have liked to finish. The white paper has not been published since but I am reliably told by a friend in the Oireachtas (the Irish National Parliament) that something is now being considered.
After leaving Fine Gael, you founded your own political party, Renua, and you contested the 2016 General Election under that party’s banner. Ultimately, you weren’t successful in that General Election. What thought-process did you go through in deciding your next move and how did you decide to establish your own public affairs company instead of working for another company or public institution?
Setting up a new party was a big risk as Ireland is a very traditional country in terms of how it approaches politics; two main parties have dominated since the founding of the State. I knew it was going to be a big challenge and I had clearly contemplated losing my seat, but it is always going to be a shock when overnight you lose your job, your income and everything you worked for. I had been in politics since I was 18 and suddenly it was over - that is a pretty existentialist feeling, particularly with a young family.
I quickly started having conversations with people whom I respected, such as John Bruton Ireland’s former Prime Minister, and Mary Harney, Ireland’s former deputy Prime Minister. They made the transition out of politics into other roles and it gave me clarity. I had certainly considered going into an in-house role or a public affairs role - we have no shortage of large multinationals in Ireland - but fairly quickly I realised that it wouldn’t be for me. As a politician, you are your own boss and before that I was a barrister where you are a sole practitioner, so you do your own thing and I quite like that.
I always wanted to be in business, so I tentatively set up a limited company and then I traveled to the Middle East on holiday with my family. The following summer I took on my first client, which was a foreign policy security client, and, frankly, I haven’t looked back and I really love the job I do now.
What is it like working in international and public affairs from the private sector rather than from inside in government?
There is probably nothing that can compare to being a minister, especially if you have a meaty role and it is an interesting period in your country’s history – which is what I had when I was Minister for European Affairs. It is hard to believe that any role will top that, but I really like the dynamic of being in the private sector. Public affairs is about making policy-makers and legislators understand how their legislation and policies will impact business. I didn’t think that process was done very well when I was in government. I often found the lobbying and engagement poor, domestically and at the EU level. What we try to do is not lobby directly but advise firms on what is coming down the tracks, how to anticipate it, how to engage with it and how to frame an argument. It is an interesting and dynamic process. We work across many industries, including with tech companies and financial service firms, mainly because of Brexit which has created a lot of opportunity for us with the banking sector and funds. It is interesting being on the other side since I have always found the regulatory process and the legislative process really interesting.
Do you have advice for young women who want to pursue a career in European affairs?
Get political experience. I have interviewed and hired quite a few people in recent years and I found that my interviewees try to hide their political involvement. I actually don’t care what party you are in, but I like that you have the experience, you are politically motivated, you have bothered to go join a party or youth organisation and get involved. If it is a party that is contrary to my ideological outlook, that’s fine it’s certainly not an obstacle, but having that experience is essential. Trying to work in public affairs without having been part of the political cut and thrust will mean that you will lack a certain understanding and comprehension. It is really helpful to work as an adviser or at least work in a political party and gain that inside experience. You will never gain the same experience from reading newspapers as from being there and part of the dynamic.
And finally, if Theresa May asked you to advise her on Brexit, what would your advice be?
Go into Parliament, throw down the gauntlet and say there is no consensus in Parliament and that you have to return to the People.
This is an edited extract of an interview with Ms Creighton in London.