Kathy Sinnott is quite famous in Bulgaria, she recently informed The Munster Express.
“Half the people there love me and let’s just say that the other half doesn’t quite feel the same way,” said the Cork-based independent MEP.
As vice-president of the European Parliament’s Intergroup on Disability, Ms Sinnott is fighting the good fight for children half a continent away the way she did at home for her son Jamie.
“A Bulgarian television presenter told me that my work on the de-institutionalising of children with disabilities in Bulgaria has left opinion on me there firmly divided.
“But it only serves to illustrate that I, as an independent MEP from Munster, can help to make positive changes to the lives of the young, the disadvantaged and the voiceless.”
Her position as Member of European Parliament is clearly one that Kathy Sinnott relishes. During our half-hour conversation, she strikes a consistently positive note, a chord that ought to resonate well with voters during these troubled times.
As a winner of almost 90,000 first preference votes in her first European election in 2004, she feels her work as an MEP in the interim gives her a more than decent chance of a return to Brussels.
“It’s been a great experience,” she said, reflecting on her time as a parliamentarian.
“Meeting so many different people from so many different walks of life all over Munster, be it at meetings, when they’re shopping, etc has been a wonderful experience for me and it’s something I’d love to do for the next five years. But that of course is up to voters.
“I’m trying to finish off some things in Brussels which I’d like to have cleared up before the election but there’s so much more that needs to be done and that I’d like to do beyond June. I love my job, I love the challenges it presents every day and it’s something I’d love to keep doing.”
The ’09 election promises to be a fascinating battle. Brian Crowley seeks to top the poll yet again, while Colm Burke hopes to retain the seat originally won by Simon Coveney.
With Senator Alan Kelly’s election team confident that the Nenagh-based Labour candidate is making the desired impact around the province, the poll is shaping into an intriguingly competitive contest. It’s one Kathy Sinnott is looking forward to.
“I think it’s going to be a very different campaign than 2004,” she said.
“The last time out, I was firmly below the radar as far as most of the media was concerned.
“This time around, I’m coming at it as an incumbent and the scenario is a pretty straightforward one as far as I’m concerned: if the people don’t vote for you, then you shouldn’t be an MEP. But if you’ve done the work you committed to doing as an MEP, then that will be reflected in the vote.”
She doesn’t see the fact that all three sitting MEPs live within a 14-mile radius of each other as posing a problem for her.
“I don’t feel like I’m an MEP from Cork as such, I’m an MEP for all five counties and I still feel very protective of Clare, even though it’s no longer a part of the constituency,” she said.
“I’m very protective of all five counties and feel that since I was elected, I’ve provided an equal voice and spoken with the same passion on the issues made known to me throughout Munster.”
Minus party political apparatus, Ms Sinnott believes the support being relayed to her between Waterford and Waterville should stand her in good stead come the June election.
“I’ve received phenomenal support over the past five years and I’m very grateful for that,” she began.
“But I have to say that the level of phone calls, emails and messages of support I’ve received in recent weeks, as the election draws closer, has genuinely taken me aback.
“A lot of people feel very strongly about getting me back to Brussels. Now as an independent candidate, without the support mechanism that being in a party provides, this sort of support is hugely encouraging.
“To have so many people from all parts of the constituency coming out and making themselves known to me has been wonderful.
“They see my seat as their seat in Brussels so I’ll be doing all I can to keep their seat for them. That I’ll have so many helping me to achieve that aim gives me great confidence ahead of the serious campaigning.”
Keeping communication links open between Brussels (Strasbourg too) and home is a vital component of an MEP’s work, indispensable, in fact.
So too is finding time for one’s self – striving for that ‘work/life balance’ we’ve heard so much about these past few years. So how does Kathy Sinnott fare in both of these aforementioned respects?
“Between my work in Brussels and my constituency work, I feel that I have made a big effort to keep in touch with people. It’s an essential element of my job. And the nature and demands of the job means taking time out isn’t easy.
“To be honest, I’ve been working flat out for five years. There hasn’t really been a break, despite me being a great believer on downtime. Being an MEP really is a 24/7 existence.
“But in an attempt to find some balance I tell the kids ‘wouldn’t it be nice to go to Castletownbere’ or ‘how about a drive to Dungarvan’ so not only do I get some work in, but I also get to see many of the wonderful places across Munster with my family. It’s a tough balancing act but I think I’ve managed it pretty well so far.”
She describes herself as a passionate advocate of the rights of people with disabilities, a defender of workers’ rights and, during her time in parliament, has regularly spoken on behalf of Waterford fishermen.
“There are issues I am attached to now which I couldn’t have envisaged upon my election,” she added. “And fisheries is one of those.
“But I feel that my commitment to those issues, ones I now consider myself passionate about, have left me with a record I can be proud of. And I feel that this will be remembered by voters in June.”
The economy and sustaining existing employment will be the big issues on the doorsteps of voters, she feels.
“When you think about Waterford and Munster in general, when you think about Waterford Crystal, Dell and so many other companies and the problems they’re experiencing, people are deeply concerned about the future.
“That’s what occupying people’s minds right now and it’s a frightening reality that many, now out of work, are having to face up to.”
And what else? “The cuts being implemented by the Government have angered many, including, for example, the closure of Saint Bridget’s Ward at Saint Patrick’s Hospital in Waterford.
“There are so many other issues, including the reduction of Special Needs Assistants in primary schools – we don’t want to see essential services being cut.”
Talk of better times is difficult for some to countenance currently, but looking forward is what is now required in this post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, according to Kathy Sinnott.
“I am a great believer in people and the ability of people,” she said. “And that’s why I believe we should be capitalising people rather than the banks.
“The decisions made in the past few weeks suggest that we’re forgetting people at the expense of the banking system which, to me, is misguided.”
She continued: “Take cockle fishing in Dungarvan as an example – this trade has been closed to fishers for four years now. If you re-open this business, you’re bound to provide work which will serve to benefit 20 to 30 households. It’s a win-win situation.
“I have always had a people first agenda and as an MEP I want to offer what guidance and advice I can to the Government to help better the situations of as many people as possible.”
As a member of eight separate committees in Brussels (“the most of any Irish MEP, I am told”), Ms Sinnott feels she is appropriately positioned to bring about positive change.
“And by being involved in these committees and by getting an interest group off the ground the way I did, you can achieve real accomplishments and that’s incredibly rewarding. And of course there is so much more that needs to be done.”
The pursuit of a disability directive is one which she is committed to pursuing if re-elected to office.
“It is clear that there is a strong level of feeling across Ireland and Europe when it comes to the rights of the disabled,” she said.
“Race and gender directives which have been created have brought about good changes in law and we now need these same measures in place for people with disabilities…
“I’ve always felt a great affinity when it comes to helping children with disabilities. Maybe it comes with being a woman and a mother, but it’s a significant part of what makes me the representative that I am.
“I recently spoke to a disability group in Tullamore and the reaction I received was incredible, all the more so when you consider that it’s not even in my constituency.
“So many people came up to me and said they would ask their friends living ‘across the border’ so to speak to vote for me as they saw me as someone who would speak in Europe on behalf of their children, which was enormously gratifying.”
Our conversation concludes with an impromptu mission statement by the South MEP, who clearly relishes the challenge that lies ahead.
“I’ve given this job my best shot for five years and I think people will look at my record and make an informed judgement when it comes to voting. And I hope that will mean good news for me.”