Somewhere within the confines of this massive glass and steel-clad edifice, Bill Clinton was sharing a few pearls of wisdom as only he can (to my disgust I didn’t spot the 42nd US President).
The lobby of the building, where an open plan radio and TV studio are located sees journalists and lobbyists (obviously!) criss-crossing with legislators, one pursuing an agenda, the other chasing a soundbyte.
Groups of visitors, including senior citizens and schoolkids are taking in the EU experience, led on their way by the many friendly, clued-in officials that frequent this place. Brussels, as befits the policy-making capital of our continent, is one busy place.
Liam Aylward offers a warm handshake, finds a quiet corner and takes a few minutes out between the end of last week’s plenary session and the many meetings which make an MEP’s day a full one.
“It’s always busy out here,” the Hugginstown resident told The Munster Express.
“But that’s the nature of the job. It’s a challenge that I’ve relished since I first came out here five years ago and it’s something I’d love to continue beyond the June election. But obviously that’s up to the voters.”
Speaking ahead of an emergency budget that’s likely to increase public angst with Fianna Fáil, the former Minister for Sport realises that the forthcoming campaign is likely to be tougher than his maiden European run in 2004.
“There’s absolutely no doubt about that,” he said. “The opinion polls will reflect that at the moment and even the private polls are saying that.
“Clearly, any election held while the sitting Government has to make unpopular decisions such as we’re making at home is going to hit their representatives at both local and European level. In fact, it might hit MEPs even more so.”
Why so? “Well, we’re not the local person any more, we’re not the county councillor that people see on a far more regular basis, so therefore it’s all the more difficult.
“Just taking my situation, for example, I’m in Leinster, with 11 counties at the moment [soon to be reduced to nine], so getting up to the Cooley Peninsula and Meath and getting my message around the constituency is not always easy. That’s another of the challenges that this job poses.”
Throughout our interview, Liam Aylward wished to accentuate the positive; something he felt is incumbent upon those public servants in a position to communicate such a message.
“We’ve got to,” he added. “It’s all bad news every day, but it’s up to us to let people know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that there is help available, and Europe will play a very important role in our recovery.
“So here are just a few things that, thanks to what gets agreed to out here, will help a lot of people back home.
“There’s the €1.8 billion coming into agriculture through the Common Agricultural Policy and Rural Development Programme and that’s money upon which Irish farming is surviving at the present time because of the input costs of produce, so those monies are a huge positive.
“On the energy side, we’ve just got word on the interconnector that will be built between Meath and Wales, which is being supported to the tune of €100 million and incorporated into that is our green energy policy, to develop wave and wind power further.
“Our objective should be to export green energy, our gold of the future, through that interconnector, something we are ideally placed to do in Europe.
“The European Investment Bank has just released €300 million for small to medium enterprises through the national banks at home.
“As we know, an awful lot of good businesses, perfectly good businesses, have gone to the wall because the banks have refused to give them money, so we need to deal with that as well.
“And there’s no getting away from the importance of our being a part of the Eurozone. All you’ve got to do is make the comparison with Iceland: where would be without the Eurozone? The fact that interest rates have been reduced again by the European Central Bank is positive news too.”
During an interesting discussion with the regional media and MEPs that day, a colleague said that our politicians in Brussels face an uphill battle when it comes to publicising their efforts with voters back home.
“There’s a huge difficulty and I’ll tell you why,” Mr Aylward began.
“You leave home on a Monday morning and if you’re doing your job properly and you return on a Thursday night or Friday, you get home and before you know it, you’re moreorless just preparing to come back out here again.
“Look, regarding the contact thing, and I should know because I spent 30 years in the Dáil, that level of contact goes when you’re working here, so we depend very much on the organisation.
“I try to get around as much as I possibly can. We organise seminars, we try to connect by newsletters and we try to connect particularly via the local media, and I can’t overstate the importance of newspapers like your own.”
Without as much as a blush, this paper’s representative was only too happy to take the metaphorical pat on the back. It doesn’t happen too often, so you’ve got to take them while you can!
“The local media is, by far, the best opportunity that we have of keeping in touch with people; the national media tend to ignore us moreorless all the time.
“And I say that genuinely, when you take the time to come to seminars like this to cover what is going on out here.”
He continued: “Then you have the constant stream of visitors that come to Brussels from Ireland.
“For example, we had students here yesterday and I had a political group here too and they were amazed at the amount of work we get done out here. We do not get the message back home about the work being done here and that is a fact.”
But this is something which Liam Aylward feels is about to change, due in so small part to President Barack Obama’s style of campaigning.
“The European institutions themselves are now very much aware of this ‘information deficit’, I guess you could call it,” he said.
“For example, in the recent Lisbon Referendum, we discovered that only the broadsheet newspapers were furnished with press releases and information – the red tops were getting absolutely nothing.
“Look, 70 per cent of young people read red tops, so you can see the deficit there straight away and realise that something has to be done about that.”
Senior figures at Commission level recently travelled to the United States to study the online machinery that President Obama’s team embraced during his election campaign.
“You’ve got to move with the times,” added the former Carlow/Kilkenny TD, who was first elected to Leinster House during the Jack Lynch-led Fianna Fáil landslide of 1977.
“It worked for Obama and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work on this side of the Atlantic.
“But within the net itself, you’ve got the blogs and the Facebooks as well so there’s a whole area there to be developed and they’re working seriously on it.
“I have to follow suit. A major part of our electorate are younger than me, and the internet is where they’re going for their information; they’re not reading the daily papers the way we used to, so we must rise to meet that challenge.”
We return to what gets done out here and how it gets done, something his Fianna Fáil colleague Brian Crowley had touched on earlier.
In the absence of chamber heckling, in the absence of a government and opposition, in the absence of the sort of political theatre that journalists love to write about, publicising what gets done is not always easy.
But, in Liam Aylward’s view, the scope to achieve in Brussels and the ability to influence legislation makes the life of a European parliamentarian a most compelling one.
“I honestly believe that your second term here is the ideal time to get things done and I’ll tell you why,” he began.
“Having spent 30 years in the Dáil, I then spent two or three years here before I could honestly say I’d really found my way around in terms of what this job in its totality demands of you.
“European politics is a different animal altogether, this isn’t confrontational like the Dáil, it’s not about government and opposition.
“This is about committee, consensus, getting results at the end of the day, dealing with the Commission, dealing with the Council and it’s only after a while, by networking and so on, that you really get to know the ropes here.”
Example? “Take my sheep report, which I did at committee level and that got unanimous support. That meant I had the support of Greens, liberals, socialists, former communists, extreme right wing – where else would you get that sort of a coalition coming together?
“Thanks to that support, we got that report through the plenary by a huge majority, which was tremendously satisfying for me.
“By talking to people, by including them in the discussion and by that I mean the processor, the producer, the consumer and everyone else in between, you can get things done in a meaningful way.
“After that consultation, you then bring fellow members on board and take their views into consideration as well. And that’s how you get things done, that’s what people are prepared to do here. That’s what makes what we do here enormously relevant to people at home.”
That the election has taken on a distinctively South Kilkenny hue following Senator John Paul Phelan’s selection by Fine Gael to contest the Ireland East (Leinster) plebiscite, it promises to be a fascinating campaign locally.
“I could have done without that now to be honest,” said a grinning Liam Aylward, with tongue firmly in cheek.
“Ah sure, look, we’re neighbours, we know each other well and it’s going to add to the whole thing alright, two of us running from the deep south of the constituency. We’ll run a very clean campaign, of that I have no doubt and I wish him well.”
And with that parochial question done and dusted, we again shook hands and said our goodbyes, with Liam’s phone jingling him towards another appointment.
A busy life, but clearly one he relishes, another five years in Brussels is what Liam Aylward will busy himself with achieving between now and June.
And with over three decades of considerable political experience to draw from, one imagines that the South Kilkenny man and his parliament seat shall not be easily parted.