By Trevor Quinn
Mayo MEP Maria Walsh has not ruled out a run for the Dáil but says she is currently fully focused on the European Parliament.
The Mayo woman cites “getting mental health on the agenda” of the EU and European Commission as her greatest achievement, but the slow progress.
“If we pass something in Europe tomorrow it would take it three to five years to get it transposed at national level.”
Ms Walsh accepted there have been notable accommodation shortages for Ukraine refugees in Ireland in recent weeks amid renewed calls for people to pledge accommodation.
“Our ending of direct provision seems to be further away than I would like or anticipate but that’s where the likes of myself in the European Parliament need to find solutions.
There is no unwavering support towards Ukrainian communities, it’s just simply how long can we go to keep Ukrainians as safe as possible while also facing the cost of living, energy crisis.
“We should have seen accommodation shortages coming long before last week.
“I personally know many families who have contacted the Irish Red Cross to have Ukrainians supported in their homes, and they’re either slow being processed or haven’t come out and visited and they are on the delay list. That’s not good enough in wartime.”
Ms Walsh came to national prominence as the Rose of Tralee winner in 2014 and there was generally a warm response when she revealed she was the first gay woman to win the pageant.
The Boston-born politician moved with her family to Shrule in 1994 and graduated from Griffith College Dublin with a B.A. in Journalism and Visual Media in 2009.
She initially embarked on a career in television production and creative management.
Ms Walsh has been a vocal mental health campaigner in Europe since her election in 2019 and she also champions pay transparency and women’s rights.
She led a historic debate on World Mental Health Day on October 18 last and addressed European Commissioner for Health, Stella Kyriakides, and her parliamentary colleagues.
Ms Walsh insisted the Covid-19 pandemic was the perfect catalyst to make leaders understand mental health is a serious issue.
“It was – and it still has – a very negative legacy of Ireland, there’s a taboo and a stigma attached and when you look at the numbers over the last five years, 2,066 people have died by suicide and they are just the people we know of.
“In Shrule over the past 20 years, we’ve had well over 20 people who have died by suicide.
“That’s a serious problem. If it was cancer and it was a hotspot that would have been investigated a long time ago and I think we’ll have to [put more investment in], I don’t think we’ll have a choice.”
Ms Walsh campaigned strongly for 2023 to be a designated EU mental health year, but was left disappointed when a decision was made for it to be the EU skills and training year.
She is now pushing for a mental health element to be included next year with a determination to persevere and keep pushing for a designated 12-month 2024 period.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen recently announced during her State of the European Union (SOTEU) speech that a new EU-wide strategy on mental health will be presented next year.
“Selfishly, of course, I wanted an EU year dedicated to mental health,” Ms Walsh said.
“But the fact then that she also included a citizens initiative dedicated to mental health, which is really promising and the first time we’ve had someone in that position talk about mental health.
“And while it was only 60 seconds [during von der Leyen’s speech] it’s still a big 60 seconds for someone like myself and the communities I work with to say, ‘Right well at least it’s on the radar’.
Ms Walsh explained that in an ordinary week she leaves Shrule at 2am on Monday to fly to Brussels and tries to return late on Wednesday night.
She visits between one and three schools every week in the region and answers questions from kids as young as five or six, which can be as random as ‘Will Mayo ever win the All Ireland?’.
“They don’t see skin colour or creed, which is amazing.
“I often question when do we lose that fearlessness or curiosity but as adults we somehow do so visiting schools allows me to keep a little more grounded too.”
Ms Walsh also engages with a multitude of organisations and last week met with the Galway Rape Crisis Centre, which had 4,000 appointments so far this year and works with children as young as 12.
The 35-year-old is the Vice-President of the European Parliament’s LGBTI Intergroup, and she agrees with Ballinrobe native Rory O’Neill, aka ‘Panti’, who recently said there has been an increase in prejudice against the gay community.
During the summer, the Tertulia bookshop in Westport was targeted by objectors to a drag queen storytelling event and there was a counter-protest. Ms Walsh also referred to the shooting of two gay men execution-style in Bratislava two weeks ago.
“Absolutely, there’s been an increase [in prejudice].
“We debated that in the parliament, and it was one of the most heartbreaking debates because you had people on the extreme left and the extreme right.”