GETTING MUDDY WITH VIPS was all in a day’s work for Aisling McNiffe (27) and Joe Bishop (24) in their jobs as civil servants during the Irish Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Ireland held the Presidency for 6 months earlier this year. During that time tens of thousands of officials visited Ireland from all over the EU to make EU law, and all co-ordinated by a small team of civil servants in the Department of An Taoiseach.
I caught up with Aisling and Joe over a cup of tea, for a behind-the-scenes view of what it’s been like as young people working in the Department of An Taoiseach. They talk about seeing history being made, the importance of Twitter during the Presidency, and helping Ministers put blue covers on their shoes. And they offer some great advice to young people who might like to get involved in similar work in the future.
So, what’s it been like working behind the scenes?
Joe: It’s exactly what I thought it would be like, it’s very exciting. Not to sound cheesy, but it’s history in front of your eyes a lot of the time. You have to pinch yourself. I was in Strasbourg before President Michael D Higgins addressed the European Parliament. It’s amazing to see that sort of stuff happening, it’s exciting, no two days are the same to be honest.
Aisling: It’s been great and we have a really good team. We have a kind of young group, good craic, we talk to each other if we’re stressed or need support. That’s really nice. But busy, very busy. We do long hours, and we’re not being paid overtime. It really is a labour of love and we love doing it. The day-to-day is really interesting. You’re standing there as huge decisions are being taken, like the Finance Ministers’ meeting in April. There was really good news for Ireland out of that and you’re like, I was there.
Policy and politics are often seen as an older person’s game. What sort of ages are the people you work with?
Joe: I’m probably the youngest person in the department. I’m 24.
Aisling: But of our two teams I’m 27 and that’s around the average. Most people are under 30, and then we’ve a couple of people in their 30s and 40s. A lot of us are temporary, we were recruited last May.
Why should other young people be interested in the work of the Presidency?
Aisling: Because “stability, jobs and growth” is more than just a slogan. During the Presidency, Minister Burton and her European equivalents committed to a Youth Guarantee. So genuinely trying to get, for all young people, either training, or education, or an internship or a job. There’s so much other news out there I think things like that might occasionally get lost.
What do you do here for the Presidency?
Joe: At the start I worked on the Presidency programme with Aisling.
Aisling: It was called “Presidency planning” because we were doing everything, getting ready for the Presidency.
Joe: We made one document which everyone refers to – it’s online, and it’s in all different languages. After Christmas I moved to relations with the European Parliament. My job is to make sure the Minister (for European Affairs) has all the information needed when travelling to Strasbourg.
Aisling: January was really busy for us both, I moved to Presidency Communications since the end of January, so that’s dealing with media enquiries. I lead on Agriculture and Fisheries. We could have 5 or 6 press releases a day, and the French translator has to have enough time to translate it.
What have been your favourite moments during the Presidency?
Aisling: I think RTE news retweeted one of my tweets last week, which was wow. Twitter has been an a really useful tool for us, we’re coming up on 9000 followers and that’s the last 3 Presidencies put together. It cuts down in costs as well, we’re not printing as much. I don’t think I had an account a year ago, where now I do. It’s good what you learn on the job.
I also got to go to a farm with 27 European Ministers and a rake of journalists. It poured rain, the mud was just incredible and everyone was helping each other put these little blue covers on their shoes. It was like a school tour, everyone on the bus together. It was a great opportunity and it was also just great craic to be there.
Joe: When the European Commissioners visited in January I was on the runway as they pulled up in the plane. When they came off there was just a handful of us, and we shook hands, and I got into the bus with all 27 Commissioners and there were only about 28 seats! I had to sit beside Olli Rehn (a Vice-President of the European Commission, and Commissioner for the Euro). It was a moment I’ll never forget.
Aisling: One of the great things I remember was in January, seeing the posters saying “Stability, Jobs and Growth” in the airport. I remember being there when Andrea Pappin said “this is what Labour and Fine Gael have decided what our slogan for the Irish Presidency is going to be”. I remember checking that there weren’t typos in it and there it is in the airport and that’s so cool.
How did you get interested in this type of work?
Joe: I sort of fell into the EU to be honest with you. I studied economics, politics and law and did a Masters in law, but I didn’t have a whole lot of real world experience. I saw on Twitter that there was an internship in European Movement Ireland, got that position, and sort of woke up in a world of everything Europe. Once my internship ended I went to the European Commission, and when I was there I applied for the position here, which I also saw on Twitter.
Aisling: well, I’ve always had an interest in politics. I did a year of English in college but about halfway through changed course. Paying fees kind of focuses your mind, so I wrote around to all the MEPs, who had just been elected. Mairead McGuinness – who lives up the road from me – took me on as a Stagiaire (intern) in her Meath office. I worked for her during the summer, and again at Christmas, and that just opened my eyes. I was working (on EU affairs) in the civil service in Scotland when I saw the job here advertised in the Irish Examiner and applied.
Any advice on how a young person might get a job like yours?
Joe: Don’t be afraid to do internships. If you don’t like them you can rule that out, but I ended up loving it.
Aisling: I wasn’t that aware of opportunities in EU jobs really that much. It’s something I think young people might not realise. You may want to live in Ireland, but 5 months in Brussels, it’s a bit like doing Erasmus it’s actually good fun and you learn lots of things. It definitely helped me. There are a lot of opportunities to work in the European Parliament in Brussels, or Strasbourg, or Commission in Luxembourg or Brussels as well, and also in offices here like Commission and Parliament.
Do you need loads of languages to work in the EU?
Joe: My languages wouldn’t be great. I did French in school and I’ve tried to keep my language up a bit, and I’ve studied it here so it would be passable. But if we’re trying to give advice to younger people I would say generally languages are incredibly important to develop your career further down the line. I wish that was stressed to me.
Aisling: I did French in college, and we were offered to take up another language so I chose Italian. I’ve got using the French a bit with the job. Irish is now recognised as an official EU language as well. I think it’s something that’s often overlooked.
What do you think you’ll do after the Presidency?
Joe: I don’t know, it’s all up in the air, the famous question. Speaking for myself, I’m hoping the experience will stand to me. I’d like to stay on the EU side, maybe move towards communications after this, but EU arena, I’d like to stay there.
Aisling: I’d like to stay in EU affairs of government, I find it interesting. I’m hoping the 15 months here will mean that we will be able to get something!
Joe and Aisling both really enjoyed their jobs during the Presidency, and had many interesting and memorable experiences. Both fell into EU Affairs almost accidentally after school, and say there needs to be better awareness among young people of the EU jobs out there. They recommend keeping up a language, and doing internships as a way to see if you like EU affairs.
If a future working in the EU sounds like it might be your thing, European Movement Ireland keeps an up-to-date list of jobs and internships in the EU on their website. Or, you can sign-up to the Minister for European Affairs’ official jobs mailing list at EUjobs.ie.
This article first published on Spunout.ie, Friday 2nd August.