MARY HONEYBALL: international woman of mystery

BY KATIE DAVIES MARY Honeyball MEP is a bit of a mystery. On the one hand, there s the politician who claimed Camden as her constituency in 2000 but isn t known to anyone locally – an elusive figure who has been to-ing and fro-ing from Bloomsbury to Brussels for eight ye

MARY Honeyball MEP is a bit of a mystery. On the one hand, there's the politician who claimed Camden as her constituency in 2000 but isn't known to anyone locally - an elusive figure who has been to-ing and fro-ing from Bloomsbury to Brussels for eight years and collecting a pay cheque of £60,000 a year.

Then there's the outspoken radical who very publicly attacked religion's encroachment into politics last month, prompting a fury of opposition that culminated in the resignation of a Catholic member of Young Labour.

Meeting her in the Eurocrat hangout of the Commonwealth Club on the Embankment, I'm expecting a terrifying cross-breed. Something like an old Labour firebrand barking orders at downtrodden teenage waiters and a political layabout smoking cigars and counting the clock until the weekend - an aesthetically terrifying mix of Derek Conway and Clare Short.

But the woman I do meet adds another level of perplexity. With a nervous smile and floral shirt, she looks more like a primary school teacher or a social worker than someone laughing their way to the bank or getting ready to lead the republican revolution.

In the Ham&High last month, we asked local people if they had heard of her. No-one had, and despite us poking fun at her she is polite about the situation.

"I'm not the only MEP who isn't really well-known, so I didn't find it shocking that people in Hampstead and Highgate didn't know who I was," she smiles, like a kindly relative dismissing your apologies for forgetting her birthday.

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She also seems to be doing some work. An average week involves: "Monday to Thursday committees as well as meetings, conferences and lots of lobbying."

Her recent casework involved supporting the family of Meredith Kercher, the 21-year-old brutally killed while studying in Italy.

She has also been raising funds to combat domestic violence - a crime for which Gospel Oak tops the European-wide list - and cutting mobile phone charges for dialling abroad.

But obviously something is going wrong. Why does no-one in this area know who she is? And more widely, as she herself laments, why do people across the UK have so little interest in the EU compared with other member states?

"We've found the lack of press an issue, but also the bad press," she says. "I don't think I'm taken as seriously as an MP. Some of the broadsheets do have European correspondents but we are not seen as mainstream and the European Parliament is seen as remote.

"I wouldn't want to criticise my colleagues in Westminster too much either, but sometimes they do blame Europe when things go wrong."

MEPs can criticise the negative press, Westminster passing the buck and the geographical distance across the channel, but I ask Ms Honeyball why she isn't shouting about the EU's work from the rooftops, making herself heard above those with an anti-EU agenda?

Her answer sounds dangerously complacent, perhaps a passing of the buck herself: "Somebody I think needs to get a grip on publicising the EU, but because we are party political we would never see it as our role.

"The way the EU works is also not designed to be promoted. It's a huge organisation promoting consensus among 27 countries, which it does enormously well - communicating that back to people isn't easy."

When politicians complain about the lack of voter turnout - the so-called 'democratic deficit' of the EU - they show they do care. But evidently not enough to do something about it.

For an institution that had only 24 per cent voter turnout in the UK in 1999 and hasn't climbed above 40 per cent since, and which is facing a sceptical Conservative government from 2010, you'd think it was in the interests of the payroll to try to win over the people paying for it.

Add to that the definitive 'no' to the Lisbon Treaty from the Irish and you'd think that winning over the British Isles - the 'thorn in Europe's side' - would be high on the agenda for the Union as a whole.

In Ms Honeyball's case, this passive approach is actually engrained through all her political views.

Camden Labour suffered a horrendous defeat in 2006 after more than 35 years in power, but she says: "I still think Labour in Camden is just fine."

Gordon Brown is on one of the most catastrophic falls from power in British history but for Ms Honeyball we should not "jump to too many conclusions yet" because "none of us has a crystal ball."

And finally Boris Johnson's acquisition of the London mayoralty all boils down to the fact that "Ken was a victim of his own success."

It would be easy to draw the conclusion that this is the posturing of a hopeless optimist but it invites the suggestion that, as many now say of Labour as a whole, she has actually lost sight of the political conviction which got her fighting for the party in the first place.

Asked why she became a politician, she seems stumped: "It was a really long time ago. I got involved as a student, as so many people do, and I just kept doing it really."

And on Europe: "I've always been pro-Europe, as it were, and interested in what goes on there, so I followed my interest really."

There was no sitting on the fence, however, in her controversial attack on Catholicism. On the Guardian website she tore into the religion's "vice-like grip" on mainland Europe and questioned the morals of mixing the work of government with religious belief. Today, she is similarly opinionated.

"I didn't think it was an extraordinary thing to say," she shrugs. "I'm a little bit biased on embryology - I believe it saves lives and I think it's an odd kind of morality to deny that. And I do feel strongly against faith schools, I don't think it's the way to deal with communities.

"If people want to do religion, do it after school or on weekends. That's where it should be - not in state-funded education."

As controversial as Mary Honeyball's views on Catholicism may be, what is more shocking is the sudden spark of life it momentarily inspires within a very pleasant, but mostly passive politician.

It leaves me pretty much back at square one. Even after an hour in her company, like most people in Hampstead and Highgate, I have no idea who Mary Honeyball really is.