To be perfectly honest I don't know who the current attorney general of Ireland is and I doubt whether many people in the UK could name him or her either. But that just goes to show how previously obscure politicians can come to have great power, influence and fame in a relatively short time.
Because the Irish attorney general from 1997-1999 was David Byrne. If that name is familiar it is because Byrne became the EU’s director-general for health and consumer protection.
He is, therefore, at the forefront of some of the most controversial issues that are taxing the minds of Europe’s governments and people at the moment. Foot and mouth, BSE and GMOs all fall within Byrne’s remit.
Sometimes it is hard to believe the highly developed countries of the EU are quite so obsessed with agriculture. But one of the founding pillars of the EU was the Common Agricultural Policy.
Designed to increase food production and support the agricultural sector, it still accounts for almost half of the EU’s budget.
But that concentration on agricultural production has been blamed for many of the recent health scares. Byrne’s job is to try to redress the balance for consumers.
If that gives some background to why Byrne is so important it is only the vaguest sketch of how hard his job is.
So far he has concentrated on trying to introduce a European-wide system for ensuring food quality and safety ‘from the farm to the fork’. That is, of course, a reaction to the decades of food safety scandals. But at the same time he has to persuade the food industry that such measures are not going to tie them up in red tape.
That is a difficult balancing act to pull off. If he is not careful Byrne will find himself not only to blame for every piece of over regulation but also the whipping boy every time a new crisis emerges.
But it also makes him one of the most powerful men in Europe.