This past weekend members of the Green Party (Comhaontas Glas) voted against a motion for the Party to explicitly rule out future coalition governments with Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, any right-wing party or “any party whose values or policies conflict with those of the Green Party.”
Full disclosure: I’m a member of the Green Party, have been for several years. I was involved in drafting the motion, and I couldn’t be there in person to vote due to a family emergency. This blog does not necessarily reflect the views of anyone else or any other group, and are entirely my own personal views.
It’s funny the things that you forget. I recently had cause to think about my history with environmentalism, and memories of getting a recycling bin long before they were cool (or convenient), and struggling to get a compost bin off of Cork County Council, came flooding back. I remembered that I was on my primary school’s green flag committee, which is a big deal in a few ways. First, it shows that I was always a complete
dork cool dude, and that I really fucking cared about it for some reason, because being on the committee meant giving up your big lunch break, and in primary school that meant missing out on an incredible game of football in the yard. And there wasn’t a whole pile of us there, maybe three students and several teachers, but we were there.
At the same time I was being
a complete loser totally tubular on the the green flag committee in St.Joes, the Green Party was gaining seats in local government around the country. Now, I’d love to say I was an incredibly aware 10 year old, I had no clue any of this was happening, nor would I even know what it meant if I was aware of it happening. Several years later the Party went into a coalition government with Fianna Fáil and the PDs (remember them?), and we all know what happened next…
Oof. Not good.
The 2011 general election lead to a Fine Gael/Labour government that we’re essentially still in, just swap a government partner in Labour for a generally apathetic Fianna Fáil in opposition. In those years, while the Green Party was not part of the fabric of Irish political life, relatively little was done by the FG/LB government or parties in opposition on climate. Even when the party returned two TDs to the Dáil in 2016, a lot of their major attempts at reform were blocked by the government, with a Bill on microbeads being voted down because (among other supposed reasons) other bigger parties had their own bills on the topic in the works. Even now, other opposition parties are having their bills stalled on fairly irrelevant grounds.
It’s generally agreed that we only have a limited window to act on climate change to best limit future catastrophes, and given the evident difficulty in getting work done ‘on the outside’ in the Oireachtas, you would think that the Party may even have almost a moral obligation to go into government, presuming the next general election goes as well as the recent Locals and Europeans did.
I – personally – disagree.
The first thing to weigh up is was the Party’s first term in government worth it, even with the total collapse that followed it. The Party was given several key ministries relating to the environment, including current Party leader Eamon Ryan taking the mantle of Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. Government policy changes were slow coming, with proposals like a ban on incandescent bulbs, the introduction of cycle to work schemes and some carbon tax/tax credit schemes coming in the latter half of life in power. The most notable thing about their term in power (a.k.a. the thing you hear about the most from fellow lefties on Twitter when talking about the voting Green) was the towing of the government line on the Corrib Gas line, despite a party rep holding a relevant ministerial position to (theoretically) do something about it.
(I’m probably glossing over a lot there, but again I was 13 when the Greens joined the coalition with Fianna Fáil & the PDs, so in the interest of brevity here, and saving my eyesight at 6am, I tried to keep things brief.)
Would this happen again, if the Greens went into government as a junior partner tomorrow? Probably not, no. It’s fair to say that the elected reps might be a little less naive, and given both the Party’s past & the ever-advancing spectre of climate change I think it’s also fair to say they would be a bit tougher on red-line issues.
But with a coalition comes compromise, and there really isn’t room to compromise on the environment. If the Greens don’t compromise in some ways then that government, no matter who the coalition is with, will not last very long. And if they do compromise, even if they do get some wins along the way, I think it’s also fair to presume that another collapse is likely; a collapse that the Party just might not come back from. The potential loss of a consistent long term green voice in Ireland, in my opinion, outweighs any substantial gains we as a Party, and we as people, could make in any ministry or cabinet position.
But let’s not be totally dismissive, why don’t we look at the potential suitors. Well, there really are only two you can credibly talk about (unless the Kerry Independent Alliance make the sudden record gains we’re all praying for): Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
Given the somewhat cyclical nature of Irish politics, it’s looking like it’s Fianna Fáil’s turn in the hot seat next (though their somewhat lackluster time in opposition means they aren’t as sure a bet as you’d presume, given the current government’s…well…multiple own goals). Fianna Fáil’s record on the environment…isn’t great, and like Fine Gael they rely on various groups around the country to form their core base vote, people who mightn’t be too happy with the moves on their ‘meaty dinners, cars and roads’ (read: gross oversimplification) a green government might bring. Though a lot can happen in eight-twelve years, political parties can change and the Green Party can’t absolve themselves of any culpability, Fianna Fáil are at least half the reason that the environment basically disappeared from the political agenda for nearly a decade. Their recent, rather laughable, action on things like microbeads – wanting to get the credit for any legislation with their ‘we’re voting this down because we’ve our own bill in the works’ shtick; things like this shows us that they mightn’t be as dedicated to the cause as they might lead on. It’s also worth noting that Fine Gael couldn’t stonewall opposition bills on the environment as easily as they could if Fianna Fáil didn’t essentially prop them up.
Fine Gael, while more outwardly courting the ‘green vote’, as a party clearly just don’t actually care about the environment, kicking issues down the road and putting stock in surface efforts like moving to electric cars and eliminating plastic straws. But don’t take my word for it, as Eamon Ryan himself put it into words much better than I could:
“In one way, you have to admire Fine Gael’s brass neck to run a ‘Green Week’ environmental campaign, given their record in this area. The notion that Fine Gael take environmental issues is absolutely laughable. This campaign is nothing short of greenwashing.”
-Eamon Ryan, 20th August 2018
That, you’d presume, would outright rule Fine Gael out (if the whole homelessness crisis, things like that, didn’t do it for you already).
You can say a lot of things about the Greens (I personally love referring to ourselves as well-meaning Wombles) but for the most part you can’t doubt their conviction, and their passion for their cause. I don’t think it’s fair to say that some of our representatives want to go into government for the much-coveted ministerial pension, or to feel like a big shot. I absolutely believe party members when they say we should go into government because they believe we need to act on climate now, and that to act with conviction we need to be in a position of power. The question I would ask those people to consider is:
Can we get enough done in the short term to achieve necessary long-term goals?
We only have 10 or so years to get this work done, and we likely only have 4-5 years to do it all in government. There’s an incredibly tight window of time to change the world, with an almost guaranteed self-destruction at the end of it. People clearly care about the environment – the ‘green wave’ of this past year shows that, as does other parties putting the environment at the core of their messaging ahead of an inevitable general election, but when it comes to the more difficult side of environmentalism – things like societal changes, things like eating less meat, any form of taxation or taking a small piece of someones garden to put in cycling lanes – the general public aren’t as steadfast as you’d like, and neither will some of the other political parties when the topic isn’t in vogue. If the Greens go into coalition with, for arguments sake, Fianna Fáil, and achieve things at the same pace as they did in 2007, will the incremental gains be worth losing a strong national voice on the environment in the Oireachtas? Will other left-wing parties still be banging the climate change drum if an unpopular measure, say a charge on water use to benefit improving infrastructure, is needed?
I am a bit skeptical of the value of being in government as a minority party, as you might be able to tell, so let’s look at it from another angle: is there anything to be done in opposition?
Clearly the answer is yes. From a cynical point of view, it is so much easier being the proverbial ‘hurler on the ditch’, but that’s not all there is. Fianna Fáil can currently essentially veto an opposition bill despite not being in government, just because they had a similar one in the pipeline.
The Greens themselves are not without success, with Grace O’Sullivan being involved in key legislation through the Seanad’s civil engagement group, and Deputies Catherine Martin and Eamon Ryan successfully getting a climate emergency declared in the Dáil, among other legislative wins over the three years. And, at the time of writing, the party has 57 councillors including reps from both sides of the border, as well as two MEPs. The ‘green wave’ that swept over Ireland was viewed rather obviously as a mark of electoral success, that the Green Party message is one people might vote for, but I think it should be taken as more than that – it’s the sign of the appetite for a large-scale social movement.
Probably the most significant example of what can be done without being in government, the success of the water charge protests of 2014-15 cannot be denied. Sure, parties like Sinn Féin, Solidarity/PBP and the rest of the usual suspects were involved, and a lot of individual members would have played key roles in the campaign, but it is rightfully seen as an example of people power in action. Without the movement it’s not hard to imagine general apathy allowing people to just accept the charges and move on; instead people rallied, went door-to-door and marched through the streets, with a reported 130k people attending an event in Dublin in October 2014.
While the movement has largely cooled by now, just think about it: do you currently pay water charges? Large scale, largely non-partisan societal pressure meant that the movement was successful, legislation followed suit, and thus the movement made itself redundant rather than people just losing interest over time.
The problem when debating the issue is people, largely, think in black and white, yes or no, when a more nuanced answer has clearly presented itself. The question isn’t “should we go into government, get some things done, or should we stay outside, build our base and try again in five years?’ it’s much much more than that.
Ultimately the most responsible decision, both ideologically and morally, seems to me to be to stay the hell away from a government (unless we’re the major party with a million TDs, of course). We owe it to the tireless campaigners in groups like Fridays for Future or Extinction Rebellion to offer a consistent, reliable voice in the Oireachtas, and to work with them as they take to the streets and hold our potential suitors to account.
Regardless of what I think, or what I say here, the decision will be up to members of the Green Party, at the end of the day, to vote for or against it following a general election. But quite like people like Saoirse McHugh, I can see a Green Party in government, but I can’t see myself as a part of that party in government (though I wish them the best).
(Another disclaimer here that the views expressed above are wholly my own, and do not represent the Green Party, any individuals, any groups mentioned or any groups I myself am a part of. If you want to chat about this my email is publicly available at the top of the page)