Northern Irish Greens 2011 – Election Review
Less than a week after the Assembly elections in May, new Green MLA Steven Agnew was standing in the chamber making his maiden speech. Despite the sudden shift from count centre to Assembly floor, this soon gave way to a long summer recess which will end next week.
I’ve already written here about the election and its immediate aftermath, but distance provides me with some clarity of thoughts, far away from the sore feet, nervous energy and simultaneously getting soaked and sunburnt in bizarre Northern Irish weather.
In terms of the campaign’s message, the simple slogan of ‘Good for people, good for the economy, good for the environment’ was a winner in my book. It evokes the central, holistic aim of Green Politics in plain language, without losing the message in translation into the oft-technical speak of sustainable development. It was accessible, user-friendly and emphasised clearly that there’s a missing pillar in Stormont policy-making that can make everyone’s lives better, and is probably best summed up by our best party political broadcast yet.
On one hand, the May results saw the Greens being badly squeezed. From a province-wide vote share of 1.7% in 2007, we shrank back to 0.9% in 2011 (Though it has to be noted that we stood in about half the seats). Places where we had expected to be competitive for Council seats disappointed us. Vote counts in places such as East Belfast – where I confidently predicted that we’d exponentially increase our vote – were underwhelming. Distinguished Green academic and community activist, Dr John Barry, narrowly missed out on a council seat in Holywood by two and a half votes. And this, despite excellent candidates and our first election fought with full-time staff, gives you an idea of how much we were swimming against the tide.
That said, coming out of the election with exactly what we had before – one MLA and three councillors – was no mean feat, and we should be happy that despite an Alliance surge (partly caused by a collapse in the Ulster Unionist vote), we retained what we have. Most crucially of all, it should be noted that all previous elected Greens in Northern Ireland had been popular independents or defectors from other parties.
Thus, this was the first election in Northern Ireland where Greens were elected in their own right – Greens elected as Greens – and the significance of that has been understated. We’ve proved we’re not a flash in the pan. We’re a stronger party now despite a battering and a nail-biting count that saw us crawl to victory in North Down by a mere 99 votes (It’s been pointed out to me since that Alliance’s Stephen Farry had an undistributed surplus of around 40 votes, meaning it could have been even closer).
But in North Down at least, there’s no way it’ll be anywhere near as close next time. The personality of Agnew is quite unlike any other MLA I’ve ever encountered. He has universal rapport. People rush to talk to him, even hug him, at the doorsteps. Young people – and especially those who will come of age by the time of the next Assembly election – seem to especially admire him. I recall notorious radio presenter Stephen Nolan (imagine the doggedness and rudeness of Paxman, minus the sharpness) wandering aloud to a co-host after a robust interview, ‘Is Steven Agnew too nice a guy for politics?’ The benefit of having a well-recognised, articulate leader is obvious. Having our party leader in the Assembly is a benefit we didn’t have before that we can now enjoy.
There’s plenty of issues for the Greens to concentrate on in this Assembly; the ongoing higher education funding debacle, the impending threat of Northern Ireland being turned into a tax haven despite zero evidence that it’ll create a single job, and the ongoing cuts to public services and the challenge of trying to create a sustainable and equal society. We’re still tiny, but punching way above our weight.
The challenge for us now is to build bigger, well-organised local groups in time for the next set of Assembly elections in 2014. There’s many challenges, including the frustrating ‘Alliance reflex’; the tendency of large amounts of people who consider themselves progressive and non-sectarian to vote for Alliance despite not realising that as a party filled with former Tories, with opponents of social housing, with opponents of civil partnerships, and therefore aren’t quite as progressive as they claim. There’s some evidence that this is changing slowly however, and it’s up to the Greens to communicate a real progressive message better to combat this.
My own constituency group in South Belfast – whose membership, once upon a time, numbered just me – has gone from strength to strength and is having its 4-year-plan development plan meeting this week.
The landscape here is changing fairly fast, and I can imagine us being competitive in many more places than we are currently in four years time.