Irish Greens battle for the heart of the party and its politics
Ireland’s Green Party members are voting this week on an ambitious Programme for Government in coalition with two established parties. After a passionate Special Convention, Bright Green spoke to four young, rising members and others, for their view on a defining moment.
Ireland’s 2020 general election, like so many before it, was supposed to be the “climate election”. By the time February’s votes were counted, the Green Party finished with just 7%. But this was no damp squib. The issues and crises of housing and health that dominated instead saw a once-ostracized Sinn Fein shoot to the top of the polls, upending the centre-right duopoly of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil (FFFG) that had defined Irish politics since the state’s inception.
Upending, but not ending: in the months since, negotiations for government have seen these two ‘Civil War parties’ stay true to solemn vows not to entertain coalition with Sinn Fein, to steer clear of what was, as Fintan O’Toole described it, that “territory previously marked ‘here be dragons’”. Instead it was the Greens who were invited to the top table. Now just 2,600 members of the party – including 200 in Northern Ireland – are faced with a choice: to enter government or not.
Party rules require two thirds of members to endorse the deal, with ballots to be returned and revealed this Friday. The result will not only determine Ireland’s trajectory out of multiple crises and a severe recession. As I spoke to activists, councillors and TD candidates, I learned of an impressively democratic but often bitter lockdown battle for the heart of the party, and for the future of green politics on the island. Behind their decisions lie more than the trite distinctions drawn by many observers, from jaded projections of sell-outs and shills to the Irish commentariat’s insistence that Greens simply “roll up their sleeves” and get going with government. The small and familial group is clearly under personal strain. But more importantly, Ireland will take one of two very different views of its Green Party, and the politics it claims to represent, after this week – and, quite possibly, after this government.
In members’ hands is a draft coalition deal described as “the most progressive programme for government from a climate point of view that we’ve seen,” by IPCC scientist John Sweeney. The yes vote has been backed in similar terms by a slew of social and environmental NGOs, European Greens and climate campaigners such as Phillipe Lamberts, Bill McKibben and, in a sign of just how concerted the media campaign has become in recent days, Mark Ruffalo. Its headline climate action appeal centres on a commitment to reduce carbon emissions by an annual average of 7% over the next decade – an only marginally watered down version of the party’s UNFCCC-informed red line upon entering negotiations. Oil and gas extraction will be ended, and fracked gas imports banned. There will be a 2:1 split of the transport budget in favour of public transport, plus €360m a year for walking and cycling (proportionally more than the Green Party of England and Wales’ own 2019 manifesto). Direct Provision – a system pilloried for the isolated, transient and often pitiful sustenance it offers for profit to Ireland’s asylum seekers – will be abolished.
And yet a string of rejections have put its assent among the membership in doubt. At an online Special Convention held on Thursday, members, one-by-one, from the top to the bottom of the party, made their case in two-minute Zoom slots. Most accepted the deal as the best on offer from FFFG, and were able to count off its achievements, but even as they did there were many who could not stretch.
“We might miss the boat here,” argued the party’s finance spokesperson, Dublin Central TD (MP) and a member of the negotiating team, Neasa Hourigan, during a pivotal speech. “But this boat might be the Titanic – and people might drown.” Two more of the 12 TDs, including the spokespeople for housing and children, have joined Hourigan in opposing the Programme for Government, as has chairperson, Hazel Chu; two thirds of its youth wing; the leader and most elected representatives in the North; and some of the party’s most impressive young, rural candidates.
On the critical election issues of housing and health, the Programme for Government falls unarguably short. Indeed Hourigan concluded, “I think this document will make homelessness worse,” pointing to the failure to secure new social housing and rent controls, and what might instead be “the most fiscally conservative government in a generation”. For rural Ireland in particular, there are fears the agreed ratcheting carbon tax without a clear method of distributing the dividend will hit pockets long before low-carbon alternatives are in place, dragging the party’s already tenuous level of respect in rural areas further downwards. Even on potential emissions reductions, many have pointed to the already-in-motion plans to roll out retrofitting, heat pumps and renewable energy that the Programme for Government has claimed as its own. And even the FFFG tweak to an average 7% annual emissions reduction commitment over the decade (which if itself would only meet the IPCC’s global emissions reduction demands, and thus take little account of Ireland’s role international climate justice) permits significant breathing space for the can to be kicked, once again, down the road.
Such shortcomings leave open the door for a simplistic division along principles vs pragmatism lines: a poxy compromise to one side, a hard-headed necessity to the other. But the first two members I spoke to – both young and on the left of the party, and coming down on different sides of the coalition question – rejected that framing.
Michael Pidgeon is a trade unionist who leads the Greens on Dublin City Council. He spoke of quite immediate moral and ideological drivers to enter government:
I’ve been to Yarl’s Wood, I’ve seen the detention centres there. We’ve something similar to that [in Direct Provision] – a bit less extreme, but similar. And this would just end that. A bigger thing for me is the regularising of undocumented migrants … Walking away to me now means that 20,000 undocumented migrants won’t get regularised status, because we were the only ones who brought that to the table. And if I don’t have an immediate prospect to get them out of that situation, then yea, I have to act now.
“In a world that has gone very fashy,” Pidgeon argues, these are critical progressive steps. There is an important contrast here between the Irish Greens and their counterparts in Austria, whose deal with Sebastian Kurz’s ÖVP not only legitimised continued Islamophobic overtures to the country’s ascendant far-right, but explicitly implicates green politics in the process, with its shared commitment to “protect both climate and the borders”. In Ireland, migrants’ associations and charities have supported the deal.
Saoirse McHugh was the Green Party’s TD candidate for Mayo in 2020 and has been one of the most vocal opponents to the coalition. She sees such framings as neglecting the ideological baggage carried into the deal by its supporters. Similarly, “you can argue that this is strategic on both sides – and you’d be right on both sides.” Informing that strategy is a question of trust:
It’s whether we trust Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil going forward, considering how desperate finances are going to be, how vague a lot of the language is … The way I would look at it strategically is: if we go in while homelessness continues to worsen, while disability services continue to worsen, while mental health services continue to worsen, while the state of agriculture continues to get worse … then we will really entrench the idea in people’s minds that environmental action makes people’s lives worse. And it will remove any appetite that has developed over the last few years for environmental action. Environmental action is not just one or two or ten policies. It’ll be how we live our lives going forward
John Barry, a former co-chair of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, during which time he pushed the party towards its current all-island format that allows 200 northern members a potentially pivotal vote, goes further:
I see this as Leo-Liberalism. We are walking into an unjust transition. Fine Gael are, to their DNA, fiscal hawks … My big fear is that this will set back the necessary green transformation by years … which would see ordinary people being reassured in their view that Greens are simply middle class, educated moralisers that are willing to heap the pain on them, and not tackle corporations.
Tate Donnelly was the youngest TD candidate in the country at the 2020 election, for the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, and sits on the party’s national executive. Together with Saoirse McHugh and two other rural TD candidates he has written an open letter objection to the deal, and particularly to its use of the ‘Green New Deal’ moniker:
What drove me to get into politics was to change our economic outlook … The deficit reduction strategy [included in the Programme for Government] is from the Fine Gael handbook of economics … This doesn’t add up. That’s why there’s a lot of fluffy language there.
The likes of [the carbon tax] would have a serious negative impact on my family, my community, who want to take climate change seriously, and who I promised that the climate action I put forward wouldn’t put people into poverty and wouldn’t increase inequality.
If I’m honest, I can’t believe that we’re considering this. And I think it is driven by an idea that we have no alternative.
Tara Connolly, a long-standing party activist and energy campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, joined my call with Tate Donnelly, and put the case for the coalition as a good deal in a challenging political landscape.
I get more radical in my career and as a campaigner the older I get. I have no time for NGOs compromising on their language or being soft about anything. The NGO I work for now is one of the strongest on social justice, on climate justice. At the same time, a choice is a choice between two things. If you don’t choose one thing you’re choosing another. We can compare this to what we have in our manifesto, and it will come up short every time. But if we don’t go for this then we’re going for something else.
I would agree with Tate that this is not what we wanted, but the polling that the Greens got in the election was 7%. I know the narrative came out that the Irish people voted for change, but a lot of them didn’t! A lot of them voted for the same old parties that Tate and I have had to suffer through for the last however many years. This was the first time that they polled under 50% combined, but that’s not the earthquake that we needed.
Pidgeon was similarly circumspect about the options on offer:
Using the power of the state, which we’ve won through an electoral or democratic system, is the purpose, I think, of a political party. So the question of trust is important, but for me it’s more about: do we have power in this situation? Are we willing to use it? And what are the priorities we’re using it with? And that’s why I’m supporting it – not uncritically, and not with heart-eye emojis.
It’s a painful reminder of the position the UK’s green left also finds itself in in 2020: very little to show for from moment after moment of extreme optimism. It would take some chutzpah to deny outright the opportunity of even a tenth of the Corbyn (or Lucas) manifestos of 2019 and the future openings such policies might create – not to mention the livelihoods they would protect. And deny in the name of what? Those opposed to the coalition have been asked to at least accept the responsibility to sketch a realistic path to a better position for green politics and Ireland in five or ten years’ time.
So what are those alternatives? In the case of a No vote, Greens are faced with losing credibility and, crucially, vote transfers, among voters aligned with the pro-coalition stance of the majority of its members. But McHugh points to another pool of voters the party is yet to break into:
I think the Green Party is at a crossroads. We have up to now had TDs from wealthy areas, with no rural TDs … As opposed to resigning ourselves to only ever having those TDs in – and I hate to use the language of the enemy – but in these leafy suburbs, I think we do have an option. Who are we going to stand with and who are we going to stand for?
Few however are willing to express any degree of confidence about the more immediate electoral alternatives on offer. In the background Fine Gael and Leo Varadkar are beneficiaries of a COVID-19 bounce remarkable enough to make a second election a fraught and dangerous prospect.
Sinn Fein are riding high too but, speaking of heart-eye emojis, there should be none for Sinn Fein’s climate policies. They scored dreadfully in a pre-election rating, a long way off those of both People Before Profit and the Greens. Despite €6 billion of roadbuilding included in the Programme for Government, Sinn Fein TDs have decried a delay to a new motorway between Limerick and Cork (which they say would “radically alter the region, making it more attractive to foreign direct investment”). But it is undeniable their justice orientation and transformative potential brings them streets ahead of FFFG. And though the numbers are somewhere between wafer thin and impossible, a second election might not even be necessary. This week Sinn Fein again reiterated that if the Programme for Government is “rejected by the [FFFG and Green] membership, we’ll be lifting the phone first and foremost to the parties that have a change mandate”, including the Greens.
Lying underneath these complex assessments of what is electorally achievable are often more implicit judgements about what is politically possible. The understanding of climate politics of all those I spoke to was an expanded one not only in policy terms (far beyond the emissions reduction politics of older members in the upper echelons) but also strategically: to organising, activism and movements. However, one of the most powerful dividing lines between those for and against the coalition seemed to be how much stock they placed in movements and their future success.
Pidgeon, for example, said he had joined the Labour Party while living in London during Corbyn’s ascendance. “But it just didn’t improve things, in and of itself. I wish it did, and I felt the rush for it. It was a great movement, but I’m not sure the Corbyn years improved things for people.”
In one of the instances where a genuine parallel does exist between British and Irish politics in recent years, the generational divide is stark: FFFG earnt a combined vote share of less than 30% among the youngest voters in 2020, compared to 60% of over 65s. Sinn Fein were the main beneficiaries among young voters, the Green Party to a lesser degree. There is no question that there was a radical youth-led movement in Ireland. There does not yet seem to be a coherent or confident political strategy among the Irish Green Party’s left to tap into and build this momentum, certainly not enough to convince its policy heads and electoral operators of a viable alternative to the here and now. At the same time, those supposedly wily operators do not appear to have invested much time into thinking how their predilections for the immediate and the achievable are perhaps a quite significant part of the obstacle, and in turn significant contributors to their very own pessimism.
The Greens find themselves backed in a corner, in part of course due to an extraordinary enthusiasm for government among leading figures like Eamon Ryan that is simply not shared by a substantial minority of members and voters. And so there are no easy options. But among the former, dominant group, the extent to which a No vote is understood as both a capitulation and a risk implies political projects limited to party projects, a streak – even among the party’s left – of technocratic ‘Greenism’ which sits uneasily alongside the political occasion to which Ireland’s Greens are being asked to rise.
For those voting against, their future in the party is uncertain. McHugh’s conclusion is not positive.
I think if we go into government a lot of the membership will leave. I think a lot of younger members won’t campaign for TDs in the future. Because it’s not just this abstract “Oh the poor people who will never have secure housing”… For a lot of us in the party, we will never have secure housing. We will never have pensioned jobs. We might never have kids because of financial instability, because of the climate.
Donnelly too spoke of friends and fellow activists – many he encouraged in their initial pursuit – who were now disaffected and irreproachably angry about the Greens’ engagement with FFFG:
Maybe I’m getting it quite hard because I was the youngest candidate. Maybe that’s the case, that they feel they can direct it towards me. But climate change, climate action, isn’t just about legislation. It’s about people as well … Friday will be a very difficult day if we do go in.
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