With forthcoming elections in both parts of the island of Ireland in early 2011 (Assembly and local elections in Northern Ireland in May and a general election in the republic of Ireland, probably in March) it is timely to look ahead at what and where next for the Greens in NI. The author, John Barry, is a former co-chair of the Green Party in Northern Ireland (2003-2009) and has been selected to stand in the local elections in 2011 in Holywood, North Down.

It seems to me (and I write this in a completely personal capacity) that there are 4 issues which will figure large for the Green Party here in NI.

Photograph courtesy of The Green Party/Comhaontas Glas

Establishing itself as a permanent political force within NI politics

The coming local and regional Assembly elections in May 2011, will be a real test for the party. It will establish whether the breakthrough of getting one MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) elected in 2007 (Brian Wilson in North Down) can be built upon and a green presence in the Assembly and local government be maintained. Brian Wilson will not be standing again and the party has wisely decided to put its limited resources behind the candidate chosen to replace him (Steven Agnew, European candidate from 2008, the party’s research officer, and the highest profile Green in NI).

It is vital that the party keep the North Down seat since this is the best chance we have of electing another Green to the Assembly. There are other strong chances for the party – for example there is a strong presence in South Belfast – with Adam McGibbon as candidate there, another high profile candidate and elected vice-president of Queens University Student Union, who should make a strong electoral impact, building on his excellent Westminster performance earlier this year.

Adam McGibbon Election Communication from Irish Election Literature Blog

Building the party at local level and connecting with communities

As the newest of NI political parties (in the sense of having an electoral presence), it is vital that the party increase its representation at local council level. This is for a number of reasons. The first is strategic and ideological – as a political movement based on bottom-up, grassroots democracy, the party needs to avoid being too ‘top-down’ in terms of having an unbalanced electoral profile.

The party really needs an organic bottom-up, locally-focused development plan, selecting candidates and focusing on issues and areas that will offer Green Party representation for local communities and their issues. A second and relayed reason is that through greater local engagement, working with communities and local groups, the party can develop a ‘post-conflict’ analysis and agenda. The political conflict which has shaped and continues to shape NI politics is something that Greens cannot shy away from, and the best way of doing this is to engage more with communities and from that engagement develop and articulate what ‘green politics’ (and associated issues such as sustainability/and the transition away from unsustainability) means for communities (especially urban working class ones) who are coming to terms with the ‘post-conflict’ process in NI.

Greens introduce a Bill to Ban Hunting with Hounds in Northern Ireland from Down Greens.

Here key issues/questions are – how to connect the transition from unsustainability to issues of conflicting ethno-nationalist identities; can the party articulate a political analysis and vision that ‘connects’ with the ‘realpolitik’ of the hegemonic ‘nationalist-unionist’ dynamic?; can green politics be ‘indigenised’ in the sense of being a ‘normal’ feature of the NI political landscape? Indeed how can it portray itself not only as ‘normal’ but the natural choice for progressive voters? Some of the work on these issues have been done over the last number of years, but more is needed to localise and build the party and its political analysis and project as entrenched and enduring political presence in the tough political environment of NI politics.

Maintaining Green distinctiveness

It is clear that as issues such as climate change and peak oil (usually of course translated into energy security) become mainstream political issues, there is a danger of Green Parties losing these policy/political issues as uniquely ‘theirs’. Even in NI, where our last environment minister (from the hardline unionist DUP) was and still is a prominent climate change denier, our most recent budget (ironically from the same DUP Minister who is now minster for finance) has flagged up the ‘Green new Deal’ as a key policy area for investment.

In NI traditional Green Party policy areas have been adopted and adapted by local rival political parties (noticeably the constitutional Irish nationalist SDLP, and the ‘soft unionist/cross community’ Alliance Party). The Green Party in NI must (in my view) welcome the (late) adoption of Green policy by these ‘slow learners’ while pushing ahead in maintaining its distinctive approach to these issues. For example, the party needs to begin to question orthodox economic growth – largely unquestioned in most ‘Green new deal’ type proposals- and also the really attack the neo-liberal economic ideology underpinning the current economic crisis and also at the heart of all other political parties’ manifestos and policies.

All-island dimensions of the Green Party and green politics

The Green Party in NI is officially a ‘regional council’ of the Green Party in the Republic of Ireland (since December 2006), thus meaning that it is the NI branch of an all-island Green Party. At the same time the party has strong links to the Green Parties in Scotland and England and Wales and has signed Memoranda of Understanding with our sister parties to formally establish these important East-West links. These all-island and all-UK aspects of the Green Party in NI are work in progress and clearly there is more that could be done in terms of coordinating policy development, electoral support, media support etc. between the Green Party in NI and its sister parties in Scotland, England and Wales and the Republic of Ireland.

The Green Party in Northern Ireland, like NI itself, is (in my view), the place where these ‘islands overlap’ and there are multiple benefits for all sister Green Parties of these islands in seeing NI as a place, an issue around which the uniqueness of a Green political vision can be articulated. Doing green politics in NI is like running on sand, given the legacy of the war and conflict and its outworkings. The creation and sustaining of a strong Green Party in NI will benefit all sister Green Parties throughout these islands, by acting as a key link between them all, and demonstrating how a shared green political perspective (often viewed as ‘fragile’ and ‘soft’ by some) can thrive and be relevant and take strength from its tough political surroundings.