Northern Ireland Green Party Conference 2011
The Green Party in Northern Ireland’s conference took place in the Ramada Encore Hotel in Belfast’s trendy Cathedral Quarter last weekend – five minutes’ walk away is Writer’s Square, where Belfast’s fledgling local chapter of the Occupy Movement have set up their tents. Delegates, of course, went down to show support.
Conference can tend to be a reminder of the fragility of the Greens in Northern Ireland, but, happily, the story of conference this year could have been so much different to the way it turned out. Instead we can talk of putting party leader Steven Agnew into the Assembly, and growing activism in local groups – Agnew spoke of this year seeing the greatest surge in Green Party activism since he joined the party.
It was a chance to recharge batteries and a starting point for the next election cycle, after spending the last three years fighting four successive elections – European, Westminster and local & Assembly. It’s been exhausting and we’ve had little room to breathe.
Consequently, the party’s purse hasn’t had much room to breathe either. A big challenge as we look towards the next set of European elections is party finance. During the first item of business, reports from the party executive, one party official noted how the PTA of his children’s school had a bigger budget than the GPNI. This remark is a stark reminder of how the party operates on a shoestring. As the only party in the Assembly that don’t take corporate donations, we need to redouble our fundraising efforts if we want to make gains in the future.
Technical motions were discussed early in the day – a proposal to cut links with the Green Party in the Republic of Ireland – of which GPNI is attached – was heavily defeated. Delegates noted the support given to the GPNI in its times of need in the past, and now that the roles were reversed, that it would be inappropriate. Others highlighted the fruits of good relations with Camohantas Glas – the mutual canvasses, the sharing of knowledge and collaborative efforts on green issues that don’t recognise the border. (On the subject of down south, the heartening 400% increase in the Green Party vote in the recent Dublin West by-election gives some hope for the future recovery of Camhoantas Glas)
50-50 gender representation for constituency delegates to the party executive was also retained with overwhelming support. Bloggers from Slugger O’Toole noted that they believed that the Greens had the ‘best gender balance I’ve seen yet at a party conference…and wide range of ages.’ That’s good, but considering this is Northern Ireland, it’s not the greatest accolade, and we must do better still.
Motions on party policy tended to cut across a broad cross-section of some of the main issues that the NI Greens are currently concerned about. Motions to support social tariffs and investment to fight pensioner poverty and fuel poverty were passed. A motion to oppose oil and gas exploration licenses in NI was voted through. Exploration licences have already been issued for environmentally sensitive areas such as Larne Lough, Lough Neagh and Rathlin Island. The issuing of these licences could lead to hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’) methods being used to extract oil and gas, damaging our health and our environment. The profits will go offshore and the local people and environment will be left with the costs – similar to the American corporation AES that currently owns two out of three of the North’s major power stations. (An interesting motion on making it party policy to establish Canadian and Scandinavian-style provincially-owned monopolies on alcohol sales narrowly failed to pass.)
Following Steven Agnew’s re-election as leader, his keynote speech laid out the big challenges ahead; being the critical opposition in an Assembly where 105 out of the 108 MLAs are in government. The need to contest the upcoming European elections, and to have more Greens join the Assembly chamber in 4 years time.
But perhaps most interesting of all is Agnew’s forthcoming Private Member’s Bill, which would place a statutory obligation on government departments to cooperate. To anyone not familiar with Northern Ireland’s complicated consociational system, this might seem innocuous. But with departments headed by rival parties and rival traditions, this legal duty (Which exists everywhere else in the UK) has the potential to end unnecessary duplication of services, inefficiencies and could provide a cure to Stormont’s gridlock.
Special guest at the conference was Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood. Personally, I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Yes, Attwood’s status as a vaguely centre-left, non-climate denier makes him probably the best environment minister devolution has given us yet. But the bar hadn’t been set high, and it was arguably inappropriate for a member of another political party – especially a man vying for leadership of said party – to address conference. There was talk of a chance to influence, but as one party member is fond of saying, ‘we’re not Friends of the Earth with knobs on,’ and influence is fine, but whether conference is the place to do it is debatable.
More than that, I feared that the small amount of coverage that the media are legally obliged to give this party conference would be dominated by talk of Attwood speaking to the Greens about ‘the environment,’ – akin to him addressing an NGO – which would make us look small and single-issue.
But in the end the media largely chose to focus on something which didn’t spark that much debate – the defeat of the motion to split ties with the Green Party in the south. Two minutes out of an entire day defined the whole conference for the BBC.
While pensioners shiver in their homes due to the greed of utility companies, while the Assembly schemes about a tax cut for big business and while our economy flounders despite a ready-made green jobs-based solution waiting in the wings, casting the whole frame of the conference as being some kind of sectarian north-south brawl was dishonest and lazy.
Clearly we’ve still a long way to go.
For an outsider’s view of conference and links to speeches, see below: http://sluggerotoole.com/2011/10/31/green-party-ni-conference-the-visit-of-alex-attwood-and-criticism-of-mlas-who-cant-read-or-believe-the-speeches-written-for-them/