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How the Green party can wrestle its conscience to a draw.

As the dinosaur parties publish their joint framework coalition document the Greens should draw up their own strong agenda for the era of Covid and climate, and pull out if it’s not agreed, and implemented.

By Michael Smith.

In the absence of a relevant Labour Party the Greens have become by far the biggest force in Irish politics for wrestling with their consciousnesses, though Fine Gael pretends.  The Labour party always managed to lose and the Green Party has oozed pragmatism under sunny and collaborative Eamon Ryan.  But its new intake of TDs are giving him and the establishment, many of whom voted for them, shivers of concern. 

So what should they do, according to their principles?

Village advocates the principles of equality of outcome, sustainability and accountability.  If the Greens are seriously radical they are principles that should recommend themselves to them, if not to others, at least as we reel from a pandemic. 

The Greens certainly champion sustainability but the reality is that it is not clear if the Greens are centrist or leftist, whether they emphasise freedom or equality, where they stand on fiscal redistribution.

Principles do not therefore provide obvious solutions to the issue of whether the Greens should go into government with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, conservative parties whose greatest comfort is the status quo and therefore for whom principles are, viscerally, anathema.

This all makes it difficult to divine how compatible the Greens’ ideological principles, whatever they may be, are with our even more ideologically elusive civil war parties’.  

So how would you apply ideological principles like either equality, sustainability and accountability or whatever principles drive the Greens, to the current coalition paralysis?

Or is it more realistic to recognise that some questions have an answer according to principles, but some do not?

While the Green party thinks about that and before it takes a decision, like anyone, it needs to get its evidence together – the data it uses to take an informed decision.  The background. 

As background they have to factor in climate change, the biggest issue of our time; and Coronavirus, according to many the biggest event in a generation.

Speculating reasonably they also have to factor in the likelihood that GDP will not rise overall for the next two or three years because of the epidemic, both generating frugality and tending to reduce runaway climate change.

They might look at the motivation of their potential partners.  They could factor in that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael might be expected to be more environmental and stronger on health and housing than formerly because of the jolt they got from the perceived electoral desire for change.  And the doubling of that jolt by the worst epidemic in a century.

The dinosaurs are also desperate to import some radicalism  so they can face an electorate that genuinely voted for change. Radicalism that will not be provided by the dodgy and monochrome Rural Independents. 

There was always reason to believe that hipster Varadkar and ascetic Martin were quite open-minded on environmentalism, the agenda of our times even if their records were meagre in practice.   

We might add an unpleasant tangent to the data equation. I have myself a particular beef about the Greens. Having campaigned on environmental issues for a long time including before and during their time in government, I’m acutely aware of how little they achieved in coalition from 2007 to 2011. We need only to look at the statistics on what sort of impression they made on, for example, carbon emissions, sustainable urban and rural planning, biodiversity and modal-mix between sustainable transportation and cars. And in three-and-a-half years they didn’t even pass a climate act.  When justifying their time in government they like to point to measures they introduced but most of the measures were not implemented. That’s always been the case with the environmental agenda: adding to the edifice of law or regulation, as the Greens in government certainly did,  is no good if you don’t implement it.

 Frankly there is no sign of change in this.  Their manifesto was very weak – not addressing planning,  the national planning framework, architecture, quality of life, sustainability indicators; not recognising that environmentalism is all about enforcement; and not pricing any of the party’s loose agenda on health, housing and transport. 

There’s a danger that the Greens are shirking going public with a coalition agenda because they are not clear enough either on their own principles or on their own agenda.

There is a danger that calling for the Greens to go into coalition with policy-light Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael exposes their covered-up Achilles heel.

The Greens need to be clear that if they go into government it’s not to go through the motions, to set a tone, to adjust education or judicial policy or whatever. It can only be on the basis of a certainty that they will deliver their own basic agenda. And guaranteeing that certainty would require psychological change for the party, whose agenda needs to be hard-minded, but which embraces a substantial soft-minded membership.

That’s the background.

So back to the principles. 

Ok I admit I can’t find a decision rooted in Green ideological principles, whether the ones I have recommended or the elusive ones that actually drive the Greens in the current circumstances. 

 I can find the principle of efficacy. That’s an overriding one that safeguards Green ideological principles.  The Greens should not go into government with anyone unless they can guarantee their agenda by systematically monitoring it and considering pulling out every year if it is not punctiliously implemented.

The principle situation is not perfect but some types of decision are still better than others or than no decision.

And it’s good to pursue strategies that have a potential upside but no downside.

And a good generic strategy is that If you have to take a decision that is difficult or impossible, sometimes it is wise to delay taking the  decisions until the point arises when you have to. That’s a strategy not a principle.

It is better for the Greens to lay out their policy conditions for going into government than not to lay them out. And there is no downside to doing so. 

They do not need to work out now whether Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are sincere about change and serious about the environment.  The Greens can demand such sincerity, then monitor it in terms of policy implementation, and pull out if it is illusory.

The Greens should engage in a one-sided but public dynamic with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil about policies, primarily Green policies, but also policies on the topical issues of health and housing, on equality and on accountability.  

They should caste the dynamic as a reaction to whatever “coalition framework” document Fianna Fáil agree.

On planning and the environment, their staple agenda, the Greens should set out a clear agenda, ensuring mandatory legislation is passed for it, setting indicators for it, monitoring success, and making it clear they will leave government if it is not being delivered. 

They may have to accept a reduced input into other issues – foreign affairs, education, justice, in exchange for their key demands.  They can always disown the decisions taken in those departments from the start. 

But on their central agenda it should be take it or leave it for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to whom none of us owe anything. “Yes or No?”.

So, the Greens should make it clear they want 7% annual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (that’ll be enticingly easy for the first year), with all that will flow from that; application of a comprehensive range of quality of life indicators with targets, instead of GDP as the gauge of society’s success (this covers a multitude including protection and enhancement of biodiversity); annual 1% reductions in inequality measured by say the Gini coefficient; a basic income around €300 weekly; a rent-freeze and ramped up development of sustainable communities; and implementation of Sláintecare, 20% annual reductions in waiting times for hospital beds and a single-tier health system, and State childcare.  

Who but a political illiterate could now argue with any of this? 

The Greens should look to agree a programme for government that provides for these in detail, with reasonable targets.  Trust but verify, stringently and often, from the beginning. And pull out after a year if any of them are not being delivered . 

It’s novel, it’s simple, it’s change, it’ll illuminate the party’s exciting underlying agenda and be transformative of popular perceptions, it delivers on their electoral platform including on coalition, and it’s so green nobody can say it is unprincipled.  

The green agenda is magnificent; the Green party can afford to be transactional in its attitude to the other parties whose support it needs to implement it. 

And if the other parties reject it, at least the Green party will have shown the way, positively; ingrained its inevitable agenda in the public consciousness; and lost nothing even to its conscience.