We should change the dynamic or pull out of government
Déirdre De Búrca
I resigned from the Green Parliamentary Party and Seanad Eireann in February in what were difficult, and publicly controversial circumstances. These are early days yet but I have gained several insights during my period in office. The first, and possibly self-evident insight, is that the business of government is extraordinarily complex and challenging. No amount of time spent on the Opposition Benches critiquing government policy can adequately prepare a small political party for the experience of being part of government, particularly during a period of significant flux and change. For this reason, I believe it was hugely important for a relatively young political party like the Green Party – which aspires to influence the political mainstream and to eventually transform society – to acquire essential experience in relation to governing. There were undoubtedly many risks attached to the Green Party’s decision to enter into government with Fianna F‡il in 2007. I believe that we had little choice but to take that decision.
Our decision to enter government was based upon the recognition that governments in parliamentary democracies play an essential role in bringing about political and social change – we wanted to implement our policies. This does not in any way downplay the invaluable role that parties of opposition or civil society organisations also play. However, given the systems of parliamentary democracy in place in most developed countries today, it is clear that no enduring social or economic change can be brought about without engaging with those institutions both from within, as well as from without. (The only other available alternative is to collapse the existing political structures and institutions, and to start afresh. This latter option is so fraught with risk and difficulty that it is usually rightfully dismissed as dangerous and unrealistic). Our 25 years in opposition were a ‘walk in the park’ compared to the serious business of governing over the last two-and-a-half years.
Even during the best of political times the business of modern government is extremely challenging. But we faced a global economic recession, the exposure of serious scandals in our domestic banking system, a growing threat of national bankruptcy, the collapse of a bubble in our property sector, high levels of personal indebtedness and negative equity amongst the public, worrying levels of unemployment and the need for the government significantly to reduce levels of public expenditure through a series of very tough budgets.
This article is not an apologia for the Green Party in government. Nevertheless, I believe it is important to acknowledge the key achievements of the Green Party during its period in office to date. One of its most significant achievements, in my opinion, was the introduction of a carbon tax in this year’s budget, (albeit at a lower than desired rate of €15 per tonne). The willingness of our government partners to accept the introduction of this new tax was linked in no small part to a more general collapse in government revenues, and the need to identify alternative forms of taxation. It would also appear that, assuming our government partners are to be believed, they are ready to support my party in the introduction of climate change legislation which will set annual and legally-binding emissions-reduction targets for this country. The Green Party has also been responsible for the introduction of the new Building Regulations which make the achievement of much greater levels of energy efficiency in all new buildings mandatory.
My party has also overseen the introduction of a number of home-insulation grants schemes for retrofitting old buildings. It has significantly increased investment in badly-needed water infrastructure. It has been responsible for significant investment in the areas of ocean, wave and wind energy and has accelerated the process of upgrading the national electricity grid. It has supported the Electricity Supply Board in significantly ‘greening’ its practices and in committing the company to ambitious targets for generating electricity from renewable energy sources. The party has also been responsible for the introduction – in the face of significant resistance from Fianna F‡il – of the Civil Partnership Bill which goes a long way in addressing a serious area of discrimination experienced by the gay community.
While acknowledging the Party’s achievements, I must also be honest in identifying its weaknesses and the missed opportunities for which it has been responsible. I would attribute many of the mistakes made by the party to political inexperience and to the very difficult circumstances in which it has had to govern. I have to admit that in my opinion – and particularly in our second year of government – weak leadership, an attachment to political office and a morbid fear of provoking an election, has effectively paralysed our parliamentary party. Our government partners took full advantage of this situation and have managed to get us to support decisions which I believe we should never have supported, and which possibly have inflicted irrevocable damage on our green political ‘brand’.
Indeed in my opinion, there is a significant gap in the market for a good political handbook for small (and indeed larger) parties dealing with the question of how to best survive a coalition government with a dominant and more experienced partner. While many people warned at an early stage that Fianna F‡il would devour the Green Party, I think there was too much optimism and even naivety on our part that we would be up to the challenge. We talked a lot about the need to maintain our own separate identity in government, but had few concrete strategies for achieving this objective. We also failed to anticipate, or strategise for, the many tactics that would be employed by our very experienced and hardened government partners to push us into supporting their agenda.
If I revert to the very earliest stages of the Green Party’s engagement with this administration, I believe some errors were made in the negotiation of the original Programme for Government. It was a significant coup for the party to negotiate two senior and extremely relevant Ministerial portfolios of Environment and Local Government, and Energy and Communications. However, I believe our failure to negotiate successfully in relation to even one of our ‘flagship’ issues (Shannon stopovers, Tara, Corrib etc.) meant that we began our period in government with an unfortunate public perception that we were willing to trade key policy concessions for ‘high office’.
We faced a huge challenge in managing the surprise and disappointment of many of our long-term green supporters as they watched the party quickly transform itself from a ‘right-on’, firebrand, protest-party, to a more moderate, pragmatic, establishment party. That said, I think that rank-and-file Green Party members have generally surprised the media and the public with their willingness to support the direction given by the parliamentary party where key decisions of government had to be made, even if those decisions appeared to be at variance with traditional Green-Party policy.
As far as the priorities of the Parliamentary Party, and in particular the Green Ministers, were concerned, considerable emphasis was placed on convincing the electorate and the media that we were capable of shedding our ‘radical’ and ‘extremist’ image. Indeed in the early days of government this was an important and legitimate objective, as many voters appeared to expect us to be fractious, unrealistic and difficult to work with. However, after our first full year in government I believe we had shown our ability to knuckle down, to co-operate and to make compromises where necessary.
In my opinion, it was at the end of our first year in government when the Lehman Brothers collapsed, the global economic recession kicked in, our domestic banking and property crises began, and the Green Party moved into a position where it held the balance of power in government, that we should have ‘upped our game’. It was at that point that we needed to change the way that we engaged with our government partners to extract more policy concessions from them. Unfortunately we appeared to continue to prioritise the maintenance of positive and non-conflictual relationships with our government partners above all else. In my opinion, our Ministers tended to be quite conflict-averse and to avoid using the new leverage we now had in government for fear that it would rupture what had by now become pleasant and harmonious working relationships.
It was at this point also that the Green Party began to get involved in the development of policy responses to what might be called the ‘legacy’ issues of previous Fianna F‡il-dominated administrations. The Green Party lacked the necessary resources and probably the experience to keep fully on top of complex policy responses to the crises that had emerged in our banking and property sectors. I believe that in relation to key measures that we supported in government – such as the Bank Guarantee Scheme, NAMA, and even the last two Budgets – the Green Party was only allowed by our government partners to have a rather limited impact.
As a result, in my opinion, the party has found itself supporting legislation that conflicts with its fundamental principles, particularly in relation to NAMA. Despite the extensive policy work that the Green Party has carried out in the area of land valuation, it supported the very flawed concept of ‘long-term economic value’ which formed part of the NAMA package. This concept clearly represented wishful thinking on the part of the government rather than sound economic analysis, given the uncertainty that surrounds the prospect of a global or domestic economic recovery in the short-to-medium term. The party has notably failed so far to ensure that NAMA lands will be subject to proper planning and development, and protected from the kind of corrupt practices that have blighted the planning system in Ireland over the past decades.
As far as other key policy responses of government were concerned, I believe that the secrecy that surrounded the drawing up of the Bank Guarantee Scheme was not helpful to the Green Party. It meant that we were bounced into, for example, agreeing to allow the guarantee to cover Anglo Irish Bank on the grounds that it was ‘systemically important’ to the Irish banking system. I personally regret having voted in favour of a Bank Guarantee Scheme that covered Anglo Irish Bank. The government from which I recently resigned will soon vote to support a significant recapitalisation of Anglo Irish Bank. Given the broader social and economic context, the recapitalisation of Anglo Irish Bank will be a bitter bill indeed for the electorate to swallow. There are many other issues and policy decisions which I could highlight that I believe reflected the failure of the Green Party to properly assert its position in government. The willingness of the party to agree to allow the first, important stage of the Banking Inquiry to be held in private is in conflict with our original public call for a fully open and public inquiry. The exclusion of the establishment of the Bank Guarantee Scheme from the official remit of the banking inquiry was also a regrettable concession to the Fianna Fáil party.
In my experience, the Green Party has been prevented by Fianna Fáil from making a meaningful contribution to the last two budgets. In fact we were bounced into many of the extremely unpopular measures contained within the disastrous Budget introduced at the end of 2008. This badly-planned budget saw the automatic entitlement to a medical card being removed from the over seventies, amongst other measures. My recollection of the processes surrounding the negotiation of the budgets, is that our government partners steamrolled us into accepting the measures within those budgets without taking on board much of our input. Our willingness to go along with the original reversal of the cuts to the salaries of higher-level civil servants in the most recent budget clearly conflicted with our repeated public commitments to ensuring that the better-off in society bore their fair share of the burden of any necessary corrections to the government’s public expenditure bill.
There have been many other policy areas in which the Green Party has allowed Fianna Fáil to outwit and out-manoeuvre it, the original vote of confidence in Minister Willie O’ Dea being the most recent. We supported enshrining the crime of blasphemy into the new Defamation legislation with Fianna Fáil’s encouragement even though we are a socially liberal party. We failed to protect the Equality infrastructure in this country from the swingeing cuts imposed by the Dept of Justice, despite our best efforts. Our attempts to influence the new Immigration, Residency and Protection Bill were largely rejected by Minister Dermot Ahern, occasioning great annoyance in the party. Real Seanad Reform is unlikely where – given strong Fianna Fáil resistance to any serious programme of reform – John Gormley is now going to settle for a widening of the university franchise (something which does not affect most Fianna Fáil senators) and possibly minor changes in relation to the numbers on some of the vocational panels.
The reform of local government is also an area in which the Fianna Fáil party is strongly resisting Green Party policy initiatives. Despite John Gormley’s promises to transform local government – which is badly needed – there is already a revolt among Fianna Fáil backbenchers. The Civil Partnership Bill was another case in point. Under the original Programme for Government, both parties signed up to the introduction of the legislation and the target date for its introduction was within the first year of being in office. Instead, conservative Fianna Fáil members delayed its potential passage for well over a year.
As I am now in a position to reflect on the Green Party’s two-and-a-half years in government with Fianna Fáil, what is clear to me is that the balance between what the party is achieving in policy in government and what it has had to swallow from Fianna Fáil has become much too skewed in the direction of Fianna Fáil’s agenda. I do not believe it is in the Green Party’s interest to continue in government unless we can assert ourselves and our agenda to a much greater extent. Our achievements in government must be weighed up against the many ‘hits’ that we have taken and the general damage that has been done to the Green Party ‘brand’. The brand reflects the popular perception that we are not wedded to power and office like other more mainstream parties, that we are free of corporate influence and that we genuinely have the good of the community and the environment at the heart of our policies. If we continue to allow ourselves to be seen as desperate to stay in government regardless of what we have to support, the party will have to spend an awfully long time in the political wilderness before the public starts voting in numbers for Green Party candidates again. In short, unless there is a fundamental transformation in the way that the Green Party is engaging in government, it is my considered opinion that it should pull out of government sooner rather than later.