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Greens need a wellbeing pre-nup. Quality-of-life indicators guarantee good policies and, crucially, implementation that can save Eamon Ryan from allegations of unrealism.

By Michael Smith.

The danger: farce

When Napoleon III, nephew of the dictator Napoleon Bonaparte became dictator of France himself in 1851, Karl Marx wrote:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”.

The problem: last marriage didn’t work out

The Green Party, which was married to Fianna Fáil  from 2007-2011 (and the PDs up to 2009) is in danger of entering a farcical re-marriage to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

If you’re marrying someone you think isn’t into you, you should get a detailed and watertight pre-nup.  Especially if you were married to them before and it didn’t work out; and they’ve been making nasty comments about you for years.

Unfortunately, as they endlessly but secretively progress their formal talks not on nuptials but on a programme for government, there is no suggestion on a strategic level the Greens.  have remembered that the age-old and continuing problem with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and the environment is they are often happy to make promises and even to provide new measures, it is just that they do not provide for their enforcement.

If the Greens do not adjust their capacity for realism there is a danger they will split. Worse, at the moment, the split on offer – between Catherine Martin,  Deputy Leader and Eamon Ryan, Leader – isn’t even on ideological grounds.  The Greens, who can often be soft-minded seem to be  teed up for a silly contest pitting the need for loyalty to a lovely fella on the one hand against the need for someone who’s a woman and not (deepdown) from Dublin 4 on the other; without particular reference to efficacy, radicalism or lessons learnt.

The solution: “credible” quality of life indicators

The Greens already failed to plant the ball in the open net Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael left them when those parties notably committed in their  framework document for coalition of 15 April to “credible” quality of life indicators. Indicators means measurements of success.

It has long been established that environmentalists best achieve both a) the full breadth of their quality of life agenda (also known as a wellbeing or sustainability agenda)  and b) its enforcement, through up to 100 of these indicators which replace GDP as the gauge of society’s success.

This agenda is well recognised by the UN, OECD, EU and others.

The point is that it covers a multitude including reduction of emissions and protection and enhancement of biodiversity; and a full range of other environmental and of social and economic indicators that are established progressively, rendered as targets and systematically monitored. If the targets are flouted the pre-nup kicks in dictating divorce.

Environmentally you might have climate, biodiversity, balanced rural development, numbers, quality and mix of new housing etc.

Socially you might have equality of income and wealth, employment rates, imprisonment rates, implementation of Sláintecare etc.

Economically you might have growth, inflation, household and national debt etc.

…A hundred indicators in total.

What else? Official buy-in including from Finance Department

Through these, enshrined in a programme for government and with buy-in from top civil servants and the Departments of Finance and the Taoiseach, the Greens should establish, and guarantee implementation of, radical policies and standards.

The Greens’ current approach: following up 17 questions

The letter from Eamon Ryan to the bigger parties of 23 April, following up the big parties’ framework document, did duly outline that such indicators should “shape the economic recovery”. But that suggests he sees them as secondary to the economy and there is no mention of them in the 17 questions included in the letter or, inevitably then, in the nice flexible follow-up letter from the bigger parties of 28 April.

Unlike other Green parties, interestingly the Irish Greens down the years, even in their constitution, seem never to have embraced the centrality – promoted by the UN –  of sustainability and quality of life.

Then again the Greens also left out biodiversity – remember we’ve lost 60% of vertebrate animals in the last fifty years and it’s supposed to be the second most important issue for them – from their questions. They’re making it up, you know.

Many commentators, who know nothing about the environmental agenda, assume the Greens are big policy wonks.  Environmentalism is a bit off the track for the sort of journalists who become respected political commentators in the Irish Times and Business Post.  They don’t want to do any research about whether the Greens have good policies or indeed how they did when they were in government from 2007-11 and they don’t want to be mean to this new agenda and its sunny leadership.  So they assume the Greens are masters of policy. A recent profile of Eamon Ryan in the Business Post and another assessment by Harry McGee in the Irish Times on whether the Greens ‘played senior hurling’ in government, fall into this category.

If you have a reputation  for getting up early you can sleep until noon. The Greens were no good at policy when they were in government 2007-2011 and they are not good at it now.  Of course most of the other parties are worse.

The Greens’ history: underachievement

I’ve been around long enough to be aware how little the Greens achieved in coalition from 2007 to 2011. We need only to look at the statistics on what sort of impression they made on the guts of their agenda.

Planning

If we had planning legislation that worked we wouldn’t have continued to build one in four houses one-off in the middle of the countryside and allowed  Dublin to sprawl all over Leinster when the ideal, and even the national planning strategies, required channelling development away from Dublin into other cities and rural towns. 

Biodiversity and transport

We did not arrest cascading biodiversity levels or shift modal-mix from cars to sustainable transportation.

Results, not just laws and regulations, needed

When justifying their time in government the Greens turn the discussion to the initiatives they introduced but most of them – economic measures, which are easier to guarantee, being an exception – 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.

Climate: no Act and targets unmet

In three-and-a-half years the Greens didn’t even pass a climate act, let alone achieve the 3% promised annual carbon cuts they – naively non-bindingly – agreed in their 2007 programme for government. This was despite an imploding economy. Greenhouse-gas-emission growth in Ireland 2007-2011 in percentages were –.86 in 2007, -.35 in 2008, -5.76 in 2009 and -.35 in 2010.  They left office in January 2011, with a weak climate bill they had just begun to push still unimplemented.

GDP growth 2007-2011 in percentages was 5.5 in 2007 (the Greens served in government for only the second half of 2007), -4.5 in 2008, -5 in 2009, 2 in 2010 and .5 in 2011 – substantially negative growth over their three and a half years.

Environmental performance must be benchmarked against this and it was very much worse for the Greens not to achieve promised 3% annual emissions reductions than if economic growth – to which emissions are tied – had been as high as projected when they entered government. 

So, as Harry McGee was at pains for some reason to emphasise https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/senior-hurling-how-green-party-fared-in-government-last-time-1.4253215, the Greens may indeed have introduced a carbon budget, new building-energy standards, emissions taxes for cars, and a carbon tax.  But their introduction was solely as means to an end – to decrease carbon emissions by 3% annually.  That aim failed.  It would have failed even worse if the means had not been introduced.  Similarly, reductions in transport emissions and waste are to have been expected.  To be fair perhaps half of their reduction was due to Green policies. And they did introduce a successful bike-to-work scheme. But it wasn’t much of an environmental legacy in a country that a decade later is still one of the very worst environmental performers in the EU.

And, contrary to what Harry McGee counterfactually reported the downturn didn’t even produce an increase in equality. Measured by the Gini coefficient 2007-2011 (where the lower the better) inequality registered at 31.8 in 2007, 30.8 in 2008, 32.7 in 2009, 32.2 in 2010, 32.9 in 2011 – an overall disimprovement, though by 2018 under the egregious Fine Gael it had improved to 30.30. 

Green Party’s current agenda: more of what failed before

Manifesto

Frankly there is no sign of change in the approach that led to this disappointment.  The Greens’ manifesto was very weak – apart from not centralising quality-of-life indicators and enforcement and being very unspecific on biodiversity, it also notably failed to price any of the party’s loose agenda on health, housing and transport.

17 inadequate and incomplete Questions

I have noted their failure in their 17 questions to refer to biodiversity and I note that they require merely that a new National Development Plan will feature a ‘Town Centre first’ approach and be ‘informed’ by a national land use plan whose implementation depends in practice on being justiciable not merely informing other more important documents.  On this basis there is no reason to think the national land use plan would be any better than, or better implemented than, the current, flouted, planning framework. Some say the national land use plan is intended to address biodiversity; but it’s a separate – momentous – agenda. Their manifesto too failed to address villages, planning,  the national planning framework, architecture, apartment sizes or high-rise – supposed Green Party staples.

Beyond that there’s no room to get into policy in detail in this piece.  But if 7% annual reductions are mandated by the Paris Agreement, why did the Greens exhausting so much of their political capital on them – 6 of their 17 questions?  They seem to have forgotten there was an environmental agenda before climate, indeed there was an agenda that many Greens considered justified their joining the party, before climate. 

It is being suggested by the media that the Greens are being backed by experienced environmentalists.  It is not surprising the umbrella group Stop Climate Chaos would favour the Greens going into government on the back of the climate possibilities – that is its only agenda.  Nobody seems to be asking what the biodiversity and planning experts think. And it is not cynical to suggest it is not surprising some environmentalist commentators would support the move to coalition: some of them may naturally hold out hopes of obtaining jobs.

The point is that there has been no forensic assessment of the Greens’ negotiating stance in terms of how it outlines, and addresses application of,  mainstream quality-of-life and environmental agendas.

What the Greens should do now: promote wide-ranging indicators and pull out of government if their targets are not met

The Greens should look to agree a programme for government that provides for wide-ranging indicators in detail. And pull out after a year if any of them are not being delivered according to challenging but reasonable targets.

Pursuing this strategy, and this strategy alone, I don’t  think the Greens should care about the ideology or awful records of the two bigger parties. They can focus on policy and win the wrestle with their consciences by pulling out quickly if there is resistance to delivering it. As Eamon Ryan comes under threat for not being realistic he has no political option but to be hard-minded. Not pursuing this strategy, it will be farce again.

Michael Smith was chairman of An Taisce (1999-2003), Ireland’s member of the European Environmental Bureau (2000-2003) and is editor of Village magazine.  He is a long-time campaigner on planning, environmental and climate issues. He writes in a personal capacity.