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Just Transiti ON

The Green Party needs Just Transition Greens  to make it possible to negotiate a more ambitious programme for government.

By Adam McGibbon.

As the Green Party leadership election drew to a close last month, a new green-left affiliate organisation – the ‘Just Transition Greens’ – was born.

The foundation of the Just Transition Greens, announced in a statement signed by TDs, councillors and Northern Ireland Assembly MLAs, is a hopeful sign. Former Northern Ireland Green Party leader John Barry told a podcast last week that around 400 people have joined JTG, and 10% of the Green membership are now involved. This is a good start.

The Green Party desperately needs an internal opposition while in government. The Just Transition Greens could help the party achieve more in government, curb the most dangerous instincts of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, keep members involved who would quit otherwise, resist the rumoured drive to make the party less democratic and more centralised, and in the long term bring forward a more deeply embedded red-green politics in the party.

The need for JTG is obvious from 2007-11. The membership trusted their TDs completely to get it right meaning that real dissent didn’t fully emerge until half way through the government term by which time many members had already left

The need for JTG is obvious when the Greens’ previous time in government from 2007-11 is considered. The membership, excited to finally implement some of their agenda, desperately wanted the FF-Green coalition to work, and trusted their TDs completely to get it right. This implicit trust, combined with a less radical wider environmental movement and a relatively more centrist membership compared to now, meant that real dissent didn’t fully emerge until halfway through the government term. Many members had already left by 2009, but discontent had built up too slowly to exert any real pressure on the party’s TDs. The exodus of dissenting members meant it took longer for real discontent to emerge.

In 2009, after the Greens threatened to pull out of the government, a more ambitious programme was negotiated with Fianna Fáil and voted through by the Green membership. But it was too late – as the government fell apart, few of the new renegotiated policies were implemented.

The Green Party of 2020 desperately needs Just Transition Greens to prevent this from happening again. The climate crisis demands that the Greens use their position to demand fairer, faster climate action than what has already been negotiated. In voting to go into government, many members felt forced to prioritise environmental action over social justice, despite believing both are equally important. A 45 degrees Celsius heatwave in the Arctic during the voting period may have also focused minds for immediate climate action. Despite important wins like a new Climate Act, an end to oil and gas extraction and the blocking of gas terminals, the current programme for government will not achieve the internationally-agreed Paris Agreement climate goals – more is needed, and the action must be structured in a way that will benefit the worse-off.

The Greens are a small party – if members who feel the deal is not ‘red’ enough (as opposed to just ‘green’) – and I count myself among them – can be properly organised within the party, they can exert a huge influence on party policy. They could even pull the party out of government if not enough is being achieved fast enough. 

Internal opposition can achieve things, acting as pressure on the TDs to be more aggressive in government and giving them much-needed perspective on the world outside Leinster House. In 2009, the Irish Young Greens managed to prevent the introduction of a formalised UK-style tuition fees system in Irish universities, during the renegotiation of the FF-Green programme for government. A well-organised group could hope to achieve much more, as others have done across the world – it’s well-known that the UK Labour Party in government has often been forced into its better governing moves by the pressure of their affiliated trade unions and membership. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Democratic Socialists of America have had a noticeable impact on Joe Biden’s surprisingly bold climate plans, which some have labelled ‘a Green New Deal in all but name.’

Members who either voted for the Programme for Government – while recognising its shortcomings – or against it, can feel comfortable in Just Transition Greens. 

Rumours abound of a shake-up of party structures, which could dilute membership control, potentially including the removal of the ability of members of the (more left-wing) Northern Ireland Green Party to have a say in government formation, and more generally, the member’s powerful ability to pull the party out of government. These moves must be resisted – it would make a mockery of the Greens claim to have ‘grassroots democracy’ as one of its four principles, and further centralise power around the party’s TDs. But it can only be resisted if members who disagree stay involved and organise themselves effectively as an internal opposition.

Members are free to leave or join other parties, but the Greens are uniquely democratic (for now) and more is likely to be achieved inside. Saoirse McHugh and her colleagues are natural leaders of an internal opposition. Although she has ended her membership of the Green Party, she could still play a huge role through the Just Transition Greens. It is likely that McHugh and allies could have more impact doing this, than by joining another organisation – Fis Nua, the green-left splinter group formed by Greens who left over the FF-Green government, got 0.3% of the vote in the 2011 general election and disappeared. 

Saoirse McHugh and her colleagues are natural leaders of an internal opposition

JTG will not find it easy, from supporting TDs voting against the government, to harnessing the power of youth climate-strikers and the wider climate movement, to recruiting members branch-by-branch – and if too much is being compromised, organise to pull the party out of government. This isn’t factionalism – it is democracy. 

Adam McGibbon is an activist and writer from Belfast. He is a long-term Green Party member. He has been a Westminster parliamentary candidate, a campaign manager and a member of the Northern Ireland Green Party Executive.