The Green Party

In this edition of Village we direct light at the Greens. Ministers John Gormley and Éamon Ryan are good influences in government.  They are intelligent and articulate and seem open and honest.  Unfortunately, their job of implementing a radical green and leftist agenda – with which Village is sympathetic – with only six seats out of an original eighty-seven on the government side, is exceptionally difficult. The Green ethos is diametrically different to that of their coalition partners, Fianna Fail – being idealistic, scrupulous and long-termist rather than realistic, parochial and populist.

The current leadership of the Greens has performed wonders in changing the image of their party, though it is clear that the public feels that there has been a concomitant loss of the Party’s soul. As to the leaders of the party, opinions vary as to whether they have held on to their idealism or become selfish and power-hungry; and as to whether they have been effective or ineffective.   Village is inclined to believe they have not become unacceptably power-hungry. To this end the assertions, repeated in this edition of Village [p22], by Ms De Búrca, who for a long time herself toed the party line and whose own self-defenestration followed a failed bid for a Euro job for which she was not self-evidently qualified, remain unproved. We find ourselves impressed, however, with the unlucky Trevor Sargent. Somehow his departure from his junior ministry following inappropriate representations to a Garda does nothing but enhance his reputation. His integrity and selflessness shine in our interview with him [p31 ]. If we incline to give the Greens credit for their ethic and their tone, we cannot do so for policy.

Many Green representatives, including some in the parliamentary party, are notable policy light-weights. Policy was always going to depend on the nous and strategy of the Green ministers and it was not clear if they had a head for it. Unfortunately, so far they have been found significantly wanting.

For those who believe in Science the biggest issue of our time is global warming.  The fact that many do not appreciate this does not make it any the less such.  The Greens went in to government, it seems an ethical aeon ago, resigned to compromise in the interests of addressing this most important issue.  They could live on Planet Bertie, they could approve a dramatic and unstrategic motorway programme and tolerate our unsustainable agriculture.  They ditched what Déirdre de Búrca describes as their biggest campaigns: on Shannon, Corrib and the motorway through Tara which they ultimately were prepared to tolerate (though they pretended they could do nothing about it) .  All this was justified, they implied, in the overall interests of the environment and in particular to expedite our emission reductions.  But, though the commentariat have not recognized it yet, the Greens are doing little about their overriding environmental goals.  As Déirdre de Búrca points out in her thoughtful article in this edition of Village, “our Ministers tended to be quite conflict-averse and to avoid using the new leverage we now had in government”. There is also a sense that fogyish civil servants have thwarted much of John Gormley’s agenda and that advice from a conservative attorney-general on property rights and environmental rights is being treated as gospel.  Much of Éamon Ryan’s renewable energy depends on the goodwill of precarious international markets to fund it.

Many Green policy failures originate also in their unwillingness to act strategically, using targets and indicators. Devastatingly for the Greens, far from hitting the Programme for Government targets of average annual reductions of three per cent, emissions are actually down very little after two-and-a-half years, even though the economy – to which they are linked – is sinking. All the mooted pull-outs and resignations over other issues seem misdirected, given that failure on what they themselves considered to be the most important issue seems so complete.  Similarly there is no real progress in addressing unsustainable patterns of planning and development though this is ostensibly a pre-occupation for the Greens. Figures for the percentages of housing being built as sprawl for Dublin or slap-dash in the countryside show little change under Green tutelage.  Rather than deal with the kernels of these issues the Greens instead trumpet particular, usually insufficient, initiatives like promoting insulation or curtailing rezoning excess in Monaghan. They, perhaps betraying the unfocused hinterlands so common among environmentalists, deal with symptoms not root-causes. And they simply do not want to talk about the reality of our carbon and planning performances. They even prefer to talk about what they are achieving for the economy!  Outside the environment they have been somewhat unlucky, though overall they have probably performed better than might have been expected. They appear to have been unwise to support the bank guarantee, particularly for Anglo Irish Bank, and NAMA, but they were tight and difficult calls where instinct, admittedly the wrong instinct, may have won out over analysis. By the time the Greens were in government the fruits of the boom had been squandered and with them the opportunity to make Ireland a model of quality of life. The agenda became cuts: their role to mitigate them.

Certainly the Green influence has been modestly progressive in welfare, education and health: steering Fianna Fáil who are probably less egalitarian than the Greens away from imposing even more of the proposed cuts on the most vulnerable.  Still, their presence in government has not led to radical good governance or redistribution. And their policy accomplishments on ethics in government are derisory, largely limited to their repetition of a mantra about banning corporate donations.

In short, in general policy terms, Mr Gormley and Mr Ryan have been on the back foot but not sold out their principles in the egregious circumstances of our times.  As to environmentalism they have set a serious tone, effected modest improvements but refused to address the unsustainability of the Irish way.  At best they have cleared the path for a future generation of Greens who may deliver on the Green agenda.

The rub, as Ms de Búrca implies, is that at some stage during this Dáil the Greens should have become more aggressive in pursuit of particular priorities, particularly the environmental priorities that have for so long been neglected and of which they were the sole serious party-political champions.

They have very little time to attempt to overhaul the agenda for government so that their complicity with their coalition partners thus far can reap its mooted policy reward. In the case of the issue of our time, the issue for which our generation will be remembered for thousands of years – the environment – being good, not great, has not been good enough.