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Vote Yes and then have overdue debate.

Agreeing the Programme for Government has forced a defining debate on the Green Party but it is best left to the leadership contest.

By Peter Doran.

The Comhaontas Glas/Green Party’s internal debate on the Programme for Government will be a defining moment for both party and the country. We are at tipping points for the earth and for our country, one that converges with the long-awaited end of civil war politics. A new page in our history is unfolding as Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael concede what many of us have known for a generation: they have always needed each other, for their differences were always more contrived than real. They have defined themselves only in relation to their civil war shadows.

So a new narrative of transition is about to emerge and the Greens can be authors because they are more than a political party, they are participants in the world’s most powerful critical ‘social‘ movement. I underline ‘social’ because the modern movement for climate and ecological justice is about root-and-branch system change, embracing economic, societal and cultural shifts – personally, locally and globally.  

Last weekend, the voice of a new generation of climate justice activists, Greta Thunberg, who can take a large part of the credit for the boost to the Green Party’s recent membership intake and success in the recent General Election, made a remarkable intervention. Thunberg told us that the rise and rise of the Black Lives Matter protests has shown that society has reached a tipping point where injustice cannot be ignored. She told the BBC, “It feels like we have passed some kind of social tipping point where people are starting to realise that we cannot keep looking away from these things. We cannot keep sweeping these things under the carpet, these injustices”.

This is also the worldview of the emergent radical wing of the Green Party, especially among the younger global citizens who are connected to a vision of global justice, are embedded in an organic movement demanding a new world beyond the enclosures of the Western consuming elites and their preoccupations with mass distraction,  and who know from their history that Ireland’s liberation must have an ecological dimension.

‘The radical caucus of the Green Party, much of which has rallied behind Neasa Hourigan TD’s opposition to the PFG, heralds the decisive entry of ecology into the history of Ireland’s post-colonial narrative’

The radical caucus of the Green Party, much of which has rallied behind Neasa Hourigan TD’s opposition to the PFG, heralds the decisive entry of ecology into the history of Ireland’s post-colonial narrative. Young activists know their history, they know that their island has been used as a petri dish for capitalist and colonial adventures, as a template for economic dispossession, plantation and enclosure that would reach beyond these shores to the Americas. The frontier of England’s colonial expansion was once Ireland’s forest, swamp and bog but did not end here. From the plantations in the 16th century to neoliberal austerity in the 21st, our Atlantic home has been a laboratory for economic and ecological regimes that have sought to colonise our moral imagination.

From the foundation of the State, successive political regimes have obscured the ways in which our colonisation was also a form of eco-colonisation by the forces of capital, private property and hyper-individualism. Our political masters pursued a contemporary colonisation of our commons, celebrating and raising the figure of the ‘developer’ as the new sovereign, unquestioned, heroic and scandalously empowered to conflate greed and private profit with national interest. Faux performances of opposition by the civil war parties, in harness with a reactionary church and media, could cope with early environmentalism that was little more than a middle-class cultural aesthetic that has sought only to hold the disenchantment of modernity at arms-length.

Thunberg and radicalised young greens in Ireland – within and beyond the Green Party – are embedded in an organic movement that harks back to the vision of Die Gruenen [German Green Party] founder and friend of Ireland, Petra Kelly. She understood that green parties are “anti-party parties”: parties that can only be true to their core vision by working tirelessly within and beyond the corridors of power. It is in the nature of political parties and power to compromise to the point that people and are ideas risk co-option by the very forces they seek to resist. Indeed this is the art of capital!

Moreover, no contemporary struggle for climate and ecological justice can be reduced to environmental demands and legislation. The ecological emergency is a ‘sign of the times’, a call to arms for a system change that is defined by the intersections of demands for social, gender, racial, economic and cultural transformation. These linked struggles are the elements of the “great transition” celebrates in contemporary literature and movements that seeks to move beyond capitalist modernity in the image of the privileged West. And, in the words of James Baldwin, let us remember that “whiteness is a metaphor for power.”

These systemic and intersectional understandings of the climate and ecological emergencies – are novel for the Irish Green Party, which has sometimes lacked an organic link to the political, economic and colonial history of the island. This has been reflected in an absence of a distinctive Irish cultural or political ecology, with the exception of occasional glimpses of such a project in the works of John Feehan, John O’Donohue and John Moriarty.

The debate about the Programme for Government within and around the Green Party and the wider movement for a socio-ecological transformation of Irish society has been forced to the surface by the imminent decision on entry into government. This was, perhaps, inevitable given the salutary lessons of the 2007-2011 government mandate, when Green Party TDs lost all of their seats in return for modest gains while in government during a cyclical crisis of capitalist financialisation.

The urgency of the debate, however, has led to a conflation of arguments that are essentially ideological (and unapologetically led by an idealism of social solidarity) with those that are tactical. Those who reject the PFG are disappointed not only with the absence of a codified promise of systemic change in the PFG which extends to the economy and addresses inequality, but are also disappointed with the weak defence of the draft PFG by the Party’s leadership.

Defenders of the PFG are arguing largely from a pragmatic and tactical perspective and have not sufficiently understood that their young detractors are coming from an entirely new perspective: the detractors know that climate and environmental policies are not delivered within a vacuum; where they are framed by a default neoliberal and capitalist bias (which sits at the core of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil worldviews due to their colonised moral imaginations), the outcomes naturally reproduce an unacceptable and unsustainable system built on oppression and systemic exclusion. Climate and environmental policies are irreducible.

There is a sense in which defenders of the PFG among the leadership and those who are nervous about the weaknesses of the programme, are talking past one another. While the modern socio-economic critique and critics of the PFG understand the ideological deficit at the top of the party; there is a continuing blindspot among some in the leadership who still believe that our ecological crisis can be addressed in isolation from wider system change, or who believe that system change can be driven by shifts in climate/energy and environmental policy per se.

What the debate has exposed, above all, is that the Green Party’s radical new membership and voting base has not yet gained a sufficient foothold within the leadership and key decision-making bodies of the party. The radicalisation of the Green Party and its re-creation as a much more organic agent in Irish politics (north and south) – embedded within our socio-political, and post-colonial narrative – is still a work in progress. The end of civil war politics marks a tantalising opportunity to accelerate a new ecologically informed narrative for the island. 

In a sense, the critics of the PFG and – indirectly – criticisms of those members of the leadership who defend the draft, as is, must win this debate within the party first. Only then will their expectations for the current PFG seem reasonable and realistic. Could the current leadership be expected, in all honesty, to assert the radical new intersectional (post-environmental) agenda in their encounters with Fine Gáel and Fianna Fail?

This means that the current debate must surely be held over until the leadership elections. Leadership elections are the appropriate moments for radical ideological shifts – where emergent new analyses are empowered and embodied in new figures who can robustly articulate a post-environmental agenda that acknowledges the intersection of struggles for equality, ecological liberation, and wellbeing.

I would urge the opponents of the PFG – far from considering the possibility of distancing themselves from the Green Party – to step up to the urgent challenge of embedding a radical new analysis and leadership at the heart of the party.

From a newly empowered platform within the Party, there will be opportunities to hold the new Green Party ministerial team and Government to account. And let us remember that the Green Party – the anti-party party – does not enter Government alone.

We have the wind at our backs. Our global movement has driven political institutions and movements to a tipping point. The green movement – in coalition with wider critical social movements for global justice, peace, and equality in a world beyond the dismal science of neo-classical capitalist economics – has brought the world to a tipping point.

This is no time to walk away from one small step to the wider transition.

We are not alone.

Dr Peter Doran, Donegal/Belfast, is a member of the Green Party (first joined 1987) who lectures in law at Queen’s University School of Law. He has worked as a consultant writer with the UN Climate Change Convention, going back to the negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol. He has written on the topics of climate change; mindfulness; environmental governance and activism on the island of Ireland; and on rights of nature, including in a recent book on the ‘mindful commons and the attention economy’. He has worked in NGOs and in parliamentary settings on both sides of the border, and at the United Nations.