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What’s left for the Greens in Government?

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It must have seemed like perfect timing for the Greens when Bertie Ahern came calling to their door after the 2007 election; a once in a lifetime political opportunity.

True, the Greens hadn’t done as well as they might have hoped in the election itself; but their environmental agenda was popular especially among younger voters. Public anxiety about climate change was at its peak in Ireland as throughout the rest of the Western world, providing an umbrella under which a range of policy options, ‘green’ energy’, ‘green jobs’, ‘green taxes,’ ‘green agriculture’, sheltered patiently waiting for their moment in the political sunshine.

This green agenda was also uncritically accepted as the only realistic prescription for a sustainable future by the media and by the main opposition parties whose appropriately credentialed spokesmen in Fine Gael and Labour were rushing to out-green the Greens in policy terms. Their prospective government partners, Fianna Fail and the truncated PDs, had long been painted, probably unjustly,  as environmental ‘bad boys’. Fianna Fail’s environmental record was represented by the main opposition parties and the media as patchy, as well as tainted by their love affair with developers and fast track developments and the lack of priority assigned within national planning to so-called sustainable environmental policies.

Because Bertie needed them – or perhaps, needed to be sure that they would stand by him in the event that certain personal difficulties he faced over his own personal finances ever came to a head – it was a foregone conclusion that he would grant the Greens the portfolios they most coveted in government , Energy and Environment, as part of any deal. As indeed he did.

On the day Bertie Ahern’s career imploded, and with it his decade of dominance of the Irish political scene, the Green Party leader, John Gormley, appeared in the doughnut surrounding the Grand Maestro on the plinth of Leinster House as he relayed the news of his imminent departure to the media throng. The Greens early months in government had been dogged by the controversy surrounding the soon- to- be- former Taoiseach’s personal finances. They’d had hurdles of their own to cross too in those early days, not least the duckegg of a parting gift that Gormley’s predecessor, Dick Roche, had left on the ministerial desk precluding his successor from doing anything to stop a motorway hurtling through the ancient site of Tara. The shadow of a massive incinerator for Dublin’s waste in Poolbeg, in the Minister’s own constituency, and which he had publicly sworn to stop, was also looming ominously.

But all that was before the international credit crunch; and with it the explosive burst of Ireland’s property bubble, the collapse of the Irish banking system and the worst of hard landings for the Irish economy and its bemused citizens. Amid the wreckage, the Greens’ ambitious environmental agenda was no longer such a high profile priority, either in the media or amongst the general public. Senator Dan Boyle, well-respected finance spokesman for the Green Party in the previous Dail, was outside the loop of Cabinet, diluting both his influence and authority as a spokesperson on economic issues. Neither Gormley nor his Ministerial colleague, Eamon Ryan, had either the expertise or experience to properly fill the gap. Worse, the opposition had found another excuse to make the Greens their favourite whipping boy; taunting the Green Ministers for propping up a Fianna Fail government whose leader, and most of his hapless crew,  had presided over the policy choices, they alleged, that had turned a boom into a bust.

From the start, the Greens might have walked away from government on any number of issues, some of arcane interest only to their own membership, others of greater national significance. Voters have the tendency to tar all parties in government with the same brush, regardless of the level of responsibility individual parties may bear for the turn of events. Citizens look to what’s hurting their pockets and who’s around to trash for that, not necessarily those who ultimately bear the real responsibility for their economic woes.

So the Greens found out in the local elections, as their numbers in local government were slashed from eighteen to three. Some private opinion polls, it is said, suggest that if an election were called now, it is not just Fianna Fail that might face a stint in the political wilderness; the Greens might be looking at total representational wipeout.

Last weekend, John Gormley cut a lonely figure as he fought it out on the airwaves with Dublin City Council and its business partners over the Poolbeg incinerator. His opponents’ trump card was that they were implementing government waste management policy.

Things might have gone from bad to worse had the rookie Dail Deputy, George Lee, not stepped up to the plate with the most egregious display of petulance in the history of Irish parliamentary politics. In the heat of the main opposition party’s PR debacle, the statement of Cabinet support for its beleaguered Minister for the Environment – what one astute political observer described as ‘tea and sympathy’ – that seeks to lift him out of his incineration/waste management quagmire failed to attract the media attention it properly merits, either in terms of what it says about established government policy or its broader implications for continued political stability. For regardless of how stable the government appears to be, however on course to completing a full five year term to 2012, it is clear that volatility constantly lurks beneath its seemingly becalmed surface.

Whatever else will be said about the Greens when the history of our times is written, it should be acknowledged that they have displayed political courage and sticking power. Where other junior parties in previous coalition arrangements ran for the door and headed for the hills when tough decisions and a shower of media opprobrium beckoned, the Green Party leadership have displayed grit and determination. But the question now is: what’s in it for them from here on in?

True, they have secured a carbon levy in the last Budget, but arguably because the measure fits with a general policy of broadening the tax base away from taxes on employment and providing a much-needed additional revenue stream for the exchequer. The same might be said for water charges and some form of a property tax, two other policy objectives for the Greens in government, in next December’s budget.

What has also begun to change remarkably in a short space of time is the climate of public opinion on climate change. Throughout the western world, the climate change agenda is collapsing and public support for climate change policies is tumbling.

Even before the ill-fated Copenhagen Conference, public support for climate change measures had taken a dive in Holland. In the US, support has also dipped and the US President’s climate policy agenda looks likely to be pushed aside, at least until after the mid-term elections. Closer to home, in a recent BBC News sponsored opinion poll only 26% agreed that climate change is happening and is a result of human activity, down from 41% in a similar poll in November of last year.

The Irish public mood is also in flux. In a recent Euro barometer poll, Irish respondents downgraded their concerns about global warming with only 38% citing climate change as an important issue for the EU, a much sharper decline than experienced in other EU countries. “More than 60% of Irish people answered “Yes” when asked whether “Economic growth must be a priority for Ireland, even if it affects the environment,” according to the EU Commission office, compared with 44% in Spring 2008.

The credibility of the UN IPCC has been damaged as a catalogue of mistakes and reliance on dubious sources for key claims in their 2007 Report have been progressively exposed in recent weeks. The EU, marginalized and blithely ignored by the key players at the Copenhagen Conference, notably including the US President, Barack Obama, are hanging on by their fingernails to their own climate change strategy with its 20% reduction target by 2020, or 30% in the event of global binding commitments to carbon reductions. This policy may yet founder on the objections of Eastern European countries and possibly also the UK , depending on the outcome of the General Election there later this year.

On Ireland’s behalf in 2008, John Gormley enthusiastically signed up to a 20% reduction in Irish emissions by 2020 over 2005 levels, an ambitious and challenging target that sent a shiver down the spines of many in industry and the business world who feared its implications for our fragile economy. In his Carbon Budget speech to the Dail in December, Gormley set out the outline for a Climate Bill, which, he said, would include “ambitious statutory targets”, namely:
o a 3 per cent average annual reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions as outlined in the Programme for Government, but extended out to 2020, and
o an eighty per cent reduction on 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

There has been scant coverage in the Irish mainstream media of the controversies engulfing the IPCC and climate science in recent weeks. Likewise, our political class appear to be holding their noses and studiously averting their gaze from unfolding events in the international arena. As the Dail record shows, the Minister has faced only a pitiful number of desultory written parliamentary questions from the Opposition on his climate change agenda since the confused outcome of the Copenhagen Conference, and none at all on confidence in climate science or the IPCC.

The shift in Irish public opinion though can hardly be ignored for much longer by the commentariat or by the government and opposition parties. Even if there were some signs of recovery in the Irish economy over the next twelve months, the appetite may no longer be as strong at government level to shower a quaking electorate with expensive climate change policy measures that might not be well received by the public, particularly in the countdown period to the next general election.

Arguably, the Greens may have got most of what they’re ever going to get from this experience of participating in government. Though what their ‘tipping point’ might be and when, remains uncertain at this time.

UPDATE: This morning Senator Deirdre De Burca has announced her resignation from the Green Party in protest at what she perceives as the party leadership drawing the Greens too close to Fianna Fail. Must be something in the air these days!

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17 Responses to “What’s left for the Greens in Government?”

  1. # Comment by Simon Feb 12th, 2010 01:02

    As we saw with councillors who lost their seats there are many quangos available for failed greens

    While propping up the current Government be assured that many will be sliding into nice consultancy positions.

    There are some great people in the Green party – but their TDs and executive have done major damage to them for at least the next 10 years, if not destroyed the party.

    As with the PD’s, being the monkey to FF’s organ grinder is not a long term plan for any political group

  2. # Comment by EWI Feb 12th, 2010 01:02

    There has been scant coverage in the Irish mainstream media of the controversies engulfing the IPCC and climate science in recent weeks.

    Yes, because God knows we need to pay more heed to Lord Monckton and his Tory buddies.

  3. # Comment by steve white Feb 12th, 2010 04:02

    who is veronica dermott?

  4. # Comment by Eoin Feb 12th, 2010 11:02

    @steve white: she is Deirdre de Burca.

  5. # Comment by Veronica Feb 12th, 2010 12:02

    Ewi,

    Monckton is an extremist. His performances are ludicrous. Nobody in their right mind would pay any heed to him.

    Simon,

    Whatever the real motives behind her reignation, it would appear that ex-Senator De Burca would agree with your last point.

  6. # Comment by Daniel Sullivan Feb 12th, 2010 12:02

    What is it this week with people leaving parties and then resigning seats instead of least taking the opportunity for a period at least to advocate an alternative.

  7. # Comment by Eoin Feb 12th, 2010 12:02

    Dan, it is clear that parties do not allow people to advocate alternatives.

  8. # Comment by Daniel Sullivan Feb 12th, 2010 13:02

    I’m curious about this notion of parties “allowing” people with the platform that being a member of the Oireachtas gives to do or say anything. It’s like this recurrent argument of Vincent Browne’s about the whips system. The fact is that if people have concrete ideas to articulate there is nothing to stop them speaking out about them. Christ, they could post here or on p.ie and more people would read about those ideas than read the transcripts of a Dáil debate.

  9. # Comment by EddieL Feb 12th, 2010 13:02

    Veronica: “Whatever else will be said about the Greens when the history of our times is written, it should be acknowledged that they have displayed political courage ……”
    Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Unfortunately in this case the folly of the Greens in supporting FF has taken us back to the middle ages as history will probably prove.
    For example I listened to a rep from ISME on LMFM the other day saying that while he acknowledged that people had a right to a decent living he saw no responsibility by employers in this regard and that there should be no such thing as a minimum wage. In other words he wants employers to make a profit and the employees to become a liabilty on the State.
    Maybe it is time to get sense and see that we have far too many shops selling foreign goods with foreign staff who will have no alternative but to become a liability on the state if they remain here.

  10. # Comment by Veronica Feb 12th, 2010 14:02

    Eoin,

    I can’t agree with you there. In any organisation and within any social framework you have to fight to make yourself heard and for your ideas to ultimately gain currency. It’s only the hard slog of conviction, determination, persuasion and patience that stands a chance of winning through in the end, particularly if your ideas are in any way radical or at variance with the prevailing wisdom.

    If every political figure did a George Lee (who expressed NO alternatives, good, bad or indifferent during his brief political career), or a Deirdre De Burca, whenever the going got tough, we’d still be living in a medieval society. Empty-headed, vain and spoilt politicians of the media age confuse public image and opportunities for self-aggrandisement with making a substantial contribution to public discourse, which they can only achieve through the difficult process of thinking hard and working hard to advance the causes they effect to believe in. We don’t need heroes or saviours or false gods as our public representatives. Honest, self-aware and decent human beings, who recognise and seek to fulfil to the best of their ability their obligations and responsibilities as the servants of those who elected them, and to lead with their own ideas and alternatives to create a better society when they have such ideas, will do fine.

    Incidentally, a while back I came across an offering on the website of a prominent politician inviting site visitors to peruse a speech made by that individual at some public gathering or other – a contribution so vacuous and cliched that I can’t even remember what it was about at this stage. But the breezy introduction to the piece noted that the event in question had “also starred” some expert or other in the field. With that kind of mindset on display, the only possible response is either laughter or despair!

  11. # Comment by P O\'Neill Feb 12th, 2010 15:02

    As the Green statement obliquely points out, the time for de Burca to resign was after the Athlone vote last year.

    Our position has remained the same since entering Government in June 2007. We have come to do a job and as long as we are getting that job done we will stay. If we are not making progress, we will think again. Eight out of 10 of our members backed that view in 2007 when they endorsed the Party’s entry into Government. Precisely the same number again backed that view in October 2009 when they were presented with the Renewed Programme for Government.

    And she has now handed yet another appointment to Brian Cowen.

  12. # Comment by Daniel Sullivan Feb 12th, 2010 16:02

    I wonder will Mary Coughlan trumpet the vacancy as “job creation”?

  13. # Comment by John Feb 12th, 2010 17:02

    In the past I always though it would be great to see the Green in government, I had this crazy thinking that they would stand up and be heard – cause a fuss when things were immoral.

    imagine my disapointment…

  14. # Comment by tuppence Feb 12th, 2010 18:02

    ” it should be acknowledged that they have displayed political courage and sticking power.”

    I think their keeness to demonstrate that sticking power and ‘suitability’ for govt. was an issue for them. They focussed on being good coalition partners for too long and throught too much.

    to a lesser extent SFmade the same mistake in 2007-2008

  15. # Comment by Galway Tent Feb 12th, 2010 19:02

    Greed is good. Greed is green.

    When we think of Ireland, we think of the Green Galway Races, the green cute wee hoor, the green party crony, the financial regulator of the green, the “Wearing of the Greed” and the 37 other almost proverbial shades of greed. But just why do we talk about “Forty Shades of Greed”?

    Some Shades of The Greed Party:

    * Poolbeg Incinerator & Broken Green Party Promises
    * Rossport Five & Broken Green Party Promises
    * Tara & Broken Green Party Promises
    * Energy Regulation & Broken Green Party Promises
    * The Irish Green Party
    * Teeching Jobs for Failed Green Councillors

  16. # Comment by Des Groome Feb 12th, 2010 19:02

    Green with envy?

  17. # Comment by Carol Horner Jul 20th, 2010 23:07

    Thank you for your article…what is left for the Greens?

    I am somewhat amazed that many people just do not see thne wider picture here. There are lots of benefits still to come out of the ”so-called” disbelief.

    Your article highlighted one programmea namely the Dublin Incineration Project. It is a very interesting debate and one which to some is somewhat confusing. But by being Green does not mean that we should pay above the odds to be Green. Here is a thought!

    You may know that across the World there is great public animosity to incineration projects for numerous and very valid environmental reasons. The ones which are highlighted in this long struggle remind us all of the position in Kuala Lumpur (and Broga) where after an award the project was cancelled because of environmental grounds – similar to those raised here in Ireland – although, more importantly, on financial grounds – it could not be afforded.

    There are a number of issues that have come out in the past few years about the proposal for using incineration as a means to treat the wastes arising in the Greater Dublin Area and notwithstanding the environmental issues the other main issue is the criteria on affordability. You have instanced the fact that this project currently stands at €350 million (capital cost) and that it is paid for by levies to the Public through the Corporation of Dublin and its Partner Authorities. This is called the PPP (Public Private Partnership) principle. The real issue is that to meet the banking criteria the contractor has stipulated that he needs a minimum throughput of waste to make it bankable and then on top of that he demands a premium for the sale of electricity and heat generated therefrom. As a result the Tax Payers end up paying over 6 times the capital value of this plant in the 25 to 30 years needed to make it bankable. This is an absolute nonsense for the Tax Payers in Ireland who see this project for Dublin as milking them of money when in reality it is not necessary.

    It was reported earlier on in the Press that there was an option available to deal with this waste which would cost less than €110 million (yes compared to the €350 million a considerable reduction) which was based upon converting the waste – after separating the recyclable materials – to the renewable fuel for transport ethanol. That process now adopted elsewhere including Hardenberg (Holland) West Yorkshire Finland Sweden Malta and India is one of the best known processes known to the waste industry but is completely ignored by it. Why can’t we have this for Dublin? The simple reason is that the advisors to Dublin won’t listen to logic. We the Public are the purchasers here and it is Our Money We are the Tax Payers buying this it is not the Government’s money and in these times of Financial constraint following the debacle of the Financial Crisis we need a new start here and not the same old rhetoric.

    Mr Gormely Our TD is right to say that this incineration project for Dublin is wrong. It is nothing to do with the location it is all to do with the costs and the environment.

    And to use an old fashioned maxim…in the end it is the costs that matter…so now why not stand up and be counted. We can have it Green and it does not need to cost money to do so.

    So let’s here for it here and support the case for John Gormley here: he is correct, Dublin does not need incineration.

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