Can the Greens re-emerge from the wilderness?

Convention provides evidence of new energy in the party

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan has taken a gamble by standing in Europe. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / Irish Times

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan has taken a gamble by standing in Europe. Photograph: Cyril Byrne / Irish Times

Sat, Mar 8, 2014, 19:19

After about a year of entering government back in 2007 the Greens realised their status had changed from being coalition partners to being accessories after the fact.

As the recession bit hard and the government started imposing punitive measures, Fianna Fáil started to get it in the neck for creating the flagrantly spendthrift society of the noughties. The Greens were pilloried even more, for staying on in an unpopular administration meting out harsh harsh medicine.

And when the people handed down their verdicts in 2009 and 2011, it was the smaller coalition party which felt the cosh disproportionately. They lost 13 of their 16 full council seats in 2009 (and since then one of the remaining three county councillors has defected to Fianna Fáil). In the 2011 election, the party was wiped out, losing all of its six seats.

Moreover, its national share of the vote fell to below the critical 2 per cent threshold, meaning it lost all State funding. With few public representatives and no money the party faced an even greater existential threat than its erstwhile coalition partners.

The party is holding its convention this weekend in Dublin. And for the first time, there is a sense that it is not in the doldrums, that it may just have a future.

The convention, in the Hilton Hotel near the canal, has as its title ‘A New Direction’.

In truth, it is less a new direction than a return to the an old direction, but an important one, the one that first made the Greens attractive to a certain constituency. That has involved three key messages which can be summarised as: sustainable at local level (planning, transport, recycling), sustainable at global level (climate change, renewables): and honest politically (no tolerance of insiders lobbying or vested interests).

What is noticeable at the party convention that there is a pep in the step that has been absent in the past few years and the first nascent signs the party can stage a recovery of kind in the local and European elections, which will be more critical for it (in all senses) than for other parties. One of the most interesting questions from the floor asked local elections candidates about the kind of reception they were getting - what was clear is there is still a residual anger among some but for most it has dissipated. As its experienced Kilkenny councillor Malcolm Noonan told delegates that when they go to doorsteps they know they are standing for election for the right reasons.

The attendance was respectable for a small party and speakers referred to recent events like flooding, gridlock, extreme weather to argue that the party was still relevant.

The two issues that cropped up most frequently were planning and climate change, two of the party’s policy bulwarks.

Leader Eamon Ryan has taken a gamble by standing in Europe. It’s a big ask, given the party’s low standings in the poll and a very competitive Dublin constituency. If he succeeds, it will provide a big fillip (and much needed resources). If he fails, he will continue to the only leader of a political party in the country who does not have a mandate. Even if he wins, it will be difficult to lead the part into the next general election as an MEP.

In Ryan’s speech to the conference, what grabbed the attention was an (unusual for him) aggressive attack on Government personalities. Phil Hogan was the first to be excoriated for his local government reforms, which Ryan claimed was a gerrymander that concentrated power into the hands of Fine Gael. He also described the process to create a directly-directed Mayor of Dublin as a farce. Hogan wasn’t the only one in his sights. So was Fine Gael strategist and former Rehab CEO Frank Flannery, who Ryan claimed personified a culture of insiderism and favouritism.