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.

Here is the relevant passage:

“The democratic revolution promised by this Government is a sham. The way their people are appointed each in turn to different public boards. The way Frank Flannery walks the corridor of power, paid by a charity to lunch with his Ministerial friends, scorning an Oireachtas committee, where he had real questions to answer about Complete Eco Solutions. Complete Ego solutions would have been a better name.”

Elsewhere Ryan became the first of the high-profile politicians with a Leinster House connection in the Euro race to pledge to remain in Brussels for five years, if elected.

He also made an argument for more regulation of big business and also contended that the corporate tax arrangements for big multinational companies like Apple do Ireland no good. A recurrent theme for Ryan for several years now has been the New Green Deal, focused on renewable energies and sustainable business. Unsurprisingly, he and many other speakers also spoke of the party’s role in curbing the excesses of developers and speculators in the past.

Another feature of his speech (and that of its agriculture spokesman Séamus Sheridan) was the fierce and robust attack on Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney and two of his key policies, Harvest 2020 and his plans to develop the fish farming industry. It was claimed that under Harvest 2020, there will be farms where cattle for export will be fed imported soya and grains and will never see a pasture or daylight. He claimed the Government was beholden to multiples, to mass produces like powder milk and cheaper processed meat products. He also contended that the enlargement of the sea farming industry would have serious detrimental environmental impacts.

The party will run 50 candidates in the local elections. Most are new but amongst them are former TDs and councillors including Ciarán Cuffe; Dan Boyle; David Healy and Tom Kivlehan as well as its two sitting councillors, Noonan and Mark Dearey (also a EU parliament candidate).

It has a number of interesting new candidates and it has hopes of getting some elected. Amongst them is Ross Brown in the North (a former DUP activist from East Belfast) and Grace O’Sullivan in the South-East. O’Sullivan from Tramore was a Greenpeace activist for two decades, and was on the high seas (including being a crew member on the Rainbow Warrior) for ten years.

The party has a number of new and newish candidates who will have high hopes of winning seats. They include party chairman Roderick O’Gorman in Castleknock, deputy leader Catherine Martin in Dundrum; the impressive Séamus Sheridan in Galway; and Caroline Conroy in (in Ballymun).

Is there a future for the party? If the party can creep close to double figures after May 23rd, especially if can win an European seat through Ryan, it will do much to dispel the doubts.