Besieged Greens focus on electoral survival

 

STATE OF THE PARTIES:The Greens know a general election between now and summer 2012 is going to be very difficult for them, writes MARY MINIHAN

SURVIVAL AS a political entity is perhaps as much as the Green Party can hope for in the aftermath of a general election. An increasingly angry electorate has already demonstrated its determination to punish the junior Coalition partner with a severity that has shocked the Green base.

The party went into the 2009 local elections with 15 city and county councillors and emerged with just three, making it practically impossible to keep Green issues anywhere near the top of local government’s agenda.

While the vagaries of the PR system make it tricky to assess the prospects of small parties with anything approaching accuracy, the latest Irish Timespoll recorded a 3 per cent share of the national vote. Although the party’s vote rose to 4.7 per cent in the 2007 election from 3.8 per cent in 2002, its seat tally remained static.

The Greens now know seats will be lost at the next general election.

“The Green Party fully accepts any election between now and summer 2012 is going to be a very difficult election for them,” according to the party’s spokesman in Government.

Green TDs and Senators complain they face a constant struggle to persuade the electorate to shift its furious focus away from the Government’s unpopularity and on to specific policy achievements.

The party has, of course, gained much publicity, some of it unwanted, through its members’ use of the microblogging site Twitter, although this has been scaled back recently. A senior Fianna Fáil backbencher close to Taoiseach Brian Cowen, John Cregan, called on Green chairman Senator Dan Boyle to stop his “irresponsible” tweeting about political issues, and some Green Party sources were also less than enthusiastic about Boyle’s hyperactive use of the social networking website.

By any objective analysis, however, the party of just six TDs has punched above its weight in Coalition. The Green’s two Cabinet Ministers – party leader and Minister for the Environment John Gormley and Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Eamon Ryan – have helped secure much-needed reform of the planning process, placed a greater emphasis on renewable energy and seen the historic passing of the civil partnership legislation among other notable achievements.

Policy ambitions for the new Dáil term include, but are not limited to, legislation to ban corporate donations to political parties; movement on the promised Dublin mayoral election; and progress on nuisance-noise legislation – an issue promoted by Ciarán Cuffe, Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

While gossip about mild tensions between the Greens’ two Cabinet Ministers may occasionally amuse journalists in Leinster House, nevertheless the party has shown admirable unity of purpose since it emerged from opposition. Gormley and Ryan are said to disagree on strategy occasionally, but the pressures of being in Government at such precarious economic times has meant the party’s elected representatives no longer have the luxury of arguing with one another, publicly at least.

Relations with Coalition partners Fianna Fáil are now characterised as “workmanlike” by plain-speaking former leader Trevor Sargent, who resigned his position as minister of state with responsibility for food in February after admitting to contacting a garda about a case involving a constituent.

Points of difference with Fianna Fáil remain. For instance, the party wants the referendum on children’s rights, the Dublin mayoral election and the three outstanding byelections to go ahead at the same time, with former councillor Tom Kivlehan, expected to contest the Dublin South vacancy arising from the resignation of George Lee. However, it will not risk a destabilising spat with its Coalition partner over this issue.

The fluctuating political temperature means an election could take place sooner than either of the Government partners ever anticipated. The nature of the catalyst which prompts the poll could have a bearing on the extent of high-profile Green Party casualties. The party is attempting to adopt a “head-down” approach to what remains of its time in office, with a focus firmly on the economy and policy.

In rural areas dislike of Gormley in particular has reached unprecedented levels which have surprised his loyal supporters in the party. He is derided for being out of touch with country life, and was denounced by rural campaigners at the party’s convention in Waterford in March as “a fella on a bicycle in Dublin telling you how to run a farm”.

While there is a disproportionate southside Dublin, middle-class element to the party’s elected membership, Mid- West TD Paul Gogarty, who is loyal to Gormley, complains: “I think there’s a narrative out there that the Greens are about taxing people and we care more about animals than people. It’s not true and it’s totally unfair.

“John Gormley has become a hate figure in some circles. He’s been portrayed as the Michael McDowell of the Green Party.”

Gogarty says the Greens now have a “besieged” mentality. “We’re not at war with each other and not at war with Fianna Fáil. But we are perplexed at how to communicate we are more interested in people than animals, and not in trying to tax people for the fun of it.”

Although an animal welfare dinner is currently being promoted on the party’s website, an excessive focus on this element of the party’s work frustrates some handlers, keen to position the party as heavily involved in attempts to rectify the economy and banking sector.

However, an unexpected twist to the last Dáil term was the scale of Fianna Fáil revolt against controversial dog-breeding legislation and legislation to ban stag-hunting, which shocked Ministers and tested the cohesion of the Coalition briefly. The Greens may well come to wonder if it was worth it.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair admitted in his recently published autobiography that the contentious fox-hunting Bill was one of the parliamentary measures he most regretted getting involved in, and admitted not knowing enough about the debate at the time. The “primeval” passions aroused by the issue in Britain shocked Blair. “By the end of it, I felt like the damn fox,” he wrote.

Perhaps Gormley and his pack will feel the same way if voters decide to hunt them down and pick them off.

The Green Party

NUMBER OF TDs IN PARLIAMENTARY PARTY

6

PERCENTAGE OF VOTE IN 2007 GENERAL ELECTION

4.7%

PERCENTAGE OF VOTE IN 2009 LOCAL ELECTIONS

2.3%

PERCENTAGE OF VOTE IN JUNE 2010 IRISH TIMES POLL

3%

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