Party leader says ‘Green surge is on’ ahead of Assembly election

Steven Agnew aims to hold two seats but is targeting gains, particularly in Belfast East

Steven Agnew of the Green Party in Northern Ireland:  “I believe that people are ahead of their politicians on many of the issues that have been sticking points in the past.” Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Steven Agnew of the Green Party in Northern Ireland: “I believe that people are ahead of their politicians on many of the issues that have been sticking points in the past.” Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

In a world of Orange and Green sectarian politics, the Green Party leader in Northern Ireland insists it offers the most progressive, non-sectarian choice on offer to voters at the upcoming Assembly election.

Currently, the Greens have three councillors and they doubled their representation in Stormont last year to two MLAs when Clare Bailey won in Belfast South to join the party’s leader, Steven Agnew, who was first elected in North Down in 2011.

Though trifling by comparison with the numbers enjoyed by the main Stormont parties, the addition of Bailey and two People Before Profit candidates has brought an edge to the Assembly’s tribal-dominated proceedings.

Agnew claims “the Green surge is on” and he is optimistic they can increase seat numbers after March 2nd. “We weren’t a party born out of the conflict, stuck in that mindset,” he said.

“We are cross-community almost by default, we don’t shout about it, it is just what we do. We are a party neither unionist nor nationalist because we are internationalist,” he said at the launch of the party’s election manifesto.

There, he outlined its vision for breaking the predicted post-election deadlock, including strategies for the economy, energy, housing, transport, health and providing greater scrutiny of government.

The Greens are calling for a constitutional convention after the election, one Agnew says “has the potential to reinvigorate the Good Friday agreement and bring decision-making closer to the people.

“I believe that people are ahead of their politicians on many of the issues that have been sticking points in the past,” said Agnew, who joined the Greens in 2003 after attending a protest at Belfast City Hall against the Iraq war.

Marriage equality

Five years ago, he was the first MLA to bring a marriage equality motion to the Assembly, which helped to highlight the discrimination faced in their daily lives by the LGBT community in Northern Ireland.

Marking another not insignificant legislative success, Agnew’s private members Bill resulted in the Children’s Services Cooperation Act requiring government to work together for the needs of children.

In September 2013, however, he was the first MLA to raise questions with the then DUP trade and investment minister, Arlene Foster, about the risks of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme – now known as the “cash for ash” scandal.

Back then, he was fobbed off: “I am paraphrasing but the minister’s response was that she assumed people would have energy efficiency measures in place and we see where that assumption led to,” he said.

Code of conduct

In one of the final acts of the Assembly which was eventually brought to its knees by the cash-for-ash scandal, MLAs agreed to his call for independent investigations in future if ministers are suspected of breaching the code of conduct.

Eighteen Greens are running in each of NI’s constituencies next month, including Ellen Murray in Belfast West who last year became the first transgender election candidate in Ireland’s history.

Agnew is confident of holding two seats, but he is targeting gains elsewhere, particularly in Belfast East where its candidate lost out a seat last year but could prosper if there is a swing against the DUP over the botched RHI scheme.

Bailey, a former sexual abuse charity worker who is passionate about women’s and minority rights, says “if you hate waste, vote Green” and that her party will “fight for the public’s voice to be heard and end wasted opportunities”.

“Every other party elected to the Assembly, their whole reason for being is rooted in our conflict and our separation as a society,” she said. “The Green Party comes from somewhere completely different,” she said.