Shifting sands within Green Party signal a clash of culture as well as personalities
‘For some of us, what we’re witnessing is a coup,’ says party veteran
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan TD at Leinster House. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Below the current, monumental debates taking place within the Greens, the party’s internal shifting sands are also exercising the minds of many in its expanded ranks.
The spectacle of the Greens playing out their differences in public since their most successful general election ever – whether it is Catherine Martin’s decision to challenge Eamon Ryan for the leadership, or the criticism of Ryan by party colleagues for ill-advised comments made during a well-intentioned Dáil speech on racism – have led other parties to tut that the Greens, for all their wholesomeness, are as vicious as other politicians.
But one of the main problems, say many inside the Greens, is as much about structure and culture as it is about personality.
Party membership has swollen from just 700 two years ago to almost 3,000 now and for some older members, the recent recruits are much more assertive than anything they are used to. Comparisons are made to Momentum, the hard left group which supported Jeremy Corbyn in the UK Labour Party, and the Sunrise group of left climate activists in the US Democratic Party, and there is a belief many of the new intake are lining up to oppose coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and Ryan’s leadership.
One party veteran said it is “not just the typical internal party strife”, adding: “For some of us, what we’re witnessing is a coup.
“The party that I knew in the late 1980s and 1990s is being overturned, decision by decision, vote by vote, by a bunch of keyboard warriors. They want to be in government with Sinn Féin and Labour and the Soc Dems. No one else.”
For other Green veterans, such talk of a Corbyn-style takeover is exaggerated but there is nevertheless concern about the changing tone of debate within the party, with claims some aggressive and demeaning posts in WhatsApp groups are replacing civil and detailed policy debate.
Another said: “I don’t think it would be fair or accurate to say it is a large part of the Young Greens. There is a certain small cabal who have operated together and they have a real handle now on how politics works and operates and seemingly they know better. Difference is good – what I don’t want is intolerance and narrow mindedness.”
Others also remarked that younger members being more aggressive is not a phenomenon exclusive to the Greens, nor is a coarsening of debate caused on social media.
Ordinarily, debates such as those now facing the Greens are held in rooms and halls across various constituencies. Emotional arguments made from a podium or the body of a meeting can sway a room; differences can be settled over a drink after a heated meeting. Coronavirus restrictions have forced those debates online.
“It is a high-tension time, we have two big decisions, along with the Covid thing,” said one experienced party source. “You don’t have the safety valve or a pint or a chat.”
The source said social media had amplified what was always the “crotchety element” within the party, and that any divide is not necessarily generational.
Younger members being active across the party’s structures is also nothing new, argues this person. “That has happened before. Maybe it is a function of a tediously democratic party.”
A figure in the Young Greens says the party is “unrecognisable from what it was two years ago, never mind 10 years ago”.
“Nobody was complaining about the craic and enthusiasm when the Young Greens were out knocking on doors.
“There were an awful lot of people in the party who have never had anybody tell them who were wrong. I don’t want to say ‘the middle class bubble’.”
Concern that the structures of the party, more suited to a smaller operation used to decision-making by consensus, are no longer suitable for a much larger Green Party is widespread.
“How can you complain that there are different factions in the party but you could put your arm around them?” argues the Young Green. “It is impossible to get a consensus when you have 3,000 members.”
Older Greens argue for more party discipline, and claim there must be consequences when someone – such as Saoirse McHugh, the prominent young Mayo Green – speaks out against party policy. Younger Greens want structural and cultural reform to better manage disagreements. Even those fond of Ryan have been privately critical of his approach to party management since the election.
Significant reform of the party faces Ryan or Martin, whether the Greens enter government or not.