Votes of Northern Greens could impact on whether party enters coalition

Less than 200 of 800 party members in Northern Ireland register to vote on coalition deal

The Green Party’s Northern leader, South Belfast MLA Clare Bailey, abstained from the parliamentary party’s vote on the programme for government. Photograph:   Arthur Allison

The Green Party’s Northern leader, South Belfast MLA Clare Bailey, abstained from the parliamentary party’s vote on the programme for government. Photograph: Arthur Allison

 

The votes of Northern Greens could be important in determining whether or not a government will be formed in the Republic, in the event of a close contest, as the party needs to get approval from two-thirds of its members if it is to enter coalition.

The party in Northern Ireland has been remarkably silent – all the more surprising given the Greens’ usually vocal stance on other issues.

Indeed, that none of its two MLAs and eight councillors in the North has publicly endorsed the programme for government must inevitably raise questions about the extent of enthusiasm north of the Border.

The Green Party in Northern Ireland has about 800 members, approximately a fifth of the total membership on the island.

About two-thirds of the Greens’ membership in the Republic have registered to vote on coalition, but just 195 Northern members have registered.

Abstained

In a brief statement following the agreement of a draft programme for government between the Greens, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael on Monday, the Northern Greens noted the “welcome development” but said that “as always, the devil will be in the detail”.

The party’s Northern leader, South Belfast MLA Clare Bailey, abstained from the parliamentary party’s vote on the programme for government on Monday, on the basis that she had not had the opportunity to read the document in its entirety.

Declining an interview request from The Irish Times on Wednesday, a party press officer explained the document was still being considered, and the focus was on internal discussions with members.

The Irish Times contacted Ms Bailey, her fellow MLA, Rachel Woods, and the party’s eight Northern councillors by phone. Ms Bailey, Ms Woods and six councillors – deputy leader Malachai O’Hara, Stephen Dunlop, Anthony Flynn, Áine Groogan, Barry McKee and Kathryn McNickle – did not respond, while Belfast councillor Brian Smyth suggested contacting the press office.

Only one councillor, Simon Lee – who represents Lisburn and Castlereagh – was willing to answer questions, saying he was keeping an “open mind” and wanted to “listen to both sides of the argument” at Thursday’s convention. He could not comment, he said, on how the rest of the Northern membership might vote.

He put his colleagues’ reticence down to a “different culture” in the North. In the Republic there was more of a tendency to “play things out in public”, he said. “It’s an internal matter, so we’ll discuss it internally.”

The so-called “Green Wave”, which was the talk of the council elections south of the Border in 2019, was less in evidence in the North. That said, the party still enjoyed its best ever showing at council level, doubling its share of first preferences to 2.1 per cent, and going from four to eight council seats. These are all in the east, in Belfast and in the adjoining areas of Ards and North Down and Lisburn and Castlereagh.

The party has always attracted a mixed membership. That, in the Northern context, means Catholic and Protestant. It has walked this tightrope by “assiduously” avoiding constitutional issues and focusing on environmental ones, says political commentator Brian Feeney.

Accepting the programme for government would put the Northern Greens firmly on one side of that constitutional argument, argues Mr Feeney. He puts their official silence down to a reluctance to get into the “difficult position” of having to defend commitments on a “shared island” and controversial legacy matters.

Sensitive

David McCann, deputy editor of political website Slugger O’Toole, says the party is “sensitive” to the potential charge that it could be the Northerners who stop the party going into government in the Republic.

One grassroots source sums it up: “There’s not a lot to be gained from a Northern perspective in being very publicly supportive or otherwise.

“It never looks good to be going against your colleagues in the South, and being supportive could have negative consequences, so I can see why they’re keeping their heads down.”

Nevertheless, their votes could be decisive, and it is currently far from clear if they will back the programme for government.

The Greens in the North are “different”, is how another party source put it. “A wee bit more left wing.”

The former party leader in the North and former councillor, John Barry, has no qualms about speaking out. He is “resolutely against” the programme for government, and has used social media to campaign for a no vote.

“I think it’s achieved quite a bit,” he says of the draft programme, “but I think we could do better”. His “big fear” is that “Fine Gael will insist on austerity as part of the package”.

Mr Barry concludes: “This is a division that isn’t between North and South, it’s a genuine strategic and ideological division within the party.”