Bitter infighting in Green Party threatens to undermine Coalition

Row over Hazel Chu’s bid for Seanad seat highlights split between party’s leading figures

You just cannot overstate how important this week was for the Greens.

The Climate Action Bill was published. This is not just another programme for government item to be ticked off. This was its whole purpose for being in Government, for being in politics.

For party leader, Eamon Ryan it was the culmination of more than 30 years in politics. And it was substantial. Yes, there was the carbon neutral by 2050 bit. But the attention-grabber was a new commitment (with real teeth) to reduce emissions by a whopping 51 per cent by 2030.

And when the history of the Greens will be written, will this week be remembered for this? Or for a bitter, angry, self-destructive row over the decision by party chair and Dublin Lord Mayor Hazel Chu to run as an Independent candidate in next month's Seanad Éireann byelections.


Certainly from mid-Wednesday, that dispute has completely overshadowed the discourse on the legislation, as the volume has been pumped up by both sides.

The immediate context for this latest row is the Seanad byelections. There are two vacancies in the 60-seat Upper House, one on the Industrial and Commercial Panel and one on Agriculture.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil came to an agreement that they would divvy out the two seats between them, so are both running a candidate each. So where does the Green Party come into all of this? Supporters of Hazel Chu are adamant the party had no formal agreement with its Coalition partners and was free to choose its own candidate.

The majority of the parliamentary party is of the same view as Ryan that the party is in Government and should support Government candidates. The rationale behind this is if there is another byelection in future, the Greens will get first dibs to choose a Government candidate. Roughly translated, this might amount to an unspoken agreement or understanding.

Secondly, if a party wants to field a candidate for an election, there is normally a process. In the Greens, it is the party’s national executive which decides. The executive decided earlier this month the party would not hold a selection convention to choose a candidate. In other words, there would be no official Green candidate. The parliamentary party (its 16 TDs and Senators) also decided against a candidate, by a majority of 10 to six. However, neither of those decisions are the final word.

The Greens place a high bar on its decision-making. Key decisions require a two-thirds majority. But it works both ways. Because both bodies did not reject the motion by a two-thirds majority, there was nothing preventing Chu from seeking to run as an Independent candidate. In doing so, she and her supporters are quite right in saying that, technically, she has not broken any rules. That said, at this stage, it is not about that, rather about intentions and motive, and the larger game.

Divided party

The realpolitik is that Chu’s Seanad bid is the latest skirmish in a year-long battle of attrition within a divided party. It has manifested itself in the debate over entering coalition, the programme for government, housing policy, and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the EU (Ceta).

Only a fortnight ago, the Dublin South Central TD Patrick Costello (who happens to be Chu's partner) faced a tongue-lashing from colleagues over his High Court challenge to Ceta. And this week, the party's TDs and Senators divided roughly along the same lines.

Chu has said she is happy enough to be in the field, and it was important for her as a woman and as a person of colour that diversity be represented in the slate of candidates.

The objections of others is that if she had wanted to be a Green candidate, there were processes within the party that could have been triggered many weeks ago.

Senators Pippa Hackett and Pauline O'Reilly have come out in the past 24 hours to question whether or not her status as an Independent candidate is compatible with her being the chair of a political party. She has said she will probably take the Green whip if elected. But that does not get over the anomaly of the majority of her Green colleagues not voting for her in the byelection, including some of those who nominated her. Both sides have accused the other of lack of respect and notice, of foisting things upon them without notice.

During some very tense exchanges at the meeting on Wednesday night, Catherine Martin demanded that the three Senators who raised the confidence issue (Róisín Garvey was the third) withdraw it from the agenda. They refused, agreeing instead to defer the debate. The wider context for this is a battle over the heart of the Green Party and about who should lead it.

There is a sizeable minority (firmly to the left) which puts a huge emphasis on a just economic transition. They were largely opposed to entering government. A number of members holding these views have left the party in the past year after becoming disillusioned. They included high-profile councillors such as Peter Kavanagh, Lorna Bogue and Sophie Nicoullaud. Their figurehead of this wing is Martin. The pro-government side of the party identifies with Ryan.

While 70 per cent of the membership supported government, the dynamics of the Ryan and Martin camps are more complicated. Ryan barely survived the leadership contest with Martin last year. Martin is quite obviously ambitious to become leader and it can’t be ruled out that it could happen during the lifetime of this government.

Her supporters are impatient to get Ryan to spell out a succession plan to allow her a pathway to succeed him. The Green Party leader has always tried to avoid conflict (sometimes when he should not be avoiding it). As is his practice, he did not get involved at all in the row on Wednesday night, although his most loyal supporters in the party certainly did.

Since their beginnings in the early 1980s, the Greens have always prided themselves about being about policy and not about personality. That’s never been quite true but nowadays it seems they are more riven with feuds, squabbles and quarrels than even Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been.

The tricky relationship between Martin and Ryan is now becoming reminiscent of many leader-deputy leader tensions, notably that between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, or even Charlie Haughey and George Colley. Do they need to find a Granita restaurant somewhere (as Blair and Brown did in 1994) where they can sit down and hammer out their differences?

Whatever the outcome to this week’s row is, the party needs a plan to try to resolve all the unpleasantness and division that is there at present. If not, continuing infighting and feuding will certainly undermine the stability of the Coalition.