Grassroot Greens weigh risks and potential upside of government
Party needs backing of 67% of members in order to enter coalition
Green Party TD Joe O’Brien, deputy leader Catherine Martin, party leader Eamon Ryan and Senator Pippa Hackett at the launch of the party’s general election campaign in January. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
A few years ago, Claire Hillery from Galway had her “epiphany moment”. She was interested in climate change but now became interested about its impact not only on her generation but also on future generations.
“I worried about my children and their future. I suddenly realised I needed to be a lot more active.”
It was then she joined the Green Party, becoming one of an influx of members unprecedented for a political party in modern times. In the past three years, its membership has more than trebled to 3,200, an increase without precedent in modern Irish politics.
Thirteen years ago, in a seminal moment for the party, an overwhelming 84 per cent of members voted to enter coalition with Fianna Fáil.
Now in 2020, the party is facing a similar vote. The high bar in the party’s constitution, which requires 67 per cent of members to approve any coalition deal, remains. However, the party’s composition is far larger and more complex now.
Many would think the influx would be predominantly young but that’s not quite true. Hillery is as representative of the new membership as any: in their 30s, often parents, often joined after a deep dive into the whole subject area.
For that reason, the evidence is the majority will support a programme if agreed. The imponderable is whether it will be the 67 per cent required.
The Irish Times spoke to dozens of Green Party members throughout the country to gauge the mood of its grassroots on government-formation talks with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. The surprise was so many of its newer members were a little older than expected.
Younger members, and there are plenty, would generally be more reticent about coalition but as Laura Donaghy from Dublin Mid West points out: “The picture is complex. There are many Young Greens who want to go into government. In fact, there is a wide spectrum of views across all ages and regions of the party.”
On some issues there is 100 per cent unity: climate change, emissions, biodiversity, public transport, health and housing.
“Housing was a big issue on the doorsteps,” says Aisling Connaughton from Athlone. “People promised to support us on that issue. It was huge for them.”
Ciara Ní Laighin, a member based in Co Limerick, says: “We can recycle until we are blue in the face but it’s useless unless actions are taken at the highest level. I have two kids, boys who are nine and and 11. You begin to wonder: how will I answer to them when they ask me how I acted during the climate emergency?”
Indeed, practically all 17 items on the party’s ‘wish list’ feature in conversations, including a living wage, a land-use plan, the Shannon LNG plant and a just transition.
One issue cropped up with almost everyone and very strongly. It was direct provision, which is a potential deal-breaker for many.
“This is a huge issue for me. For 20 years Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have maintained direct provision with no intention of ending the system,” says Rob O’Sullivan from Cork North Central, who will probably vote against coalition. His sentiments were echoed by others, including Ed English from Limerick.
“Top of my list along with climate change is direct provision,” says English.
Where views really diverge is on coalition. There are three groups – pro; anti; and those veering for or against but open to persuasion. For this latter group it will mainly boil down to a measurable metric – policy proposals – as well as an immeasurable one: trusting Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to deliver.
“I am worried about the mood music from Fine Gael Ministers,” says Donaghy. “It needs to be tempered.”
She says there are questions of trust*, as well as solid policy commitments, that need to be settled.
And there is general uncertainty. “I am on a [Green] WhatsApp group,” says Richelle Duggan from Mullingar. “Not many of us are sure what to think yet. We are waiting and waiting to see what emerges.”
A member from Waterford best sums up the view of the strong advocates of government: “We cannot say there is a biodiversity crisis and then say wait another five years. The planet cannot wait for five years in the hope of a perfect Green moment.”
There is an air of realism that the very act of going into government could mean potential wipeout.
“It has taken us 30 years to win two council seats and a TD in Limerick,” says English. “We are well aware we can lose all that. The offer on the table has to be on a scale that the party knows will make a huge difference.”
But all of those who argue for coalition repeat the sentiment of the Greens being a party that influences most from within government.
Victor Browne from Limerick says: “Personally I feel that the country needs a stable government. We cannot panic. We need to get the best deal for social justice and the environment.”
Others posit a contrary view. “It’s not just the next decade. It is consistent action over 20 or 30 years that is crucial,” says O’Sullivan. If the Greens get eviscerated in the next election, he asks, who will defend climate change?
In Dublin Central, the disposition is different. “When we canvassed, many people told us they did not want us to prop up Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael,” says one member. “They can promise the moon and the stars. But do we trust them to hold up to the commitments? Personally I think it is better to be a strong voice in opposition.”
Ní Laighin disagrees. “We will never be in government unless we are junior partners. You can talk about who you trust and who you do not trust but at the end of the day you need to go in with somebody.”
Fiona Irwin, from North Dublin, says: “There are no parties with pure hands. If there was a combination involving Sinn Féin and many Independents it would not be stable or necessarily good to address climate change.”
Those leaning against say they will need something very big. “At this point I would be looking towards staying out,” says Patricia Thorp from Rush, in Dublin. “They will focus on the economy and for things the Green Party want done the money will not be there. Of course I am open to persuasion.”
George Blain, from north Dublin, says the political naivety of the past must end. He is one of those who point out the very unusual realities of the pandemic present an opportunity. “We can get rid of a lot of ridiculous commuting. Why fly to Berlin or go to Kerry for a meeting when you can use Zoom?”
This is another theme, a temporal one, expressed by those keen for coalition.
The pandemic has led to personal re-evaluations for many. There’s been a a fall in emissions, more biodiversity, clear birdsong, less traffic, less noise, less urgency. For some this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for radical reform to be grasped before old habits return.
*This article was amended on June 2nd, 2020