For more than a decade after being founded in the early 1980s policy in the Green Party had to be agreed by consensus.
It left some of its more ambitious members tearing their hair out with frustration. If one member disagreed with a change, it was effectively vetoed. It left policy in a state of near paralysis. That was how messy it was back then.
The party holds its national convention this weekend (all done virtually) after going through a messy period, which included a decisive vote to enter Government; its leader surviving a challenge by the deputy leader by the skin of his teeth and two TDs getting slaps on the wrist for not supporting Government votes, in addition to bucket-loads of internal WhatsApp squabbling and personality disputes. It has been fraught, no doubt about it. The question is: is this temporary – the teething pains of Government or is it a more permanent division?
The three-day conference will be telling as to the state of the party and its cohesion. In the old days the split in the party was between fundies (fundamentalist ecologists brooking no compromise) and realos (realists/pragmatists). Now the divide seems to be more between environmentalists and leftists, the latter finding a home in the newly formed Just Transition group. When you think of how different members view Eamon Ryan’s leadership, you are reminded of the famous conundrum posed by Homer Simpson: “Beer: the cause and solution of all my problems.”
Dealing with the pandemic
Truncated as it was, the summer recess allowed a bit of a cooling-off period and internal disputes quieted somewhat. Party sources have said Ryan has been unusually forceful with the parliamentary party and Green officials in keeping everything on an even keel during a critical period in dealing with the pandemic. And so the party has been quiet in Government. It has not tried to assert itself á la the Progressive Democrats of old, or pushed any of its policies to distinguish itself from the two larger partners. The only visible policy advance so far has been Minister of State for Agriculture Pippa Hackett’s Forestry Bill and that is not even her party’s, being an inherited legacy issue.
Ryan, Martin and Roderic O'Gorman need to start moving political mountains, and fast
Some of the heat has dissipated but the fault lines are still there. Considerable attention this weekend will be on the election of the new 15-member executive committee, with 10 places up for a vote.
For pro-Ryan supporters, the executive committee has been a difficult place in recent years. They are of the view that a majority on the committee are leftist and/or Catherine Martin supporters, with an agenda that runs counter to that of the leadership. It was the executive committee which effectively barred Senators (all three pro-coalition) from casting votes when the parliamentary party decided on a possible coalition. It also gave the go-ahead for the left-wing Just Transition group to be formed. For some, it is a body that has acted as a partial block to those favouring coalition. They see it as wielding too much power and influence in comparison to elected representatives.
Others in the party, not aligned to either side, don’t see things in such dramatic terms and say Just Transition’s influence has been overstated.
That said, one of the key technical motions would result, if passed, in an important aspect of the party’s finances being transferred to the control of the executive committee. At the moment State funding from the party leaders’ allowance is allocated by the committee, but in consultation with the TDs. If there is no agreement, the final decision rests with the TDs. The motion from the executive committee would change that, making the fund allotted by it in consultation with the party leader. But the party leader does not get the final decision.
A scan of the 26 candidates for the 10 elected positions on the committee reflect a concerted move to rebalance. Eleven of the candidates are recognisably pro-Coalition. At least seven are from the social justice side.
The Just Transition group brings an extra layer of complexity to the Greens. It lies close in policy outlook to People Before Profit, including some of its members opposing a carbon tax. Two of its TDs – Neasa Hourigan and Patrick Costello – are members. Its co-chair, Cork Cllr Lorna Bogue has been something of a thorn in the side of the Greens in Government, railing against her party and leader.
“If there’s any environmentalists left who still think the Green Party in Government would protect the environment I gently invite you to look at the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020 and the manner in which it is moving through the Oireachtas right now,” said Bogue recently.
Just Transition reflects global trends in radical political activism which have occurred outside party structures, such as Extinction Rebellion and even Momentum in the United Kingdom.
Can they make a mark?
This ginger group has been a bane for supporters of the leadership while others see its influence as overstated. “They had an online conference last week where they had 120 people, which wasn’t huge,” said one TD who believes it is niche. He added that the party’s general disposition is better reflected by the majority who supported Coalition.
There are interesting motions this weekend. The MEPs have tabled one proposing the party have co-leaders of different genders; Dublin South-Central wants it to be mandatory for bookmakers to have a duty of care to their customers; and there is the hardy annual of a universal basic income (which also happens to be in the programme for government).
The party’s members, of whatever hue, moderate or radical, won’t accept acquiescence at any cost. The Greens have been underwhelming since entering Government and need to begin sticking the elbow in to make some kind of mark, the enormity of the Covid-19 challenge notwithstanding. Some of the party’s Ministers of State have been anonymous to date. Ryan, Martin and Roderic O’Gorman need to start moving political mountains, and fast. For this might be a wait-and-see convention, but you can be sure party members won’t be so patient next year.