Miriam Lord: Green wave leaves FF and FG treading water
Ryan and Co are an attractive proposition to major party wanting a political partner
The Greens were glowing.
Positively radiant, having just been swept from the ranks of the unappreciated right to the top of the eligibility league.
The apple of every leaders’ eye.
But were they lifted by a Green tide or merely flattered by a seasonal algal bloom?
After a terrific showing for Eamon Ryan and his colleagues in the local and European elections, the two main parties must figure out the answer to that question.
But in the meantime, neither Leo Varadkar nor Micheál Martin can ignore the figures. If the Greens do as well in a general election, they will most likely hold the key to power – which is a very handsome dowry for a small grouping in search of government.
Suddenly, they look a very attractive proposition to a major party in want of a political partner.
This new state of affairs brought out a heartwarming display of gallantry from the Taoiseach, who didn’t want to be caught casting covetous glances in the direction of new coalition soulmates while still doing the Government tango with a group of Independents.
“It would be really inappropriate of me to be looking around the walls for a new dance partner,” Leo unconvincingly declared on Sunday while on a quick visit to the Dublin count centre in the RDS. But he couldn’t help admiring the Greens for making the running on climate change and winning so many voters to their side of the argument.
Make no mistake, he vowed Fine Gael was going to go all out now to follow their lead.
The Attenborough Bounce
In Cork, Micheál Martin and his Fianna Fáil senior officers were making the same pledge. There are some people out there who continue to deny that climate change is happening.
It happened in Ireland in the space of 24 hours this weekend, witnessed by an entire nation.
As Green Party leader Eamon Ryan finally consigned the awful memory of his last European election count to the non-recycle bin of the past (he thought he had won a seat only for his hopes to be dashed at the tail end of a marathon count), the main parties underwent a chastening climate change experience of their own.
They will be hoping that the big surge in support for the Green Party is down to the Attenborough Bounce – a voter reaction spurred on by recent documentaries from the world’s favourite natural history expert which they may be able to counter with through policy tweaking and market research.
For now though, the man of the moment is former Green junior minister Ciarán Cuffe, who topped the poll in the Dublin constituency and left some political big guns in his wake.
“I have to pinch myself,” he said on Sunday afternoon, locking his bicycle to the fence outside the local election count centre. “I’m not sure about the Elderflower wine which everyone keeps talking about, but I think a bottle of something nice will definitely be cracked open when I finally get home tonight.”
Former Green party leader and former tánaiste, John Gormley was to the forefront of the last Green wave. This one is just as good.
“I’m not surprised we topped the poll but I am surprised by the extent of it. In my own constituency we got over two quotas.”
Having tasted the highs and the lows in his political career, Gormley wasn’t worried that the party’s fantastic nationwide showing might be a flash in the pan.
“There’s a whole new dynamic in the party, with committed young people who will have to be listened to.”
While the so-called Green Tide was the big story of the election, it slipped down to second place in the news cycle even before the first European election votes were counted on Sunday. Would the result have any impact on the timing of a general election?
The Taoiseach teased with vague answers. He didn’t envisage one happening soon but he couldn’t say anything more definite that that. This was because Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil have the option of “pulling the plug” on his administration at a time of their choosing.
“I don’t intend to be calling into Áras an Úachtaráin in the next couple of days anyway.”
Which is a relief. But he can’t rule anything out either.
So if the Government falls, it won’t be his fault, presumably.
Leo Varadkar arrived at the RDS during the Six One news – having spent the afternoon at the races in the Curragh. Was he contemplating a general election? No, but that didn’t mean he might be forced to call one.
What it does mean is that journalists will keep asking him about it and talking about the possibility until an election until it actually happens. This could take weeks or many months and will prove a useful weapon of distraction for the Taoiseach when he wants to deflect media interest in other, more embarrassing, matters.
Sinn Féin has had a terrible experience. Around the RDS, supporters looked very glum. For the new breed, this is relatively unknown territory – the party has performed well in recent outings. Questions were already being asked about the future of party leader, Mary Lou McDonald.
The Taoiseach was right to keep stirring the speculation pot.
Should Fianna Fáil pull the plug while Sinn Féin is at a low ebb? Should Fine Gael chance it, even though the party hasn’t put clear water between itself and Fianna Fáil?
All these questions are for another day as far as the Greens are concerned. Efforts to put Ciarán Cuffe on the spot about entering coalition proved unsuccessful on Sunday, he dodged the issue with a smile, a shimmy from the microphones and run for cover.
Meanwhile, the narrative that the young people of Ireland are responsible for the Attenborough Bounce because they convinced their mammies and grannies to vote Green gained ground with commentators. It wasn’t so popular with the older cohort of voters who also know their own minds and are very worried about the kind of world that might be left behind by their generation for the generations to come.
As evening moved into night and impossibly slow counts ground on, a relaxed looking Frances Fitzgerald arrived to check progress. She knew she had a seat in Europe. “People wanted to give a message about climate change and that is very clear”, she said, clearly on message.
An resolutely upbeat Mary Lou McDonald arrived as it grew closer to 10pm. Her supporters were subdued, but the Sinn Féin leader felt the last seat in Dublin would “go down to the wire” and the party was still in the running for seats in all the constituencies.
“We come here in a spirit of optimism,” she said.
As Leo left the RDS in the early evening, a middle aged man wearing navy slacks and a purple golf sweater tried to speak to him outside the building. The Taoiseach was already in his car but the man tried to force himself in through the passenger door. He had to be physically hauled out of the vehicle by gardaí.
Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy was assailed by protesters on Saturday and Sunday when he went to the local count in the RDS.
“You can stick your co-living up your arse! Up yer arse!” sang a group from People Before Profit.
But overall, the mood was quiet in an election which had something in it for almost everyone.
Last in to the RDS was a jubilant knot of Greens, with Ciarán Cuffe modestly leading the sedate procession into the hall. He was delighted. The celebration was already planned.
“It’ll be a bottle of Five Lamps lager once I get out of here.”