Off-colour Green Party continues to be dogged by infighting and disputes
The party lost members since going into Government and is no longer just about green issues
Eamon Ryan: Catherine Martin ran him to a handful of votes in the Green Party’s leadership contest. Photograph: Getty Images
In the past two years the Greens have smashed all electoral records for the party with 46 councillors, and 12 TDs. It has three senior Ministers in the coalition, all with major portfolios. The party’s membership has also doubled from 2,000 to 4,000 in the past year.
Yet here’s the catch. For a party which has never had it so good, things could hardly be worse for the Greens.
The party has had a turbulent first four months in Government. After last month’s budget and draft climate-change legislation, it looked like the bumps had been ironed out. But within weeks another crisis erupted over Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman’s Mother and Baby Homes legislation. It prompted a number of high-profile resignations from the party, including Cork councillor Lorna Bogue, Meath East candidate Sean McCabe and chair of the Young Greens Tara Gilsenan.
All three were on the left wing of the party, ardently opposed to the Greens entering coalition, and involved with the radical Just Transition Greens.
Another person, who wished not to be named, said the party’s policies on bullying and respect are out-of-date and are not given to members on joining
However, it would be wrong to say that members have been leaving the Greens just because of policy differences. For a party that prides itself on placidity and policy focus, 2020 has been characterised by infighting and personality disputes, bitter exchanges on WhatsApp groups, and allegations of toxic rows, bullying, structural misogyny and sexual harassment.
There has also been a tussle around leadership, with Catherine Martin running Eamon Ryan to a handful of votes.
“It’s a bit like Sinn Féin in 2016,” said one experienced member. “They grew very quickly with a lot of young members or people who were new to politics. That led to clashes and the claim of a culture of bullying within Sinn Féin.
“It’s been a bit like that for us. The composition of the party has changed and it’s no longer just about green issues. The party simply doesn’t have the structures to cope.”
Gilsenan, a TCD student, was a member of the Young Greens for two years. Her reasons for leaving encapsulate the systemic issues that need to be addressed. She and a Young Green made a complaint of sexual harassment but it was never passed on to the two officers in the party who deal with such matters.
“It was a very serious issue but was not adequately dealt with,” she said. “They should have procedures in place. To me there was an imbalance of power and the system was really shocking.”
Another person, who wished not to be named, said the party’s policies on bullying and respect are out-of-date and are not given to members on joining. Nor is there a designated person named as first contact point to make such complaints.
The party has acknowledged there is a problem in this area. Ryan said during the leadership contest the procedures were for a small party but not fit for purpose any longer.
'We value keeping their meetings private unlike Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. That’s why there was no hullabaloo or drama'
“Genuinely as a woman I would never deny somebody’s serious experience of sexual harassment,” says Senator Pauline O’Reilly from Galway. “People have to be taken seriously. We have to deal with it. There is a new executive elected and part of its work will be to look at [that complaints] procedure.”
A number of those disillusioned with the party in coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, such as Bogue and Gilsenan, left partly over the Mother and Baby Homes legislation tabled by O’Gorman – it provided for data collected by the Commission of Investigation to be transferred to Tusla but sealed it for 30 years.
“It was the final straw for me,” says Gilsenan. “I have huge respect for [MEP] Grace O’Sullivan. She told us to try opposing from within. But it was just not working. We were totally ignored.”
For his part O’Gorman said the legislation was good in that the database was saved from being redacted permanently (effectively erased). However, he said he made a mistake by not engaging with survivor groups early. “That allowed miscommunications and misunderstanding.”
He said he was now in the process of engaging with survivors and would continue to do so.
Another Government controversy soon followed with news of Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s leak of a confidential document. But the Greens’ approach to this was very restrained compared to its coalition partners.
Party sources say there was an “internal robust debate” involving all TDs and senators soon after the story broke. The party quickly arrived at a unified view it was inappropriate, should not have happened with Catherine Martin saying on the Monday a full and frank statement was required from the Tánaiste.
'It has been a tough four months. Internal party disputes keep bubbling up. We need to regroup in some way and refocus on our priorities'
“Look we value keeping their meetings private unlike Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. That’s why there was no hullabaloo or drama,” said a source. Muted as it was, the source said it was a successful ploy. However, it was admitted the party has struggled badly with its strategy on other issues including the mother and baby legislation, and, ironically its own climate change legislation.
“It was the old Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael thing, putting in woolly language and not including specific targets. That was a big mistake,” said one.
Several of those who spoke for this article pointed out the party has not been effective with communications and has seemed to be behind the curve.
One of the things that has become increasingly hard to do is extricate the personal from the political within the party this year.
“It has been a tough four months,” says Minister of State for Forestry Pippa Hackett. “Internal party disputes keep bubbling up. We need to regroup in some way and refocus on our priorities.”
Hackett says losing members over the coalition decision was inevitable.
“People were deeply unhappy with us in government and could not reconcile that. If we did not go into government we would have lost more people. The core of the Green way is passive. It seems we have strayed from that a little.”
Party chair and Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu says she is “sad and disappointed that people are leaving. Some of those people are friends".
“As a Green Party we can definitely do better, and we will. There have been wins, including the budget, but we need to improve. There have been elements we have not handled well.”
Like Chu, general election candidate Tate Donnelly (21) from Monaghan voted against coalition and his experience reflects the complicated choices facing those who were in the minority.
“I do not agree with everything the party has been doing in government. But no political party is perfect. I have no intention to leave at the minute but cannot entirely rule that out either.”
Donnelly is a member of Just Transition Greens, which is decidedly left in worldview, with strong social justice overtones. It is affiliated to the party but includes members who are not Green members or are members of other parties.
Donnelly believes for those who could not reconcile with coalition, this group provides an important outlet to maintain political activity. “It’s genuinely helpful, and I’m disappointed there are members of he party who were suspicious and saw it as a threat. It’s not about that.”
For some the fact that a small number of Just Transition member are supposedly members of other parties presents a quandary.
“We do need to look at the meaning of an affiliated group,” says Reilly. “We may get to a situation where there are more affiliated groups voting on policy than constituency groups. That may be an issue.”
Waterford TD Marc Ó Cathasaigh says of those who have departed:“They are often bright, engaged and ideologically motivated, and are the people who should be building the movement.”
He points to social distancing as a contributory factor to some of the tension.
'We are focused on policy. Our perspective is not just about ideals. It’s about implementing them'
“Covid restrictions have made interpersonal relationships more difficult. My own constituency group has not had a physical meeting since March, and it’s so harder to check with people over Zoom.
“We have experienced huge growth over the last 18 months, and there’s huge work to do to scale up our internal structures to make sure we cope better with members’ concerns.”
For his part, O’Gorman says the departures need to be put in context.
“A total of 200 people have left the party in the past two months. That has been massively outweighed by new members joining, even since the election.
“The fact is we had a lengthy debate on [Government]. We got a strong mandate of 76 per cent of members. That’s the reason we are in Government.”
Minister of State for Heritage and Biodiversity Malcolm Noonan accepts the party has lost good members. “But that’s not telling the full story. The party continues to grow in numbers. Most people are supportive of what we are doing.”
Junior partners in Government have tried different gambits to survive, usually with unsuccessful results. The Progressive Democrats were the ethical watchdog, Labour tried to focus on social justice, more liberal laws, protecting public policy.
With the Greens in 2007, and now in 2020, everybody you speak to returns to policy as the salvation of the party in government. It needs success on all its “big ticket” priorities.
“We need to achieve on climate and biodiversity, housing, transport, health, just transition,” says Noonan. “I am very confident. What we have set in train is very ambitious. We are having an influence.”
Says Reilly: “We are focused on policy. Our perspective is not just about ideals. It’s about implementing them. With climate action it is not enough to say it needs to be done. You have to decide to do it, and hopefully bring people with you.”