The takeaway quote from the Green Party’s first experience of coalition government was that uttered by the late Séamus Brennan during negotiations in 2007: “Ye are playing senior hurling now.”
It has often been repeated. For the Greens, if it were only senior hurling, it might have been alright, even in defeat. What they found themselves enmeshed in instead was prolonged, miserable and unrelenting trench warfare that ended with overwhelming humiliating destruction.
The party had six TDs and 16 full councillors when it went into coalition with Fianna Fáil in 2007. Soon after, it enjoyed its highest (until then) poll ratings of 8 per cent. Then the economic bubble popped. By February 2011 it had zero TDs, zero senators, zero MEPs, three councillors and no State funding.
Context is everything. If you are in the middle of a recession, you get attacked for everything you try to do
The battlefield of Irish politics is pockmarked with the corpses of smaller parties that have entered coalition as “junior partners”. Somehow the Greens managed to survive. A decade later, the party finds itself in a similar position, negotiating government-formation with parties that it would be the last to mark down on its dance card. The Green Party is now stronger, and its putative partners are much weaker relatively, but in reality only two or three of its 14 TDs and Senators have togged out at this level before.
“So many of the TDs now are brand new not only to government but to national politics,” says a party figure with experience of the last government. “The first attack will happen as soon as they agree to go into government. And then the hits will come ferociously, from every angle at every moment. It will be Stalingrad.”
So what can the Green Party learn from its last experience? Veterans of that government point out it brought about major impacts on environmental policy, on equality, and on social change, but that all were lost in the wash of the recession. Instead, the party was seen as propping up reckless Fianna Fáil and trying to kill off rural Ireland.
One senior figure says it failed to stitch key commitments into the programme for government, which meant it was “already behind the eight ball”. The party also found out that the go-ahead for the controversial section of the M3 motorway near the Hill of Tara had already been given.
Still, its influence began to bear fruit. There was the carbon budget, public transport, the “bike to work” tax-saver scheme, income equality, reductions of waste, new building standards, emissions taxes for cars, and a carbon tax.
“The problem is this,” says a second senior person in that government. “Context is everything. If you are in the middle of a recession, you get attacked for everything you try to do.
“If the Greens go into government this time, they will have to agree to an economic package, to bailing out the airlines, to cutting Covid-19 payments to many young people. From the get-go it is going to be hard. There will be a backlash for new climate policies.”
Then chairman Dan Boyle puts it another way. "With the economic downturn, environmental issues went down in the pecking order. Your ability to argue for them was very limited. We found ourselves in a political vacuum."
Fianna Fáil readily agreed to the Greens' measures but dilly-dallied on implementation
To get into government the party needed to get two-thirds backing from its membership and got 84 per cent support. Two years later, after poor results in the local and European elections, Boyle insisted on a renewed programme for government.
The Greens sent Fianna Fáil a long list of demands, including a climate change act and an annual target of reducing emissions by 3 per cent, as well as a ban on stag hunting. At the time, I asked a Green adviser, known for his laconic humour, did Fianna Fáil send a similar list? “They sure did,” he declared. “They want to reintroduce cock-fighting and bare-knuckle midnight boxing in pub carparks.”
Of course they didn’t. Arch-pragmatists Fianna Fáil conceded most of the asks. In the event – despite all the knocks the Greens had taken – members backed it with 84 per cent support, although there was less support (71 per cent) for establishing the National Asset Management Agency.
Fianna Fáil readily agreed to measures but dilly-dallied on implementation – for example, quibbling over the 3 per cent target after it had been agreed. “There was a lot of wrangling over that,” says one of the senior figures.
A party insider points to other obstacles faced by the party. If the Civil Service is opposed to a new policy or direction it can obstruct it by saying it’s not settled practice. To overcome that, a rigmarole involving policy papers, memos and circular discussions takes places. “It’s like a Sir Humphrey plotline from Yes Minister.”
Another form of attack came from the backbenches of Fianna Fáil. Their trope was the Greens were destroying rural Ireland and farming, and they were given free rein to frame that narrative despite being in government. The Greens say it is a patent falsehood but it lingers – it can be discerned in the comments of Simon Coveney this month.
In the last year of government a pro-stag hunting organisation RISE (Rural Ireland Says Enough) drew some 2,000 protesters to a Green conference in Waterford.
In December 2010, the plug was pulled on the coalition in a farcical manner just as big initiatives (including the Climate Change Bill) were nearing completion.
Boyle, as chair, represented the views of members and was often a critical voice. He railed, for example, against the lack of a banking inquiry. In the last year of the regime, the party’s public image was “an accessory after the fact” to Fianna Fáil. It left government with a sense of unfinished business.
“We did manage a better programme for government,” says Boyle. “We were on the cusp of having a lot of legislation passed when the government fell. We did get some important changes through. I am proudest of the Civil Partnership Act [the precursor to same-sex marriage].
“The membership is different now,” says the second member of that government. “There are more who align themselves with radical action and will not be satisfied. The lessons is that it has to be a really good programme with no compromise on the big issues. You have to have the parliamentary party on board and environmental groups. And even then you can’t predict it can get through with any degree of certainty.”