Diarmaid Ferriter: Can the Greens defy history?

Party has momentum on climate change, but faces old questions of purity versus participation

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan had his work cut out for him after the party’s annihilation in the 2011 general election. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan had his work cut out for him after the party’s annihilation in the 2011 general election. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Following the Green Party’s annihilation in the 2011 general election, its leader John Gormley sent an email to members suggesting it was time for a “new beginning” and that there was a “need to get back to our roots as a radical campaigning party”.

New leader Eamon Ryan had his work cut out for him because as Gormley put it at the subsequent party meeting that ratified the new leadership, “just at the time when our message is more relevant than ever we suffered our worst electoral defeat”.

As recounted by journalist Mary Minihan, the guest speaker that day was Swedish MP Agneta Borjesson, who outlined how the Swedish Green Party rebuilt after enduring a wipeout following its first period in government.

Buoyed by this, Ryan predicted: “In 20 years we should have 25 members of Dáil Éireann and follow your example.”

Perhaps they will. Although there was exaggerated talk during the week about Green waves, tides and tsunamis, the party has a decent base to work from; it is also flexing its political muscles as part of a wider international sentiment and a bigger Green bloc in the European Parliament.

Dilemmas

But the same dilemmas might well emerge that have bedevilled the Green parties here and abroad: can they work with the larger parties and retain their edge and agenda?

Were the Irish Greens ever a “radical campaigning party” in the first place? In November 1982, when the Ecology Party, the precursor to the Green Party, staged a press conference to announce it was running 10 candidates in the general election (the party garnered 0.2 per cent of the vote), only one reporter showed up, who described it as “the nicest and most endearingly honest press conference of the whole campaign”.

The reporter was given tea, sandwiches and cake and the chairman, Christopher Fettes, opened proceedings by acknowledging that the party did not expect to have anyone elected.

Probably the party’s best known supporter at that stage, travel writer Dervla Murphy, was not present but a message was read out from her in which she suggested: “It wouldn’t make sense at this stage in the party’s development to take the Ecology Party seriously at the political level. Its presence and importance is on the moral and philosophical level.”

Murphy was aware this might appear “pompous”, but it underlined the degree to which the party was not interested in conventional electioneering, as it was asking people to think about the basis for an alternative society.

As has been apparent in France, green taxes generate considerable opposition

But inevitably, politics intruded and sometimes sidelined the philosophy as it did elsewhere.

Political scientists studying Green politics in Europe from the 1980s onwards identified various weaknesses, including fickleness in the support base and the degree to which influencing public policy could depend on the adoption of “insider” strategies; the purity versus participation argument ruptured Green parties and their fate was also complicated by the strong decentralised attitude towards party organisation.

Senior hurling

Electoral successes of the 1980s were replaced by disappointments in the 1990s; German Greens, for example, officially formed as a national party in 1980 and who arrived in the Bundestag in 1983 with 5.6 per cent of the national vote which increased to 8.3 per cent in 1987, became deeply divided and were rejected by the electorate in the first all-German federal elections in 1990.

The late Fianna Fáil minister, Séamus Brennan, memorably told the Irish Green Party in 2007 that when negotiating government with FF they were now playing “senior hurling”. It was a patronising put-down, and it also highlighted the problem of Greens being told they had to operate according to the rules of others. That mindset around absorption needs to be dispensed with.

What we have now is a Green Party of one or two MEPs, 49 councillors and two TDs, which is hardly indicative of a Green revolution; but what they do have is a momentum to enable them to exert as much pressure as possible to generate a broad acceptance of the fact that climate change cannot be seen as a niche issue.

Last October’s warning from the UN was that the time left for action on harmful emissions (in order to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C) has shrunk to 12 years in order to prevent ever more severe droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty.

But as has been apparent in France with the recent yellow vest protests, Green taxes generate considerable opposition.

In a way, the main challenge goes back to what was identified by Murphy in 1982; to consider environment and climate issues not just politically or economically but also morally and philosophically.

That is a hard sell, but it is imperative that it is tried; it would also be a necessary acknowledgment of the significance of the mobilisation of a younger generation, who have demonstrated they are far from junior hurlers when it comes to climate change.

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