The Irish Times view on Green parties in office

Lessons from the continent

The Irish Greens now face a choice: ahead of an ill-timed leadership contest, can those at the top of the party agree to coalesce with the centre-right and, if so, will the membership follow?

The Irish Greens now face a choice: ahead of an ill-timed leadership contest, can those at the top of the party agree to coalesce with the centre-right and, if so, will the membership follow?

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It’s easy to forget those pre-pandemic days when the European agenda was being set by green politics, the Green Deal was the cornerstone of the budget, and green parties were riding high on a tide of youth disenchantment over climate change. In three capitals – Brussels, Berlin and Dublin – Green parties won the highest number of votes in the 2019 European elections, spearheading a continent-wide surge that at one point, a first in German history, saw a poll even put them ahead of all other parties.

The green agenda has not gone away. Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans argues that: “If we really want to come out of [the pandemic] stronger and future-oriented, we absolutely need to make the transformation toward a green society”. Speaking to MEPs in late April, he insisted that “things will not go back to how they were”.

This is the real context of the Green Party coalition negotiations with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Not talks with impractical and economically reckless idealists as members of both those parties reportedly still suspect, but a replication at Irish level of a European-wide dialogue. The green agenda is the mainstream agenda – as it must be. That can be seen by how climate action has been co-opted by major parties from right and left who protest, somewhat unconvincingly, that it is they who are now its greatest champions.

Crucially, the case that the Green Deal and investment-driven transition to a carbon neutral economy is a jobs and growth-friendly strategy is now part of a European mainstream consensus.

Years in national and local coalitions have given the Greens credibility as a party of government, and not just a home for discontented protest voters.

There have been two routes to power, broadly reflecting the predominance of left or right strands in the green movement. In Sweden, France, Italy and Denmark, Greens have joined cabinets after pre-election pacts to govern jointly most often with a social democratic party – globally since the 1970s Green parties have been part of coalition governments on 20 occasions, 11 of which arose from a pre-election pact.

The Irish route to power is closer, however, to the more conservative Finnish party which has participated in government five times, but always with parties of the right, and without pre-election pacts. Only the German Greens have managed to enter a government that did not include right-wing participation without first having a pre-electoral agreement. But German Greens are in power in half of the federal states and rule in a wide variety of constellations.

The Irish Greens now face a choice: ahead of an ill-timed leadership contest, can those at the top of the party agree to coalesce with the centre-right and, if so, will the membership follow?

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