The maxim that no good deed goes unpunished requires little proof. Life supplies that most days and twice on Sundays. But if further evidence were demanded, one might point to the fate of the Green Party. Its punishment for being concerned with the good of humanity is that it has no real choice but to form a government with two parties most of its members distrust and some of them despise. The Greens are being subjected to moral blackmail, but with the twist that the blackmailer is within. It is their own values that force them to take the power that is on offer.
The problem for the Greens is that, on the big issues, they've been proven right. What were once eccentric and exotic positions are now the bloody obvious. Last week, Met Éireann produced a stark visual representation of the change in temperature in Ireland over the last century, with blue stripes for cooler years and red for hotter ones. Recent years present an ever-thickening wall of red stripes. Last year, Ireland's average air temperature was a full degree hotter than in the period 1961 to 1981.
Some senior ministers continue to posture as defenders of rural Ireland against the Greens, as if rural Ireland has no stake in preventing environmental disasters
Yet the centre-right parties treat the environmental Last Chance Saloon like a cosy lock-in – plenty of time for another round and a sing-song. It must be utterly exasperating for the Greens to be expected to take on the role of the nagging child in a maudlin Victorian temperance ballad, trying to entice the drunken father to return home from the pub. It is not even that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are in denial about climate change. They know it is real. They just prefer not to hear the call of "Time, gentlemen, please!"
Commitment to sustainability is not in their DNA. Fianna Fáil has a long history of gleeful destruction of the built and natural environments. Remember Bertie Ahern as taoiseach complaining that motorways were being delayed by "snails and swans and people hanging out of trees"? The monuments to the party's corrupt relationship to developer-led planning lie all about us.
Fine Gael’s record on carbon emissions in government since 2011 is abysmal. Some senior ministers continue to posture as defenders of rural Ireland against the Greens, as if rural Ireland has no stake in preventing environmental disasters. (All those floods that have become so much more destructive stop, mysteriously, at Ashbourne.)
Even in the negotiation of the programme for government, there was the spin that actions to meet Ireland’s existing legal commitments on climate change represent “wins for the Green Party”, defining the survival of civilisation as a niche interest, and people who would quite like to retain a habitable planet for their children and grandchildren as a lobby group – like publicans or developers, only less persuasive.
There is only one world for us humans and we are running out of time to secure our place within it
And there’s a lot to be sceptical about in the programme for government. For example, the 2016 programme for government at least deigned to mention child poverty three times. The proposed 2020 programme manages not to refer to it at all. Simple and basic policies such as the free primary education that almost every developed society in the world takes for granted evaporate away in the empty shadow-language of evasion: “Seek to increase the capitation grant, with a view to reducing the reliance on voluntary contributions made to schools.” The programme comes down hard on natural gas but contains enough to power a city.
And yet: Time, ladies and gentlemen, please. As Andrew Marvell has it in To His Coy Mistress, "Had we but world enough and time,/ This coyness, lady, were no crime./We would sit down, and think which way/ To walk, and pass our long love's day." Had we but world enough and time, the Greens would be perfectly right to fight shy of entering government under such a cloud of vagueness. But there is only one world for us humans and we are running out of time to secure our place within it.
The stakes are too high for righteous indignation. We often hear the spurious argument that Ireland is so small that what we do here doesn't matter. But most countries are small countries. The whole point of international treaties such as the climate-change accords is that if one party resiles from them, so can all the others. The importance of what happens here, moreover, increased last week when Ireland was elected to a seat on the United Nations Security Council. For the next two years at least, Ireland has an amplified voice in the world, not least on climate change. But only if we do not speak as hypocrites, urging actions on others that we are unwilling to take ourselves.
Equally, the economic collapse caused by the coronavirus creates a moment of opportunity for radical change that may not be repeated. There is a very wide acceptance (including at European Union level) that advanced economies must be regenerated through some version of a Green New Deal. The time to be in government shaping this response is now.
Sceptical Greens are absolutely right to say that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can’t be trusted to deal with the existential challenge of climate change. That is precisely why we need the Greens in government to make them do it.