Greens' bid to secure survival is logical for FF coalition partners

 

ANALYSIS:For the Greens to seek a policy review so near the elections is a bid to distance a deeply unpopular Fianna Fáil, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

THE DECISION of the Green Party to publicly call for a review of its Programme for Government with Fianna Fáil signals a desire to put as much distance as possible between itself and it coalition partner in advance of the June 5th elections.

It is also hard to avoid the conclusion that it is also the first step in an exit strategy from coalition. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the party will jump ship in the near future, as the Opposition is claiming, but certainly looks as if the Greens are putting on their life jackets just in case the ship starts sinking.

It is clear from the various comments over the weekend that Taoiseach Brian Cowen is not at all happy at the attitude being adopted by the Greens, on top of everything else he has to contend with right now.

Still, he made the best of the situation by saying that he was happy to discuss anything with his coalition partners, and they responded in kind yesterday, insisting that his response was all they were looking for.

The Green Party chairman, Senator Dan Boyle, had kicked off this particular controversy on Friday by looking for a lot more than a simple chat about the state of play some time after the results of the local and European elections on June 5th.

In a statement late on Friday evening Senator Boyle, who is also a candidate in the South constituency in the European elections, called for a review of the Programme for Government after the elections. “Everything has changed utterly since this Programme for Government has been agreed. Most of the Green Party elements of it have now been implemented. It is a document that is in need of review, and the period after these elections would be an ideal opportunity to do that,” he said.

Asking for a review of the programme on the day that the latest Irish Times/TNS mrbi poll delivered bad news for both coalition parties was hardly a coincidence. At the very least it was an attempt to put a deeply unpopular Fianna Fáil party at arm’s length for the rest of the election campaign.

At a deeper level, though, it also has to be a sign that the Greens are positioning themselves for a withdrawal from coalition in the not too distant future.

It was significant that Senator Boyle claimed that most of the Green Party elements in the Programme for Government had already been implemented. One conclusion from that is that the party can withdraw from coalition at any time with its head held high, having implemented key elements of its programme.

Over the weekend, Green sources pointed to achievements such as the overhaul of the planning regulations, the new policy on insulation, the setting of energy targets and the Government decision to proceed with a directly elected mayor of Dublin next year.

That emphasis on things already achieved is ominous for the long-term future of the coalition, particularly as it is difficult to see how the Greens can extract further significant concessions given the huge financial constraints under which the Government now operates.

The Taoiseach was said to be none too pleased with Dan Boyle’s having raised the issue of renegotiation, even if he responded in a conciliatory style. While officials of both Government parties had kicked around the idea of a renegotiation, as happened at regular intervals in the Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats coalitions, Cowen was taken unawares by the senator’s public statement.

Looked at from a Green perspective, though, it does make sense to prepare for the worst. For a start there is the party performance in the elections to take into account. There is no percentage in being associated too closely with such an unpopular coalition partner, and a little show of independence might gain a few more Green votes in the Euro elections or help to save the odd Green councillor.

More importantly, there is no telling at this stage what the political fall-out from the election result will be. If Fianna Fáil suffers as badly as the pessimists think, there could be a convulsion in the main Government party which could ultimately lead to an election – and the Greens can only benefit by having as distinct a profile as possible.

Even if that doesn’t happen there is the matter of the 2010 budget to be formulated in the autumn. Such difficult decisions will be required in that budget that it might make sense for the Greens to pull out of coalition rather than be associated with measures such as public sector pay cuts or welfare cuts.

Equally, there is no telling whether Fianna Fáil itself will be able to deliver on the kind of policies needed to get the public finances in order. The pressure from the European Commission will be to keep borrowing to the 10.75 per cent of GDP already promised, but the strain of delivering on that promise could be intolerable. In all the circumstances it is hardly a surprise that the Greens are looking at survival strategies.

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