Greens discover power has its price


IN THE middle of a local and European election campaign where to judge by the polls the Green Party is faring badly, its public call to review the programme for government is hardly surprising. Dan Boyle, as party chairman and European election candidate, did so partly to distance the Greens from its coalition partner in electoral terms, in a bid to recover lost public support; and partly to improve the party’s negotiating leverage with Fianna Fáil in a review of the joint programme, now likely after June 5th.

The Green Party leader, John Gormley, supported the proposal while the Taoiseach, it seems, was caught off-guard by Mr Boyle’s pre-emptive move. Mr Cowen must wonder whether the review the Green Party is proposing may not instead become an attempt to renegotiate the terms of the 2007 accord. Mr Boyle, in defence of his party’s record in government, has claimed that most of the Green Party elements in the joint programme have already been implemented.

The difficulties facing a junior partner in coalition are obvious. At the outset, the smaller party aims to exercise an influence in government out of proportion to its size in parliament. The larger coalition party acquiesces and, by making policy concessions and conceding cabinet places, pays the necessary price for power.

For more than a decade, Fianna Fáil did so with the Progressive Democrats. And since 2007, it has done so with the Greens. But once in government – where separate political identities become increasingly blurred – the junior partner has no guarantee the public will recognise and reward its distinct achievements in office, particularly in times of economic turmoil. Likewise, the failures of government can take a heavy toll on the popularity of the minor coalition party. It can easily become a political scapegoat. Indeed, the public may well blame the Greens for keeping Fianna Fáil in power.

The Greens can regard themselves as unlucky in some respects. While they were not the authors of many of the Government’s present difficulties, they have not avoided the public’s wrath in the polls. The mistakes of Government that Mr Boyle has identified, such as “the policy of pump-priming the property boom”, were not Green Party policies. These were problems largely of Fianna Fáil’s making and have become part of the Greens’ blighted inheritance in government. Before the April Budget, the ESRI estimated that half the Government deficit was structural, due to past mistakes in fiscal policy, and half was cyclical and accounted for by the economic recession. The fiscal misjudgments were made by Fianna Fáil. And these policy errors, Mr Boyle rightly says, Fianna Fáil has failed either to acknowledge or to confront.

Some see his call for a rethink of the programme for government as a first step in preparing an exit strategy from Government. That is hardly an imminent prospect. For exits from coalition can be harder to achieve successfully than entrances to coalition are to negotiate satisfactorily. A premature departure from Government may precipitate an election from which the Green Party, given the current state of public opinion, has far more to lose than to gain.