Greens faced with ethical dilemma over Nama plan

 

ANALYSIS:Proposed new agency poses a huge challenge for the Green Party, writes DEAGLAN de BREADUN

THERE WAS a lot of straight talking among the Greens at their private conference in Athlone at the weekend. Nerves are raw since last June’s local elections when the party went down from 18 city and county council seats to three and other hopefuls failed to make the grade.

The proposed establishment of the National Asset Management Agency (Nama) is a big challenge to the party faithful. Many of them became involved in politics because of their opposition to bad planning and irresponsible development. Now they are faced with a law which, according to its critics, constitutes a bailout for the fat-cat developers who allegedly despoiled the environment in their quest for filthy lucre.

The party leadership has taken a position which can be summarised as: “Let’s turn a negative into a positive and attach so many Green conditions to Nama and to the planning process such as the windfall tax on developers and the legislation against rezoning that it will remove the possibility of another property bubble.”

Before the party meets again to make a final decision on Nama and the renegotiated programme for government on October 10th, Green Ministers John Gormley and Eamon Ryan need to convince the grassroots they are on the right course. As one worried activist put it at the weekend: “Are we backing something which is contrary to what we believe in?”

Only the hardcore of the Greens turned up for the conference. The attendance of about 140 was less than half the number who had turned up to discuss and vote on the Lisbon Treaty. The good weather and the fact that the event took place outside Dublin may not have helped. An attendance of three or four times that size is expected on October 10th.

Saturday was only the beginning of the discussion because, as a leadership source put it: “This is a work in progress.”

On Wednesday, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan will announce the valuation Nama will place on the loans it will acquire from the banks and that will cause further ripples in Green ranks, especially if forecasts of a 30 per cent discount prove to be correct. Many Greens would consider the discount too low and urge the Government to pay current market value only.

In an effort to minimise divisions at the all-day session, members were seated in a large circle in the first-floor meeting-room at the Sheraton Hotel in Athlone. Nevertheless, insiders report that, “a lot of anger was expressed” and there were “a lot of raised voices from the floor”.

That’s not unusual for Green gatherings. Many of the activists have been around a long time and there is no market for flattery or equivocation. Indeed the feeling was expressed by some that it was “time to deliver” after more than two years in government.

There is concern among the ranks that Nama is a Fianna Fáil solution to a Fianna Fáil problem and therefore not something the smaller party should be supporting. On the other side of the argument, Minister for Communications Eamon Ryan has emerged as an eloquent proponent of the case for a “Green Nama” whereby all the potentially-toxic elements would be removed from the legislation and a new era of responsible planning and development begin.

Documents circulated by critics of the legislation, Gary Fitzgerald and James Nix, stated: “No matter what happens Nama contradicts key Green principles.” The two barristers argued that State participation in banking should be kept at a minimum.

Each bank should be dealt with individually with only non-performing loans being transferred to a State-run asset management company. Echoing the Swedish approach, they suggest: “It is possible that there would be several Nama-type entities, one for each participating institution.”

According to one observer, there was not a world of difference between this approach and the stance adopted by the parliamentary party and, by the end of the day, “there was a coalescing between the two positions and a common position is emerging”. Anti-Nama forces disagree strongly. They argue that if Saturday had been a policymaking convention the leadership would have suffered a major rebuff.

But according to a party activist in the “middle ground”, there were “not many” outright opponents of Nama under any circumstances, except of course the Socialist Workers’ Party and their supporters who held a vociferous demonstration outside the hotel.

However, even this source said “it remains to be seen if the Greens can live with it”. There was a view at the meeting that the proposed windfall tax should be “stitched-in” to the Nama legislation rather than being left to another day, although the Green TDs expressed confidence that there was a strong agreement on that issue with their Coalition partners.

A key point was that the European Central Bank is prepared to provide €60 billion on favourable terms to assist the Nama process. Moreover, the more pragmatic element in the party is reluctant to look this particular gift-horse in the mouth, especially since it will not be coming from the taxpayer’s pocket.

The Greens claim to be the most democratic party in the State with a large degree of grassroots control over the leadership. Three “consensors” were appointed to run the meeting, including Peter Emerson, who has applied this approach in Northern Ireland and was the editor of a book entitled, Designing an All-Inclusive Democracy: Consensual Voting Procedures for Use in Parliaments, Councils and Committees.

The members voted in a “preferendum” on six options set before them. If you voted for all six, then your first preference counted for six votes, the second for five, and so on. But if you only chose three options, your first preference only constituted three votes, and so on. The meeting decided by a 90 per cent majority on a show of hands not to release the result of the voting – even among themselves – for fear that it would leak and potentially undermine the leadership in their talks with Fianna Fáil on Nama and the Programme for Government.

However, the clear choices of the meeting were the “Green Nama” approach with only current market prices paid for loans, which got about 23 per cent support, and the “Swedish Solution” advocated by Fitzgerald and Nix which received 20-21 per cent approval. Other choices were to let the market deal with the problem without State intervention (14-15 per cent), to support the Nama Bill in its present form (13 per cent) or, shades of the Fine Gael approach – to set up a “good bank” to provide loans to small and medium enterprises (12-13 per cent). The Labour policy of outright nationalisation was the least-favoured option, at about 12 per cent.

A middle-ground Green was reluctant to see the figures as a major setback for the parliamentary party: “You can’t interpret it as a defeat or a victory, it was just taking the temperature.”

Deaglán de Bréadún is Political Correspondent

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