Greens need to remain focused and drive a hard bargain

Diarmaid Ferriter: Price of power will be compromise and a divided membership

How will the political equivalent of the dark night of the soul end for the Green Party this summer? Inevitably, its membership is divided on the merits of participating in a new coalition government. It was always thus.

In 1998 Roger Garland, elected the party’s first TD in Dublin South in 1989, criticised the coalition of the German Green Party and the SDP, which led to Joschka Fischer, the 1970s street firebrand, becoming German foreign minister and Europe’s most prominent Green politician.

Garland was “saddened by the decision of the German Greens to sell out to the establishment by agreeing to coalesce with the SDP in return for a slice of the action. I can only hope that the Green Party here will not be tempted to follow the same road”.

Fine Gael  and  Fianna Fáil  when it suits, like to characterise themselves as a "bit green", but not, of course, if an ambitious and radical climate-change agenda, in the self-serving words of Fine Gael's Simon Coveney, "decimates rural Ireland"

This earned him a rebuke from Nuala Ahern, who with Patricia McKenna had become one of the party’s two MEPs in 1994. Ahern argued the Irish Green Party had set the agenda on water, pollution and food safety and needed to seek power rather than “whinge from the sidelines”.


Members of the larger parties have frequently had a patronising attitude towards the Greens, demonstrating a willingness to nod at their agenda while not taking it seriously.

At the 1989 general election count, taoiseach Charles Haughey shook hands with Trevor Sargent, who had polled 3,000 votes, and told him “I’m a bit of a “green” myself”.

That attitude has endured. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil when it suits, like to characterise themselves as a “bit” green, but not, of course, if an ambitious and radical climate-change agenda, in the self-serving words of Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney, “decimates rural Ireland”.

What became of Fischer? He went on to be one of the Germany’s longest-serving foreign ministers, and one of its most popular politicians, but his period in office is remembered for controversial decisions about conflict and military engagement.

Post-war Germany

In his 2009 alternative history of post-war Germany, Joschka Fischer and the making of the Berlin Republic, Paul Hockenos charts his transition from “ a violent anarchist streetnik, to a charismatic, argumentative eco-pacifist and ultimately into the realpolitik foreign minister who led Germany into its first combat missions in Kosovo and Bosnia since the unconditional surrender in 1945”.

Fischer’s appeal, however, was as much to do with his personal story, or as fellow German politician Christian Schmidt characterised it “many Germans see in him a mirror image of their own reinventions and their own past secrets”.

But the question remained: was the price of power too high? The German Greens were not annihilated and still commanded more than 8 per cent of the vote coming out of power in 2005.

It is in a strong position today; the party has more than 100,000 members and won 20.5 per cent of votes in last year’s European Elections, but with its strong urban base, it has struggled to make inroads in some rural areas or effectively counteract the idea that it is fundamentally prohibitionist.

It is currently co-led by Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, both considered on the “Realo wing” of the party and reluctant to classify themselves on the left/right spectrum.

In his 2016 book Who Dares Begins, Habeck insisted the Greens should not be there to just “fill in the gaps that have opened up in the ranks of the CDU or SDP. We now try to become the new playmakers” They need, he suggested, to be “at the heart of society”.

Radical messages

In some ways, they are getting there; a range of the radical messages promoted by the German Greens since the early 1980s are now considered mainstream including environmental protection, climate action and sustainable protection. German carbon emissions have dropped 35 per cent since 1990 and last year’s cut of 6.3 per cent was the country’s largest annual decline since 1990.

The Irish Green Party does not have the same clout but it does currently have the desperately needed numbers for government-formation and it needs to drive a hard bargain and remain focused, disciplined and wary of its political peers who are a “bit” green.

The price of power will be compromise and a divided membership, but that will always be the case for the Greens. Christopher Fettes, who convened the meeting that led to the first version of the Irish green party in 1981, asked those interested to put “the planet before politics”, but can they effectively combine the two?

Eamon Ryan wondered in 2011 “will the other parties just steal our clothes”? No, they won’t. They will more likely insist those clothes are unaffordable.

Ryan also insisted, after the party lost all its Dáil seats that year “lessons have been learned from the mistakes made in government”. He needs to convincingly explain what those mistakes were, what specific lessons have been learned and how that learning process can benefit not just the party he leads, but all of us.