When the relatively small number of Green Party members decide whether to adopt the programme for government negotiated by their TDs and enter a coalition government for the next five years, their choice will have consequences that extend far beyond their own party.
It is a crossroads moment, not just for the Greens, but for Irish politics and society, comparable with the result of the 1997 general election which replaced the centre-left Fine Gael-Labour-Democratic Left coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats just as the economy was about to take off. Or the victory of Charles Haughey in the Fianna Fáil leadership election in 1979.
Let’s look at the two possible outcomes. If it’s passed, the first thing is the country is provided with a government at a time of acute national crisis. This will change the mood of politics immediately, though any honeymoon is likely to be short-lived.
In the medium-to-longer term, if it can maintain internal coherence and a sense of purpose – something that will require daily tending by its components – the new administration stands a reasonable chance of governing for a full term. Crucially, it will have a decent parliamentary majority. As long the external economic environment doesn’t implode and it maintains a reasonably level-headed fiscal policy – taking steps to reduce the deficit once the crisis has passed and economic growth returns – the government should enjoy the confidence of the bond market, and thus be able to continue borrowing to fund the deficit spending the country needs.
(Some of the Greens think that is unimportant; more of them remember what it was like to trying to govern when the State was running out of money. Remember “We are fully funded until the middle of next year”? If you don’t, ring John Gormley.)
Being in government with access to funding will allow the government to do many – not all, though – of the things it wants to do. More public housing, investment in public transport, cycling and walking (but also, as Fine Gael has made clear, roads), a more public-dominated health service, and so on.
And there will be a step change on climate action, placing it at the centre of the new government’s priorities. Even people at the top of Fine Gael, who harbour private doubts about the whole thing, concede this much.
Clearly, that will not be enough for some Green members. Some will probably leave if they lose, such is the vehemence with which they are opposed to coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Do not mistake the politeness of the Greens’ susurrations for faint-heartedness; this is a battle for the soul of the party. Inevitably, it will change the party.
Former election candidate Saoirse McHugh, for one, has indicated she will leave if the deal is approved. Others will accompany her. Many will end up elsewhere, changing the Greens by their departure and their new homes by their arrival.
Who knows how an election in a febrile, angry and scared atmosphere would go?
Passing the deal and constructing the government along these lines will also radically reshape the dividing lines of Irish politics. If Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can form a government together this time, they can do so again in the future. The historic FF-FG cleavage of Irish politics will have been replaced by a new one, with the old rivals on one side, and Sinn Féin and the fractured left on the other. The route to power for the left – to co-operate – will be obvious. That structural realignment might end up being the biggest change of all.
And what if it’s not passed? Then it will change Irish politics in a different way.
First, failure to agree a government would pitch the country into a major political crisis next weekend.
The immediate manifestation of that would be a panic about the future of the Special Criminal Court, which must be renewed by votes of the Dáil and Seanad before midnight on June 30th, or it ceases to function. “It’s black and white,” says one person who has been briefed at the highest level. I think there would be a public outcry that politicians have failed, after nearly five months, to agree how to govern the country. The Greens won’t get all the blame for that; but they’ll get a lot of it.
A general election seems to me to be the most likely outcome. Fianna Fáil will want to put together a Dáil majority with the support of several Independents, but it is far from clear that Fine Gael will play ball. The mutterings of senior Fine Gaelers suggest they won’t.
That election would threaten a horror show for Fianna Fáil. Who knows how an election in a febrile, angry and scared atmosphere would go, but I expect the winners would be Fine Gael and Sinn Féin, polarising our politics and sharpening the left-right divide. But I think the biggest losers would be the Greens – squeezed by angry centrist voters who wanted them to join the government on the one hand, and by Sinn Féin on the other. A complete massacre would be in prospect.
Even if there were the numbers to form a left-led government (highly doubtful) and even if the Greens returned in sufficient numbers to play a part in it (ditto), it is an open question whether a new programme for government would be any greener than the one currently under consideration.
As has been mentioned hereabouts before, politics is rarely about choosing between good and bad options, but rather deciding between two unappealing choices, each with their own pitfalls. Green members are face-to-face with that reality now.