Greens will find it hard to keep their clear-eyed focus on goals as events intrude
Pat Leahy: Party has made its choice, and it now has to make the best of it
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan. The party will be judged on whether it achieves a small number of policy priorities that matter to its past and prospective voters. Photograph: Getty Images
Small parties tend to have a hard time of it in Irish coalition governments. Usually – not always, but usually – they struggle to maintain their identity, struggle to implement their agendas, and struggle to hold their seats in the subsequent general election.
There have been a few impressive flameouts: the Progressive Democrats in 2007 (all bar two seats gone), the Greens in 2011 (all seats gone), Labour in 2016 (lost 80 per cent of their seats) are recent examples.
All pretty ominous if you are in the Green Party, a small party accompanied by not one but two bigger parties in government, and having had a rough few weeks which saw a Minister under sustained fire and another spate of resignations from high-profile young members. But we’ll come back to that.
In this year’s general election the Independent Alliance followed the example of the smaller parties fed to the lions. Two of its ministers, Finian McGrath and John Halligan, decided discretion was the better part of valour and retired from the field rather than risk the loss of their seats (probable rather than possible in both cases, would be my judgment), while Shane Ross and “Boxer” Moran were abruptly informed by the voters that their services were now surplus to requirements.
Ross has been knocking about television and radio studios in recent weeks, publicising his entertainingly indiscreet account of his time in government, In Bed with the Blueshirts.
I interviewed him this week for the Inside Politics podcast, and after the usual knockabout stuff asked him about the experience of being a smaller group in government, how to get the most out of it, and how to avoid the mistakes he and his colleagues made.
Ross, unsurprisingly, views the Independent Alliance experiment in government as a success. I am not so sure, frankly. Whatever your view, I think there are things that the Green Party can learn here.
Ross advises smaller parties and groups to have a limited set of clearly defined objectives, and to concentrate on the pursuit of those. He might have added that they need to matter for the people who voted for you, and might vote for you again at the next election.
“You can’t expect to get everything you want. But you can say, we want the following, and if we don’t get the following you’re not going to get your stuff either,” he says.
Alongside this constant focus on the smaller parties’ policy goals, he counsels amity. “Negotiate hard but don’t go in with the mindset we had, which was basically that we were going in not as friends but as rivals...You’ve got to go in determined to be partners.”
I think Eamon Ryan and the leadership of the Greens understand most of this, but it will become harder to maintain that clear-eyed focus as events – Government and party – intrude, as they always do.
There were several examples in the past difficult week for the Green Party. The Minister for Equality and Children and Several Other Things Roderic O’Gorman found himself in the middle of an almighty storm over legislation which will secure (or seal, critics said) the archive of the Commission on Mother and Baby Homes.
It is possible to imagine O’Gorman guilty of many errors, but I find it hard to see him as a puppet of a coven of shadowy mother superiors, intent on hiding their past sins through a complex legal manoeuvre.
There have been – and perhaps still are – people in the broader State apparatus who are so disposed, but, as Patsy McGarry explained in a helpful op-ed in Thursday’s paper, there are good reasons for the rules about the sometimes incredibly sensitive information gathered by such inquiries.
People have been given legal guarantees of confidentiality, and these cannot be simply set aside.
Of course people have a right to their own stories, but it may take some time after the conclusion of the commission to work out how that is done. That is probably a discussion best not had on social media.
In any event, while the storm of the past week was an intense one, I don’t think it has any longer-term political significance for the Greens in government. Bear in mind the lesson of many recent elections and referendums here and elsewhere: your Twitter feed is not the country.
The Greens will be judged on whether they achieve a small number of policy priorities that matter to their past and prospective voters: climate action, transport (especially cycling and walking), affordable housing for younger people, ending direct provision.
Greens tell me that Ryan tells his troops: “stick to the knitting”.
Another way of putting this: O’Gorman may turn out to be a failure as a Minister, but if he does it won’t be because of Mother and Baby Homes.
I think much the same applies to recent resignations from the Greens.
Last weekend the heads of the Young Greens and the Queer Greens left the party. They were followed by Cork councillor Lorna Bogue, who cited the Mother and Baby Homes as a tipping point which prompted her departure. “There’s just things that we won’t tolerate anymore,” she told another Irish Times podcast.
Bogue and her fellow refusniks are undoubtedly sincere. But it’s hard to discern a coherent and realistic alternative for the party anywhere among the minority in the Greens who opposed the coalition: we’d like to be in government without Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and we’d like to be on the left-ish side of social media storms. Neither of these are ignoble desires. But they’re hardly a programme for political action.
In any event, that ship has sailed. The Greens made their choice. They now have to make the best of it.