Kathy Sheridan: Northern Ireland Greens may have overreached

Diving into the Republic’s politics at such a critical moment is quite a departure

Clare Bailey, leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

Clare Bailey, leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Tom Honan/The Irish Times

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Stress turns your hair grey. Have a look at Simon Harris, aged 33½. Stress activates nerves that are part of the fight-or-flight response, which in turn causes permanent damage to pigment-regenerating stem cells in hair follicles, according to Harvard researchers.

Recent shots of late night inter-party negotiations and our Harry McGee reporting from a Dublin doorstop at dawn gave a hint of the yawning hours, energy and sacrifices invested in this effort, with the arguing, appeasing, posturing, sniping, threatening, compromising, consulting, compromising, consulting, compromising and more consulting.

And as some newly elected Greens seem to be rapidly discovering, that’s not simply a case of what happens between parties; it’s also what happens within parties.

There is no quid pro quo. Their southern counterparts have no analogous voice or veto in northern politics

It’s true that party in-fighting can be a rousing sign of highly engaged individuals, giving no quarter. Then again, in Britain it was the no-quarter movements within the parties that crushed the once mighty Labour party and facilitated the little Englander coup of the Conservative and Unionist party.

Those holding out against the draft programme for government include the Green Party chair, three of its TDs, the Young Greens, young Fianna Fáil, Éamon Ó Cuív and a clatter of Fianna Fáil councillors, not to mention what Senator David Norris characterises as “a group of UK citizens from the North of Ireland who are members of the Green Party [and] have the right to dictate what government we have in the Republic”.

That group includes the leader of the Northern Ireland branch of the Green Party, Clare Bailey, and her deputy, plus various elected Assembly members and local party councillors. And since the Green Party constitution deems the parliamentary party to comprise “all Green Party/Comhaontas Glas members of the Oireachtas, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the UK Parliament and the European Parliament”, the fact is if they had members elected to Westminster they too would have a vote on the make-up of the government of the Republic.

Leverage

The fact they have a vote at all is a surprise to many, never mind the 195 out of a possible 800 northern members that have registered to vote on whether to approve the programme for government.

That’s around one in 13 of the total Green Party membership. Given the particularly high threshold of votes required to secure agreement – two thirds – this is no small degree of leverage to have. Then again, it could have been nearly one in three if all 800 had felt entitled or interested enough to vote.

And there is no quid pro quo. Their southern counterparts have no analogous voice or veto in northern politics, as was pointed out by a party member in the Belfast Telegraph, who called it “grossly unjust”.

But according to the single GPNI councillor who was prepared to speak to our reporter Freya McClements (out of nine prominent members she contacted), the whole business is an “internal matter”, to be discussed “internally”. He put his colleagues’ reticence down to a “different culture” in the North; in the Republic there was more of a tendency to “play things out in public”, he said. Good to know.

That was a few days before Bailey hit the BBC Northern Ireland Sunday Politics show to declare confidently that “we can have another deal . . . we can talk to other parties”. Perhaps she has plans to have a go at coming up with a new programme for government. If so, this might be one of those times when they could play things out in public for the sake of the colleagues on this side of the Border and those of us with a vague interest in who gets to govern us.

In recent weeks, the Greens in the Republic have raised some eyebrows with some very public spats and increasingly snarky tones that seem a tweet away from defection to People Before Profit in the case of some nearly-electeds. Climate justice – as distinct from climate emergency – is the sweeping canvass that may be a surprise package to some new Green voters.

Brink of history

The pull between pressure group and political party is palpable. But the legacy of the leaders and activists that has taken them all to prominence and to the brink of an historic government – transparency, decency, integrity, resilience, the anti-cynics with a steely focus on the environment – will be the scaffolding that sustains those who aspire to succeed them. Those qualities should not be lightly dismissed.

The fact that Bailey and company are prepared to dive into the Republic’s politics at such a critical moment is quite a departure for the Green Party in Northern Ireland. It has always prided itself on attracting a mixed membership, steering a fine line between Catholics and Protestants by fastidiously avoiding constitutional issues. This new approach may well define the dividing lines in the party. But it may well be guilty of overreach. Whatever happens, Bailey and her colleagues will not have to face the electorate here.

It took a lot of new Green voters to help a lot of new Green TDs to squeak in after late counts. Their leaders are taking a hellish risk.

But they have put their stamp on a programme for government that however inadequate, can only be a force for good. It’s up to us to support them when the fracking turns real.

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