Pat Leahy: Greens well-positioned for the next election

Public concern about climate change turbo-charged the Greens politically

The hour was edging 3am and the pundits were getting tired on RTÉ’s marathon coverage of the 2011 general election. The late Noel Whelan had probably been there since about eight the previous morning. But John Bowman was still sparking.

Yes, the Green Party had just lost all its seats, Bowman said. But they would be back. “The Greens have a future because they’re out to save the planet, not their seats,” he said. And there is that agenda. They’re serious . . .”

So it has come to pass. The Greens, who meet in Dublin this weekend for their annual conference, had their best European elections ever in May and – more importantly from a general election point of view – their best locals ever, quadrupling their seats.

If you believe you have only a decade left to save the planet, then you need to get your hands dirty now

Public concern about climate change and environmental degradation has turbo-charged the Greens politically, just as it has done over a longer period of time in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. This does not seem likely to be a passing fashion.


The evidence of climate change and its effects on the global environment is overwhelmingly accepted by scientists.

Culturally, the threat of global warming is a central part of the way lots of people in Ireland view the world today. That cannot but have an effect on politics for the foreseeable future, and that effect must be to the advantage of the Greens.

People in Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour especially point out that the so-called Green tsunami in the May elections was nothing of the sort. They have a point – a tsunami sweeps all before it, and the Greens, after all, came in behind Labour’s vote share in the local elections.

They are on less secure ground when they predict that much of the new Green support will ebb away in due course. Actually, this trend may just be getting going: if the engine of the Green growth is public concern about climate change, then that engine is going to increase its power, not decrease it. At the very least, there is currently a stunning political opportunity for the Green Party. That is why it is worth paying attention to this weekend’s conference.

Coalition deal

The opportunity exists not just because they have the public’s ear on the issues about which they care most. It is because the disposition of political forces and the likely political landscape after a general election is almost certain to put power in the hands of a bloc of TDs willing to do a coalition deal with one of the big parties.

On all present trends, the realistic expectations are that both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will have probably somewhere between 50 and 60 seats. They will need 80 for a majority. So they’ll both be looking for dance partners.

Green leader Eamon Ryan has said that his target is for six seats. He is being cautious. The Greens should be competitive in 12 or 13 constituencies. Ryan will then need to put together an alliance with Labour, possibly the Social Democrats and several Independents to give either Micheál Martin or Leo Varadkar the numbers to form a government.

It's worth noting that no small party has ever rejected a coalition agreement

As Green members will see over this weekend, Ryan is deadly serious about doing this. In the days after the local elections, he met with the newly elected councillors and urged them to make agreements with the other parties where they could in order to wield power on local authorities and thus ensure they adopted more environmentally sound policies.

Most of the councillors are on board for this serious (to use John Bowman’s word) approach to politics, and as a result the party is now sharing power with other parties on several local authorities, including all the Dublin ones, Cork, Galway and Waterford.

The rationale for being part of a government is obvious: if you believe you have only a decade left to save the planet, then you need to get your hands dirty now.

Better prepared

Of course the Greens wouldn’t get everything they wanted in a coalition government; nobody does. Which is why they need to start preparing now for the post-election negotiations – deciding what they can get, what they can’t, what is a core requirement and what is optional.

A series of stakeholder meetings and consultations is planned for the late summer and autumn to distil climate concerns into realisable negotiable policy goals. “We will,” a person involved says, “have a playbook.” If the Greens do enter the next government, they will be a lot better prepared than they were the last time.

All this will give some of those attending this weekend’s conference the heebie jeebies. They are scarred by the Greens’ first experience in government, a period which began with Bertie Ahern in 2007, lasted through the financial crisis, the collapse of the banks and the political implosion of the coalition, then led by Brian Cowen, in 2011.

The titles of the two books written about their experience – Mary Minihan’s excellent A Deal with the Devil and Dan Boyle’s Without Power or Glory – give an indication of the nature of that experience.

Voices opposing going into government will certainly be heard this weekend. There’s a motion for discussion which suggests completely ruling out coalition with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil – effectively deciding that the Greens want nothing to do with government.

Even if it is adopted, however, it would not stop Ryan from talking to the big parties after an election, because the final decision can only be made by a special party conference. Of course, it’s worth noting that no small party has ever rejected a coalition agreement. If you have agreed a programme for government, you’re as good as in.

Ryan’s great advantage after the election is that he will be able play one suitor off against another. That scenario remains the most likely outcome after the next general election.