Path to power is high-risk for Greens


A fascinating time in Irish politics could lie ahead after the Greens' decision to enter government, writes Mark Hennessy, Political Correspondent

Michael Collins, following the Anglo-Irish Treaty, said that he had won the freedom to win freedom. Last night, the Greens had some understanding of what he meant. They should also remember that he got shot.

The Programme for Government does not include all of the Greens' policies. Indeed, it does not even include many of them, but it does give the party the opportunity to make progress by degrees. However, the step is not without risk.

If it goes wrong, voters who gave them support in the belief that it would put Fianna Fáil, and/or the Progressive Democrats out of power could wreak savage revenge in the next election.

In the meantime, the Greens will have two ministers in the Cabinet, and other assorted offices that will give them the opportunity to show that they can be a party of power, not just of protest.

And they have had some policy victories. On climate change, Fianna Fáil has accepted that Ireland should cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 3 per cent a year.This is something that was firmly ruled out just before the election campaign began by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, Dick Roche.

A carbon tax to change behaviour will be introduced over the next five years, though at a rate still not agreed, but it will be compensated for by cuts in VRT and road taxes.

Plans to build incinerators will be stopped in their tracks, the Greens believe, by the agreement not to raise landfill fees "in such a way as to give competitive advantage to incineration".

Indaver, which plans incinerators for Cork and Meath, has stopped work on its projects, arguing that landfill has to be made more expensive to ensure that there is enough to burn.

Even before they came to agreeing a programme for government, the two parties agreed on some principles, including the need to have 30 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

But the Greens have left many hostages to fortune that will stand as daily reminders to their volte-face: the M3 motorway, the continued use of Shannon by the US military, and others.

Before the election, the Greens insisted that the roads programme would have to be cut, though it softened this line as the campaign kicked into gear. By the end, it was saying that road projects where contracts had been signed would go ahead, but others still on the planning shelf would be reviewed.

Now it has softened its line again. Everything in the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats' "Transport 21" document will go ahead, with motorways by the score, and an outer ring road for Dublin.

Stamp duty will be changed the way Fianna Fáil wants it to be changed, with its abolition for first-time buyers, and there will be extra mortgage interest reliefs for those who have bought over the last seven years.

Light rail routes for Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford will be "considered", though the Greens are hopeful that their construction could start before the next election is held.

On planning, the Greens argue that the Government will bring forward legislation during its lifetime to implement the Oireachtas Report on Property Rights.

Dubbed "the Kenny report for slow learners", it argued for curbs on the rights of landowners, though the Programme for Government is silent on the issue.

There is much mention of words such as "consider" in the document when it deals with Green priorities, whereas the language for Fianna Fáil's favourites is definite.

VAT rate cuts for energy-efficient services, such as solar panel installers, will be "examined"; the role of the Environmental Protection Agency will be "reviewed".

On Shannon, the Greens have climbed down from its often-expressed objection to US military flights using Shannon. So much so, in fact, that the issue is not raised.

The language surrounding "extraordinary rendition" is not much better, mentioning as it does that the Government would "encourage and support" the Garda.

No such doubt is left hanging over the plan to build private hospitals on public hospital grounds: the new government "will implement" it, the Programme for Government says simply.

Yesterday, the Greens limply attempted to hold up a fig leaf on this issue, claiming that only six of the proposed 10 private hospitals would be built before a full-scale review would be launched.

This, however, is not what the Programme for Government says: the review would occur "following completion of the present programme begun in 2005".

Meanwhile, the Progressive Democrats were quick to point out that the Greens' version of events was wrong. In fact, they were so quick that it makes one question how stable this arrangement will be.

Left bloodied by the election, the Progressive Democrats have not sought a lot other than that Mary Harney should remain in Health, which suits Taoiseach Bertie Ahern anyway.

However, the party will not always be so quiescent if it is to remain alive, and conflicts, even if they are at the level of personal rivalries, with the Greens seem inevitable.

Up to now, Fianna Fáil has talked to every other party and Independent individually, and with none of them in parallel consultations.

Such negotiations often create ties that calm troubled waters in more difficult days.

This bonding experience has not happened between the Greens and the Progressive Democrats and both of them fear that Fianna Fáil does, or will, take them for granted.

Bertie Ahern, who significantly left Brian Cowen to take the leading role yesterday, has said that stability was his watchword for the next five years. He has paid dearly for it in terms of Cabinet seats.