Small party with lots of idealism but no experience


OPINION:The consensual style favoured by the two Green Party Ministers has proven ineffectual, writes DÉIRDRE DE BÚRCA

YESTERDAY I resigned as a member of the Green Party parliamentary party and of Seanad Éireann. I spent the day alternating between feelings of relief, fear, sadness and guilt.

In resigning from the party and publicly criticising its performance in government, I am aware that personal and professional relationships I enjoyed with committed people who work within the party may be irrevocably damaged.

My actions have brought about a sudden end to my career as a public representative and have set me apart from the political family I have belonged to over the past 14 years. I have no clear map for my future. I feel disoriented and uncertain.

I am satisfied, however, that I made the right decision. I could not have continued in my role as a member of this current Government. This has become increasingly apparent to me over the past number of months.

Most Green Party members, including myself, were aware of the original challenges facing us when we decided to enter into government with Fianna Fáil. We were a small party with lots of idealism, very relevant policies but no experience of government.

Fianna Fáil, on the other hand, was a party with plenty of experience of government and a well-deserved reputation for pragmatism and populism. We had little idea at that early stage of the other serious difficulties we would face in government.

These difficulties included, among others, a global economic recession, the exposure of serious scandals in our domestic banking system, the growing threat of national bankruptcy, the collapse of our property bubble, high levels of personal indebtedness and negative equity amongst the public, worrying levels of unemployment and the need to significantly reduce levels of public expenditure through a series of very tough budgets.

The significant challenge for the Green Party during its first period in government was to impress upon the public that while we were not involved in creating these problems, our presence in government would make a difference to how they were resolved. Given our small size and limited resources as a party, this was always going to be a tough call.

It was particularly tough in the early stages of government because Green Party support was not essential to the Government’s majority. However, over time, our support has become essential to that majority.

Unfortunately, I believe we have not used that influence in the way we might have. In my opinion, our influence on critically important matters such as the details of the Bank Guarantee Scheme, the Nama package, budgetary policy and the banking inquiry has been much more limited than it should have been.

I have observed the frustration of my colleague, Senator Dan Boyle, who spends a considerable amount of time trying to provide valuable input into financial legislation but often with limited impact.

I have seen my colleague Ciaran Cuffe struggle to make changes to justice and equality legislation with little success.

I have witnessed the significant delays in the introduction of the civil partnership legislation which had a clear timetable for implementation as set out in the original programme for government.

I have noted our Government partner’s successful stalling on Green initiatives in the area of political reform, including Seanad and local government reform.

I have seen the challenges that John Gormley has faced in having his department’s waste policy supported by the wider Government.

While there is little that is surprising about the fact the larger party in government tries to have its own way on many issues, the apparent reluctance by the Green Party to challenge Fianna Fáil in relation to these issues has become a growing source of concern to me.

It appears to me that the consensual collegiate style favoured by the two Green Party Ministers proves very ineffectual in the face of determined manoeuvring by our government partners.

This pattern has become more pronounced since the local and European elections last year when Green Party candidates (including myself) were badly trounced.

Unfortunately, the results of those elections has meant that local authorities across the country have been left without the energetic and principled presence of Green Party councillors in areas such as planning, waste, water and housing, while Green Party representatives in Leinster House have become much more cautious about the possibility of pre-empting a general election.

While this caution is very understandable, I believe it is not in the wider interests of the party at this point in time.

In my resignation letter to my party leader, John Gormley, I described this extreme political caution being displayed by the party as a form of “paralysis”.

I stand over this description because despite the regular pressure that has been applied to him at parliamentary party meetings in relation to the need to challenge Fianna Fáil over various policy issues – particularly over the past few months – he has not done so.

In fact, matters have become more serious of late where Brian Cowen appears to have failed to honour two specific agreements that were made at the highest level (ie between the party leaders), which I do not feel at liberty to disclose here.

When I challenged my leader John Gormley about one of these agreements last week, he informed me that I had been “shafted” by Fianna Fáil.

This was the point at which I knew that it was time for me to resign from the parliamentary party and from the Government.

It seems to me that if the Green Party is now allowing itself to be treated with total contempt by our larger government partners, then matters are only likely to get worse in the foreseeable future.

It is a matter of real sadness to me that my involvement in the parliamentary party has ended in this way. I have always put a high premium on loyalty to my party and I hope this was evident in my conduct in the public domain.

I believe the Green Party is an absolutely essential part of the political spectrum in Ireland. I hope that it continues to grow and to exert a strong influence on public policy.

If I try to reflect on what has just happened to me, I hope I will be able to look back in the future and see my resignation as an important part of the learning that the Green Party had to undergo in government.

I want to see my party being effective and courageous in government. In my books, that means being able to exercise good political judgment, and to know when it’s time to say “enough”.

If my resignation achieves that, then it will have been worth it.

Déirdre de Búrca was the Green Party spokeswoman on European affairs, health and children, defence and the Gaeltacht, and a Senator

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