The Greens must learn how to work the levers of power

Pat Leahy: The obstacles to the party’s radical agenda will be formidable

So the Greens have taken the plunge. But negotiating and agreeing and ratifying a programme for government is not going to be the difficult bit.

The talks with their putative partners in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil finally began on Thursday. They may or may not come out with a government, though history suggests so. Normally if a party goes into negotiations on a programme for government, it comes out with a programme for government. And normally if a party produces a programme for government, its members approve its adoption. Though these are not, of course, normal times.

Still, given the importance of momentum as a dynamic in politics – Americans call it “the Big Mo” – the odds for a successful conclusion of the talks and a government duly constructed are probably better than 50-50.

The Greens are the vital and unpredictable element. Somewhat quixotically, nearly half the negotiation team was against entering the talks at all, though it is to be assumed that if the team agrees a deal, the team will fight for it to be passed. And the political price for the Greens of walking away now, as has been argued hereabouts before, would be immense. In a way, entering the talks is an accommodation with yourself that you will get the best deal you can, and stick to it. The Greens are a political party; in the final analysis, they are unlikely to refuse to do politics.


Twofold challenge

The real challenge facing the Green Party now is twofold – and it is not what goes on in the negotiations.

Firstly, the party will have to withstand, and learn to live with, the ferocious onslaught that has been levelled at it, collectively and individually, corporately and personally. It is now a part of our politics that those who stand for election and seek public office must expect and endure the most vicious abuse – mostly online and on social media, though not exclusively so – of a kind that would, I promise, shock you. Of course, the women are treated to especially disturbing abuse.

How this has become an unavoidable part of our politics and what drives people to this sort of uncivilised behaviour is a subject for another day. For now it’s enough to note that it will be a feature of the Greens’ lives for the foreseeable future.

All successful politicians are tough. Of all the attributes a successful politician must have, an even temperament is perhaps the most valuable, but least commented upon. But sustained personal abuse is not easy to endure, especially if you are not used to it, and are a politician who has spent time building your political career online. It might be noted in passing that the parties who oppose the Greens’ decision have a special responsibility to advise their supporters to be civil to people with whom they disagree.

The Greens will face the Irish establishment's greatest weapon against reform – bureaucratic inertia

In more conventional political channels, it is clear to see what sort of opposition the new government will be faced with in the Dáil and in the media: it will be accused of a betrayal of the people’s desire for change and, soon, a return to the days of austerity.

The critiques so far are veering towards classic populist territory: the virtuous ordinary people, betrayed by a corrupt elite, who refuse to implement the simple solutions (to complex problems) advanced by the people’s genuine representatives.

You can make up your own mind about the virtuous people and the corrupt elite; but beware the easy solutions bit. Because it’s never true.

Bureaucratic inertia

But perhaps the biggest challenge for the Greens, if they enter government, will be learning to work the great machine of government and bending its operations to their will. They will face two principal forces ranged against the reforming agenda: the opposition of conservative instincts and forces in their coalition partners, and the Irish establishment’s greatest weapon against reform – bureaucratic inertia.

Talk to people who have served in government and they all talk about how long it takes to make effective changes in the outputs of government. Many ministers have left government wondering how they got so little done. Those who didn’t found ways of working with the system to make it do their bidding; others learned to compromise on their objectives and settle for what could be achieved in the few years they were in office.

With a radical reforming agenda such as the Greens promise, the obstacles will be even more formidable than usual. They could usefully look to a recent example of when the Irish government’s political and administrative machine was successfully directed to a single objective: exiting the EU-IMF bailout in the years 2011-2013.

It was, of course, a gruesome time, inside and outside government. But Enda Kenny’s and Eamon Gilmore’s administration succeeding in its principal goal: implementing the troika’s programme, and exiting the bailout on time. You might not agree with the implementation of the bailout terms; but it is undeniable that it was, on its own terms, successful.

According to people who served in that government – including officials who are still there – there was a rigid adherence to the requirements of the programme. Reforms – including painful budget measures – were set out in a series of actions to be taken on a weekly, monthly and quarterly timetable. The policy goals of government were broken down into hundreds of administrative actions to be taken by civil servants, pushed by politicians, approved by the overseers of the EU and IMF. It was relentless and gruelling. Some people got shouted at occasionally. And it achieved its objectives.

If the Greens want to implement their ideas, they will require a similar nuts-and-bolts approach to operating the levers of the great machine. They will need to acquire rapid knowledge and a detailed manual. Getting the agreement of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will be just the beginning.