Whatever these elections are about it’s not climate change

Despite its urgency, the environment is not a main theme for most European election candidates

It seems likely that Fine Gael’s European candidate in Dublin, Frances Fitzgerald, will easily top the poll. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

It seems likely that Fine Gael’s European candidate in Dublin, Frances Fitzgerald, will easily top the poll. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

 

At the end of the 1989 general and European election counts, taoiseach Charles Haughey shook hands with Green Party candidate Trevor Sargent, who had polled almost 3,000 votes in the Dublin North constituency, and told him “I’m a bit of a ‘green’ myself”. This comment was both an indication that the Green Party was beginning to make an impression, and that Haughey, who in 1974 had bought Inishvickillane, one of the Blasket islands in Kerry, wanted to stress his reincarnation as an environmentally-sensitive Irish chieftain; a wind-powered electricity generator had been installed on Inishvickillane at the State’s expense.

The year 1989 was the first time the formerly loose coalition of environmental campaigners contested an election under the banner of the Green Party. All 11 candidates (with the exception of Seán English in Kildare) were located in Dublin. Collectively, the candidates received 25,000 first-preference votes in the general election, a 350 per cent increase on their performance in the 1987 general election and in Dublin South a breakthrough occurred when Roger Garland was elected the first Green Party TD.

But as Dan Boyle, future TD for the party in Cork was later to recall, “the strength of the performance of the party’s candidates in the European elections was truly amazing”. Sargent polled almost 40,000 votes in the Dublin European constituency, even outpolling Mary Harney of the Progressive Democrats, while Seán English in the Leinster constituency polled more than 23,000 votes. This momentum continued; in the 1994 European elections both Patricia McKenna and Nuala Ahern were elected for the party, in the Dublin and Leinster constituencies respectively. They repeated this feat in 1999; once again, the Green Party had won two out of the 15 seats available in Ireland. And yet, on the same day, they performed disastrously in the local elections, winning only eight seats.

‘Green’ agenda

There has been a puzzling compartmentalisation of the “green” agenda by the Irish electorate over the years; for a period it was as if the electorate in eastern Ireland had decided that green issues were a European rather than domestic concern, but even that waned. While the current Green Party candidate in Dublin for next week’s European election, Ciarán Cuffe, will be in the mix for the final seat, polls suggest that is as much as can be expected for the party. This is particularly ironic given the urgency of climate change; according to Cuffe, “This is the climate change election, and it is a vital one” and only concerted, international cooperation can tackle the challenge posed by greenhouse gas emissions.

Another tactic is to dismiss the loud voices on climate change as representing a dangerous cocktail of green and red

But it is clearly not a climate change election for much of the electorate; polls indicate that Fine Gael candidates will be poll toppers in all our European constituencies; members of a party that, in the style of Haughey 30 years ago, merely occasionally nod in the direction of rhetoric on climate change, or even cynically support the declaration of a climate change emergency, which, as acknowledged by the Taoiseach during the week, despite his grandstanding, is only a gesture.

Denial of urgency

It seems likely that Fine Gael’s European candidate in Dublin, Frances Fitzgerald, will easily top the poll. Judging by her speech at Fine Gael’s European Parliament selection convention in March, climate change does not feature strongly in Fitzgerald’s list of priorities. She talked up migration, terrorism, the “rule of law” and Brexit and then, it appears, as an afterthought, came her token “bit of green”. Dublin, she averred, must be “a city where we plan properly, balance development with sustainability and protect the unique environment in which we live – and for a just transition of meeting our climate change targets”.

One searches in vain for elaboration on any of these matters; instead Fitzgerald got back on to comfortable ground and concluded by saying “on the key issues facing Europe of migration and terrorism, I know the key players in Europe”.

The key issue facing Europe and the rest of the world is climate change; talk of “just transition” and “realistic targets” is part of a lexicon of qualification that seeks to deny urgency and the need for fundamental behavioural change. Another tactic is to dismiss the loud voices on climate change as representing a dangerous cocktail of green and red.

In March, the same month Fitzgerald made clear her priorities and knowledge of the “key players”, most members of the European People’s Party, of which Fine Gael is a member in the European Parliament, voted against a much more ambitious greenhouse emissions reduction target for 2030 than the current EU target. It was dismissed by the EPP as “unrealistic” and “part of a left-wing propaganda effort”. Much more important to focus on that lazy tactic, it seems, than face the reality of increasing scientific evidence about the urgency of catastrophic climate change, which should be a paramount concern when we vote next week.

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