‘We can have trade without investor courts’: Greens’ anti-Ceta faction are not for turning

Party members urged to pressure leader Eamon Ryan over ‘damascene conversion’ to trade deal

There are probably better ways to spend a dreary Saturday afternoon in Athlone than at a panel discussion on the fine points of the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism.

That said, the discussion on how and why Ceta (the EU-Canada trade deal, part of which includes the above mentioned dispute settlement mechanisms) should be stopped, was one of the livelier sideshows at the Green Party convention. Not that it appeared on the official programme of events, and no members of the parliamentary party saw fit to attend.

There was spontaneous applause and praise from the roughly 40 Green Party members who attended on two occasions for Patrick Costello, the Dublin South-Central TD who recently prevailed in a Supreme Court case taken against the Government’s intention to ratify the Ceta deal. The court held the move would be unconstitutional after the case was taken by Costello, who a contributor praised as “brave and courageous”.

There were pops at Tánaiste Leo Varadkar too, who unambiguously supports the deal and opined during the case that the substantial costs arising from it should be apportioned to Costello if he lost – while telling Fine Gael members privately that he thought the case could be thrown out. “Shows what he knows,” snarked a panellist.


Speaking afterwards, Costello was magnanimous about Varadkar’s contributions. “He had his own position and his own policies, and I’m not going to have a go at him just because he’s trying to make his policies happen, in the same way I’m trying to make my policies happen,” Costello told The Irish Times.

“That’s what politics is, and I think politics would be better if we played the policies and focused on those differences.”

The Dublin South-Central TD was pleading for space and time to consider the trade deal – pointing to an array of challenges and procedural issues facing the deal in other jurisdictions, as well as a “headache” for the Attorney General’s office which must now assess how to implement the Government’s chosen way forward (to legislate its way around the problem by amending Irish law, a route suggested by the Supreme Court).

In truth, there are probably many in Government happy to see Ceta retreat into the background for the time being. The prospect of a Dáil vote, either to ratify it or on amending the legislation, risks Costello and his party colleague, Dublin Central TD Neasa Hourigan, voting against the Government again, reducing its on-paper majority and theoretically rendering it more vulnerable to a collapse by accident. In reality, its position is far more secure than that, but it’s not a position any Government wants to find itself in.

But the faction in the Green Party which is vehemently against the deal intends to spend the intervening period organising: the panel Costello was on urged activists to spend time talking to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael politicians about the risks of the deal, especially the court dispute mechanism, which they say privileges corporations over governments and citizens and opens up the risk of corporate litigation against legislation in the public interest.

Costello was joined by two members of his legal team, Donnchadh Woulfe and Aengus Ó Corráin, on a panel chaired by Lourda Scott, co-chair of the Just Transition Greens, the left-leaning affiliate of the party which roughly aligns with the part of the membership that is critical of Eamon Ryan’s leadership and advocates for a more radical and expansive version of the climate transition.

Ó Corráin urged members to put pressure on Ryan over the deal, acidly referring to the leader’s “damascene conversion” from someone who criticised Ceta to someone who now thinks it’s “the best thing since sliced bread”. Woulfe told members that Ceta “might help Kenmare Resources. It won’t help Kenmare. It might help Tullow Oil. It won’t help the people of Tullow.” Attendees urged the panel to narrow their criticism to the ISDS, rather than free trade, and emphasise that they were open to the benefits of trade.

Afterwards, Costello emphasised this point, describing a phone call Varadkar made to him after the Supreme Court judgment. An emollient Tánaiste congratulated him, “and he spoke about what he sees as the importance of international trade”, Costello said.

“I couldn’t agree more with him on the importance of international trade, but I think we need to separate the trade and the investor courts. We can have the trade without the investor courts.”

Costello promised to “continue to campaign on [the issue] inside and outside the pp” and there were mollifying noises from Eamon Ryan (“in fairness” to Costello, Ryan said, “he has done the State some service” with the legal case) and deputy leader Catherine Martin who said she was “absolutely delighted” to have Costello and Hourigan back “where they belong”.

The convention was tightly on message, and on brand. One delegate was observed by The Irish Times turning down thermostats set to 23 degrees in the Radisson Blu Athlone – “I thought everyone had got the memo about turning the thermostats down to 19″ – and the sandwich lunch had no meat fillings.

But what militancy there was to be found – in the form of good old fashioned internal sniping – was in or around the Ceta event. (“There’s nobody thinking strategically in there! And realising that without us there is no Government,” one attendee exasperatedly said to another in the corridor afterwards.)

There were also suggestions to put pressure on Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael backbenchers, to emphasise the parts of the deal their voting bases would not like – such as the criticism of the deal by the Irish Farmers’ Association, and the supposed potential for it to work hand in glove with Mercosur, the South America-EU trade deal reviled by the agricultural lobby. Costello suggested to a Louth member that he should “knock up to Fergus’s [O’Dowd, Fine Gael TD for the constituency] constituency clinic”.

Ceta may go into the background for a time but for the Greens, and ultimately for the Government, it’s not going away.