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Greens in power: How the party has quietly become the most effective member of Coalition

Harry McGee looks at the party’s performance in Government ahead of its annual conference in Cork

When Green Party TDs and Senators argue that the scorching they took in the 2011 General Election won’t be repeated, they point to an Ossian Smyth tweet as proof.

It was posted by Smyth, a junior minister and TD for Dún Laoghaire, on October 11th and involves clever intercutting of two video clips from Dáil debates.

The first part shows Smyth, from the Government benches, thanking Michael Healy-Rae of all people.

“Deputy Healy-Rae made some kind comments about the Green Party and its achievements in Government and I want to thank him for his kind remarks,” he says.


And then Healy-Rae flashes up on screen making the so-called kind remarks.

“The Greens are doing exactly what they said they would do. They are actually doing more than they said they would do. Nobody should actually be saying to the Greens, oh you deceived us. Everybody knew what ye were about when ye came into Government.”

Of course, it was a backhanded compliment. The Independent Kerry TD was fulminating about the LNG gas terminal in Co Kerry and accusing Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael of deceiving voters.

“They have lost rural Ireland. The Green Party never had it,” he declared.

The Green Party has taken the comment and run with it. And that theme – the Greens doing exactly what they said they would do – will dominate the party’s annual convention in Cork this weekend.

It’s a confirmation the party has made its mark in the three-party Coalition. As Waterford TD Marc Ó Cathasaigh puts it, the party believes “the difficult second album” might turn out to be a hit.

The first tour in Government ended with an immolation. The Greens lost all its six seats in 2011. It was a wipeout: support collapsed from 4.7 per cent to 1.8 per cent. That also meant it lost all its State funding. On its uppers, it took a decade for the party to recover by which time climate had moved from the periphery to the centre as a global political imperative. In 2020, it took a record 12 seats with a little more than 7 per cent of the popular vote.

So what’s different this time for the Greens in Government? The party’s popularity isn’t exactly stellar (3 per cent in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos poll) and Eamon Ryan has essentially been made into a pantomime villain by rural Ireland and by the driving lobby. Yet, there remains an undoubted optimism among its representatives.

“Despite us not being that popular in the polls, we have done a good job for the smallest party in the Coalition,” says Róisin Garvey, a Senator for Clare.

There are material differences from the last Government. Then the Greens found themselves being blamed as accessories after the fact for a banking and housing crisis in which they played no part.

This time around it is a bigger party and in a Coalition with two parties, not in a lopsided relationship with a big party. Ryan, as party leader, is singularly focused on policy, especially on climate and the environment, telling his colleagues to “keep going green” at every opportunity.

Objectively, the party can point to achieving far more of its objectives in the Programme for Government than its partners. These include a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 51 per cent by 2030; the huge budgets achieved for active and sustainable travel including greenways and cycle lanes; the local link buses; decreases in public transport fares; a new forestry programme; incentives for solar and for retrofit; and the recognition of the circular economy (for example, a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles and cans starting in the new year).

The Green policy palate has been extended by Catherine Martin with a basic income for the arts sector and Roderic O’Gorman with a 50 per cent cut in childcare costs (by the end of 2024), although the latter has had a rocky stint in his Integration role.

The latest gain for the party was a €3 billion fund for capital investment announced in the budget earlier this month and it is a certainty that it will be mentioned in passing more than once this weekend.

“We have done pretty well in the last few budgets,” says Limerick City TD Brian Leddin. “That has buoyed people a lot.”

But will it make a difference? Ó Cathasaigh points out the party has pushed through a lot of legislation but people are “not feeling it yet”. That said, he adds that the impacts are obvious in transport with cycle lanes, footpaths, Local Link and cheaper fares. The party, he feels, probably needs to communicate what it has achieved more.

The Greens had a rocky start to this Government with rows involving its pro-Government members and those on the left of the party, who argued it was failing on just transition and other core left issues. Covid also had an impact. The turbulence died down after a year although there have been lingering differences.

Patrick Costello took a successful High Court case on the EU trade deal with Canada. Its most prominent internal critic, Dublin Central TD Neasa Hourigan, was suspended from the parliamentary party for 15 months in March, after voting against the Government for a third time. Ó Cathasaigh says that perhaps the party’s suboptimal performance in the early days of Government could be attributed to 10 of its TDs being brand new. Now three years into Government, he says “we have all got better at it”.

The party has a settled look to it right now. Ryan, ever the optimist, believes the party can double its votes in the local elections next year to 100, and could actually gain seats in the next election and enter the next Government, whatever shape that might take.

Could it really? Could it escape the unyielding fate of minor parties in Government? Not on three per cent it can’t. It will always have a core support group and then there is a further (small) cohort who will vote on climate change if the State is not in crisis. Many of those are young and the party will have to convince them that climate is a more pressing issue than housing (an uphill battle at this moment in time). It was that cohort which voted elsewhere in 2011.

There is a seam of optimism, though: a belief that imprimaturs like Healy-Rae’s are proof of its relevance.