The ebbing of the green wave is not unique to Ireland

Wilted Greens: Tide turns against the party at time of peak climate crisis

Pippa Hackett, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, has made addressing the Greens' rural lacuna the centrepiece of her campaign to succeed Eamon Ryan as the party's leader. Photograph: Leah Farrell/

Defeated Green MEP Ciarán Cuffe is on the other end of a phone line but the ruefulness can be heard clearly in his voice.

“Nobody joins the Green Party for an easy life,” he says. “I have spent my life in a party that is often within the margins of error in the opinion polls or is in difficulty.

“I said five years ago that phrases like ‘topping the polls’ didn’t come easily to me as I have had defeat at the polls as often as I have had victories.”

The reference to five years ago relates to 2019 when Cuffe cruised to a seat in the European Parliament, topping the poll in Dublin. Last week, he was eliminated after the 18th count, 3,000 votes shy of Aodhán Ó Ríordáin of the Labour Party.


Cuffe’s story is a familiar one for the Green Party in Ireland. The party’s performances have oscillated as dramatically as the needle on a failed polygraph test.

The party made its first big breakthrough in Irish politics 20 years ago. In 2004, it won 16 council seats across the State. It then went on to win a record six Dáil seats in 2007.

“The Green Party represents a set of ideas whose time has come,” its then leader Trevor Sargent predicted at the time.

But the recoil came relatively quickly, and when it came it was brutal. As the economy began to tank, the party lost all but three of its council seats in the 2009 elections. In the general election of 2011 it was annihilated, losing all six seats. To compound the disaster, its national support fell below 2 per cent and the party lost all national funding. To continue in existence, it had to rely almost wholly on volunteers.

Now, there are concerns – and they will dominate the leadership contest to replace Eamon Ryan – that a version of that history will repeat itself whenever the next general election takes place. In the June 7th elections, both its outgoing MEPs – Ciarán Cuffe in Dublin and Grace O’Sullivan in Ireland South – lost their seats. The number of Green council seats, 49 won in 2019, was winnowed to 23, and only six of those were outside the capital.

Ciarán Cuffe at the RDS Dublin during the recent European elections. Photograph: Collins

The ebbing of the green wave is not unique to Ireland. It happened throughout Europe in this month’s elections. The German Greens lost nine of their 21 seats; the number of French MEPs was halved from 10 to five. There were losses in Belgium, Portugal, Finland and Austria. Against that, there were gains in the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, Croatia, Latvia, Spain, Slovenia and Italy. But the net result for the European Greens was a collective loss of 20 seats, bringing its representation in the European Parliament down from 71 to 51.

Dr Theresa Reidy, head of the department of government and politics at University College Cork, says the fall in support in the European Parliament elections reflects voters reacting to the financial costs, and additional burdens on individual behaviour, associated with green policies already in place. In addition to EU policies being implemented, the Greens are also in power in a number of states including Germany.

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“They are having more of a policy impact than they would have had two decades ago,” she says.

However, Reidy cautioned against the notion of long-term demise, saying the Green Party is different from other small parties. “The party is rooted in a well-established set of political views and values, some of which have moved into the mainstream.

“Other small parties appear, burn brightly and they fade. The difference with the Greens is that the underpinning issue behind their emergence, if anything, has grown stronger. Their electoral fortunes may ebb and flow but its fundamental base becomes more important not less so.”

Cuffe concurs, saying: “This is a European phenomenon, not just an Irish issue.

“The voters were cost-conscious. They were looking at their bills. And their energy bills went up as a result of Russia invading Ukraine and Europe getting rid of a lot of Russian oil and gas. Voters blamed the Greens, because the European Green Deal was going through at the time, and voters simply said the green stuff is resulting in my bills going up. It was untrue.” (The deal is a package of policy initiatives with the ultimate goal of reaching EU climate neutrality by 2050.)

I think the green message has resonated more with a middle-class demographic. Those who are struggling with their bills are not as inclined to vote Green

—  Ciarán Cuffe

Cuffe has posited a number of factors behind that result. For one, he points out that political conditions five years ago could not have been more benign for the Greens throughout Europe.

“I think 2019 was a fascinating moment in time when a huge youth climate movement manifested itself on the streets and figures like David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg brought climate change into the public consciousness more than ever before.

“Five years later, people understand that climate change is happening. But I think some are throwing up their hands in despair. I think others are putting their fingers in their ears. Meanwhile, climate breakdown continues, which is a cause of real concern to me and others.”

That’s borne out by Eurobarometer surveys which show that climate and biodiversity issues still figure prominently but have moved from the greatest concern in 2019, to third in July 2023.

Other issues have emerged in Europe, argues Cuffe, which have displaced climate change. He points to a succession of crises since 2020, including Covid, the war in Ukraine and the ongoing horrific situation in Gaza. The consequential spike in energy prices, and cost-of-living pressures, have become real concerns.

“I think the green message has resonated more with a middle-class demographic. Those who are struggling with their bills are not as inclined to vote Green,” says Cuffe.

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Migration has become a dominant issue throughout Europe. Moreover, climate policies have been blamed among certain cohorts across Europe as a threat to agriculture, the rural way of life and the rising costs of fuel for cars. The streets of Paris and Brussels are as familiar with tractor blockades as are the streets around Leinster House. A barrage of social media attacks on Green parties and politicians – Cuffe believes that some stem from Russia – was also a factor, he says.

“On social media channels, I’ve never seen as many bots denying climate change as I saw in the last six months. From those telling us we’re all going to be eating insects to suggestions that climate change is not happening. I think this is organised. I suspect it is Russian interests.”

All of those factors played a part in Ireland too. So how will this play out politically in future for the Greens in Ireland and Europe?

There have been losses, says former TD and senator Dan Boyle - now a Cork councillor, who became Mayor of Cork city last night - but they aren’t catastrophic and can’t begin to be compared with what happened in 2009 or 2011.

“Look, it was a toss-up about Grace O’Sullivan and Ciarán retaining their seats,” Boyle says. “They were a lot closer than people thought they could be. Sure there were losses in Germany and France and in Austria as well. In Germany, like here, the Greens are in government and that’s a factor. But there were increases in seats in other parts of Europe. So the fall is not Europe wide. There has been a diminution since 2019 but it’s not a disaster.”

On Tuesday, Eamon Ryan announced his departure as Green leader. In a dramatic week in domestic politics, the party’s deputy leader Catherine Martin said she was also stepping down from her senior role in the party and ruled herself out of competing for the more senior role.

Green Party leader and Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan announced that he will be stepping down as party leader and will not run in the next election.

Speaking this week about the elections, Ryan said: “There was a bitter sense of disappointment. Among the 130 candidates who ran, we had a remarkable tranche of really good people.

“I just hoped that we would get a better return. We didn’t. You dust yourself down, pick yourself up.”

Ryan turned to the question of the future of the party. “There’s nothing certain about the next election. I don’t think it is similar to 2011 for us, I think it’s completely different circumstances. If you look at the list of achievements in this Government, we have delivered massive change that is steering this country. It’s a historic shift that’s occurring as we go green in this country because we’re in government. Our party is very united at the moment. It’s in rude good health. We present ourselves to the electorate and see how that goes.”

At European level, the Greens group was the biggest loser, losing 20 seats to fall to 51. The liberal Renew group (to which Fianna Fáil is linked) also witnessed a substantial fall of 22 seats and now stands at 81.

In contrast, the biggest party, the EPP, of which Fine Gael is a member, gained seats. It now has a total of 189 seats, with the Socialists and Democrats rising to 136 seats.

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The big winners though were the parties of the right and far right, which gained a substantial number of seats.

That said, the centrist bloc of the EPP, S&D and Renew still commands 406 seats of the 720 seat parliament, enough to propel Ursula von der Leyen to a second term as European Commission president. However, the bloc will need one of the smaller groupings to buttress its majority.

In the last parliament, the Green group was the driving force behind the passing of the Green Deal, as well as the nature restoration law. But now with its slimmed-down contingent, there are concerns that the Green Deal might be in jeopardy. Those concerns would be heightened if the centrist bloc were to cut a deal with the right-leaning National Conservative Group (its main party is Brothers of Italy, led by Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni). However, a downgrading of the Green Deal is considered unlikely by the Greens.

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There was another standout theme in Ryan’s statement announcing his resignation – his regret that a narrative had taken hold that “the Greens were not concerned about rural Ireland, our solutions are costing people and we are not connected to the man and woman on the street. None of that do I believe to be true.”

Boyle agrees it’s an issue but then adds that the “traditional” parties, not the Greens, are the ones “who have overseen the decline of rural life in many parts of Europe”.

Minister for Children and Integration Roderic O’Gorman and Senator Pippa Hackett have both declared their candidacy to become the new Green Party leader. Photograph: Gareth Chaney & Stephen Collins/Collins

But he, like Cuffe and others, accepts the Greens are substantially urban-based and need to broaden their appeal. Both party leadership candidates, Roderic O’Gorman, Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, and Pippa Hackett, Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine with special responsibility for land use and biodiversity, have vowed to address that rural lacuna – indeed Hackett, a farmer, has made it the centrepiece of her campaign.

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In the course of that debate, the party may have found a breakout star this week in Clare senator Róisín Garvey. On RTÉ's Prime Time on Tuesday, Garvey, who comesfrom a farm in west Clare, took on Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae. Assertive in presentation, she took on the Kerry deputy directly and argued that the Greens had delivered hundreds of new bus routes to rural Ireland, had delivered broadband, solar panels, had never called for a reduction of the national herd, and used part of carbon tax revenue to retrofit 400 social houses in rural Ireland in recent months. She also read out two press releases where Healy-Rae claimed credit for new local bus services and fibre broadband, saying he was claiming credit for Green policies that benefited rural Ireland.

“Your head is stuck in the sand,” she said. “You want things to stay the same. You have no solution but when it suits you you are all over it.” Healy-Rae doubled down on his long-standing criticism of Green policies.

For Ryan, nothing is certain about the outcome of the next general election, which he will not contest. “I don’t think it will be similar to 2011 for us,” he says. “I think there are completely different circumstances. If you look at the list of achievements in this Government, we have delivered massive change that is now steering this country.

“It’s a historic shift that’s occurring as we go green in this country because we’re in Government. Our party is very united at the moment. It’s in rude good health.”

Ciarán Cuffe (right), Dan Boyle and Eamon Ryan at the Green Party special delegate conference at the Mansion House, Dublin, in 2007. Photograph: :Arthur Carron/Collins

Boyle, who tends to be less sanguine, is of the view that the tide will not go fully out as it did in 2011, and that the Greens now have a minimum foothold that will guarantee seats at each election.

“I think we still have to brace ourselves for the ‘smaller party in government’ rule of thumb but I think we can come back with a significant number of seats.

“We did relatively well in Dublin. I don’t see wipeout. But what I do see is, maybe, retrenchment.

“What gives me hope is the sense that while we’re still relatively small in terms of vote share, and even 2019 was relatively small, we still return a steady per cent of the national vote as our core.

“In an era of increasing volatility, the core Green vote is solidifying. I put the core Green vote at between 3.5 per cent and 4 per cent. We are not talking about 2011 being related because we sat at under 2 per cent support at that time.”

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A politician like Cuffe has seen it all before, and his summation chimes with that of Boyle.

“Having been in green politics for 40 years, I think each time there is a green wave it gets stronger because people are seeing more clearly the link between the need for environmental action. The state of the planet. But there are moments when that wave is stronger. It may diminish and come back again.”

Reidy believes the party has left a strong “defining green impact” on this Government. “It has a clear ideology and clear preferences, and has achieved those in this Government,” she says.

“It had a bad day in the elections, there’s no point saying anything else. But they haven’t been wiped out. They’re still there. There’s reasonable expectation they will hold some seats in the next election. They will grow again after that because their issue still matters and, if anything, it matters more.”

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