Green Party NI conference, the visit of Alex Attwood, and criticism of MLAs who can’t read or believe the speeches written for them

I encountered a confidence within the Green Party in NI at Saturday’s conference. Their conference attendance was a tad smaller than the Workers Party event on the other side of Belfast. While the party was relieved to have Steven Agnew elected in Brian Wilson’s vacated seat (running against Wilson’s wife who was standing for Alliance) they were disappointed to only return three councillors in the local government elections.

Speaking to @greenpartyni”s @StevenAgnew after their party conference (mp3)

The party has the best gender balance I’ve seen yet at a party conference, and wide range of ages – from young teens through to retirement. Of course, like any party – or group of human beings – they also have their fair share of personality clashes, frustrations and egos. It’s not easy being green …

On Saturday morning, the Green Party in Northern Ireland held their private AGM. GPNI is a ‘regional group’ of the Irish Green Party – Comhaontas Glas. The Antrim Greens group proposed a motion to cut these ties, but got nowhere near the two-thirds support necessary. Senior party officials seemed happy that this long-standing arrangement had been reviewed, and re-endorsed by conference.

  • The party unanimously agreed (again) to “vigorously campaign and, where possible, vote to extend the right to marry and be legally recognised as such, to same sex couples, and that there be no difference in status between same sex marriage and different sex marriage”.
  • They voted to support “the raising of the age of criminal responsibility from 10 years to 14 years” and called on the “Northern Ireland Executive to introduce a statutory duty on government departments to co-operate in the planning and delivery of children’s services”.
  • They voted to “oppose the reduction in local councils from 26 to 11”, reiterating their strong support for as local representation as possible.
  • Fracking and all oil drilling in Northern Ireland was opposed.
  • They voted to support measures to reduce pensioner poverty, develop a long term fuel poverty strategy, and condemned “continued settlement building by Israel in the West Bank” and urged “Israel and the Palestine Authority to recommence a process of peace talks”.

Alex Attwood …

Environment Minister Alex Attwood addressing @GreenPArtyNI conference (mp3)

Environment Minister Alex Attwood speaking at Green Party conferenceThe public afternoon session started off with a visit from the Environment Minister Alex Attwood. Steven Agnew frequently stresses that he wants to be “constructive in opposition” and not to simply oppose things for the sake of it.

Green Party NI leader and MLA Steven Agnew introduced the minister saying that there had been “a real step change since Alex came into the environment ministry from some previous environment ministers”.

Wearing a natty green tie, Attwood said that “I do appreciate the opportunity” and promised to speak about the environment, but also about the character of government locally. He congratulating Michael D Higgins on his election as president. Attwood characterised the process as “a curious election” and said there were lessons for politics on the island.

If you’re listening back to the audio you’ll hear him lose his train of thought at one point as he realises that the camera light has come on at the back of the room, and Martina Purdy is whispering a piece to camera for her news report.

Attwood is unimpressed with some senior civil servants who overstate their own power and dismiss MLAs:

The mindset that occupies some of the parts of government is not a mindset either to embrace challenging and radical approaches at a time when we need challenging and radical approaches.

Referring back to his youth, Attwood explained that he had Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Anti-Nazi League posters up on his bedroom wall as a teenager. As a nineteen year old going Inter-railing around Europe, his rucksack had a Greenpeace badge. Then he got involved in party politics and constitutional issues, leaving environment in the background until he entered the Environment Ministry portfolio.

He spoke of the quality and scale of Northern Ireland scenery, archaeological and built heritage which could provide employment, as well as attract tourism and tourist spend. He said that this is not fully understood around the Executive table and wasn’t seen as a potential input to economic strategy.

In the very near future, a document will be brought forward about the economic strategy for the next twenty years, developed by a ministerial subgroup of the Executive. And neither then Agriculture Minister, the Environment Minister or the Social Development Minister are on that committee.

Attwood quoted Scottish minister John Swinney: “the single biggest economic opportunity for Scotland was renewable energy”. He added: “If it’s true for Scotland, it’s true for us.”

People know I want to move towards an independent Environment Agency. But I’ve been told – and I’ll be honest about this – I’ve been told by other ministers that the bureaucracy, the cost of it, and essentially the treat to vested interest means that getting that across the Executive table is going to be difficult. They told me already and I haven’t even tabled a paper, never mind tabled draft legislation … We need to get our heads around the scale of legislation and requirements, and the need to have proper coexistence between DARD, Fisheries and the environment in particular, requires that model going forward. It doesn’t have to be an excessively costly model.

He talked about the possibility of a Climate Change bill. He said that while he was keen to bring in National Parks legislation (late 2012/early 2013) but would need the help of the Green Party.

In the Q&A session afterwards, Attwood sometimes found it difficult to answer due to the ownership of issues by particular ministers and ministries. He explained:

If I stray beyond my competence, some minister, but probably peter Robinson, will call me to account, because we have a bit of a testing relationship at times.

In an answer to a long forgotten question, he explained

Out government has been modelled because of the very different political circumstances that we faced. It’s a little known fact I think, but in the near future the DUP and Sinn Fein will want to reduce the number of ministers. They’ll get in a huddle and come out one day and say “that’s the way it’s going to be”. That’s the new political order of things. But what they don’t know is that the reason that we have the number of ministries that we have is because Seamus Mallon insisted upon having the number of ministries that we have. And the reason that he insisted – whether that was the right shape and model of government or not – was that he knew that maximising the ownership of government across the parties was an essential element of political stability and peace going forward. And he knew that if he maximised the number of government departments, then there was an opportunity that other parties would just not be left one ministry, and might have more than one, and have a greater stake, greater influence, greater ownership. And consequently whilst you wouldn’t model necessarily our government in these precise terms, there was good reason why it was and consequently departments were fragmented in a way that didn’t make the most sense. But when DUP and Sinn Fein come along with their recipe for remodelling government and we listen to those arguments, we need to be sure that the areas of policy that are mutual are concentrated where they need to be …

Glyn Roberts – NI Independent Retail Trade Association) praised the minister for dropping PPS24 and making progress towards PPS5 (a new planning policy that will protect town centres, and a policy that the Green Party supports).

Next up, was a question from “Conall from South Belfast” – but not that Conall – about environmental fines. Attwood praised the staff in the Environmental Crime Unit in the DOE.

David Newman had the last question. Postulating that “it’s always better if ministers and officials have a feeling for the lives of citizens” he went on to ask whether Alex “and fellow ministers and maybe some of the officials would give up all use of cars for two weeks and travel everywhere by bicycle and public transport”.

Part of Attwood’s answer mentioned:

Sammy Wilson and myself – again I think this is breaching the Executive’s confidence – Sammy and myself were the only ministers who said we would share a car. All the other ministers, one way or another, said no, they wanted to keep their cars and keep their drivers.

He went on to explain the benefit of being able to work on papers while travelling to far away appointments.

I actually support the principle of a car. I don’t just support the principle of a car all the time … Two weeks? I’ll think about that can I? Can I negotiate you down? (laughs in room)

Conor Quinn, the Green Party’s NI chair, singled Alex Attwood as the “first Environment Minister that his party would share some common ground with” and went on to suggest that there was a theme of

small men with big ideas

across the “short stature” Green Party NI leader, the Environment Minister and even the new Irish President Michael D Higgins.

Eamon Ryan …

Eamon Ryan (leader of Irish Green Party) addressing @GreenPartyNi conference (mp3)

Eamonn Ryan speaking at Green Party NI conference The leader of Irish Green Party – Comhaontas Glas, Eamon Ryan, was next to address the NI party faithful. He commented that his party’s good intention of rotating ministers half way through the parliament went down very badly with voters when they stuck to their promise and swapped roles in the middle of an economic crisis.

Debate: Should nuclear energy be party of the solution to climate change?

The nuclear energy debate was well mannered and never hostile. There was a general trading of statistics, with the Green Party and Friends of the Earth panellists attributing great loss of life to historic nuclear incidents, while the two contributors from Better Environment through Nuclear Energy claimed that “nuclear power is relatively safe”, stating that Three mile Island had resulted in no deaths, Chernobyl was limited to 62 deaths and there have been no fatalities at Fukushima.

Nuclear energy debate (part 1) at @GreenPartyNI conference (mp3)

James Orr from Friends of the Earth said: “Even though it [nuclear energy] is supported by the Vatican, I’m still a very ardent nuclear sceptic and dissenter!” and pointed to radiation-induced cancers leading to deaths, and the problem of Irish terrorism when thinking about building nuclear

Nuclear energy debate (part 2) at @GreenPartyNI conference (mp3)

Shockingly, the average energy consumption of one person in the US is equal to fifty people in Bangladesh. (For comparison, 1 UK = 25 Bangladesh.)

Approximately, 5% of the world’s primary energy supply is nuclear, 5% hydro, 0.5% other renewables (eg, solar, wind, geothermal). The rest is supplied by burning stuff.

Nuclear energy debate (part 3) at @GreenPartyNI conference (mp3)

The pro-nuclear contributors got a solid round of applause – better than just polite – from the delegates and visitors (including a few Young Unionists).

(Coincidentally, Ireland may well be a nuclear energy free zone at the moment with the loss of the two interconnectors to Scotland and the GB national grid.)

Steven Agnew …

Green Party NI policy is to elect a new leader after Assembly elections. Steven Agnew was unopposed as leader and was duly re-elected. Thirty seconds later he was up on his feet giving his leader’s address.

Leader”s speech by @StevenAgnew at @GreenPartyNI conference (mp3)

Steven Agnew at gpni11 conferenceYou can listen to the full speech. Some highlights:

I have been very privileged today to share the top table with two of Ireland’s most able politicians – north or south. I don’t yet share the stature – and I’m not just talking about Eamon Ryan’s height – but I think it is where we should set the bar. Seeing politicians who are willing to go and take on the civil service and make actual change, rather than just deliver political rhetoric.

I think it’s fair to say that it’s been a very positive year for the Green Party, especially given our election results in May. It’s been a long year, from a personal point of view … The election campaign was exhausting, but it was well worth while.

We faced the challenge of building on our success in the 2005 and 2007 elections where we got our first ever Green councillors and first ever Green Party MLA. But it was pointed out to us time and time again that we did that on the back of strong personality votes of former independents who weren’t really Greens, it was suggested. Well now, we’ve gone to the electorate. Each of the candidates who were elected this time around have been long standing Green Party members and I’ve written here “we have truly cemented our place in Northern Ireland politics” – given our principles, maybe it’s better to say “we have firmly rooted in Northern Ireland politics”.

It has been a difficult year for colleagues in RoI. Agnew sees party decision to keep north south relationship intact as positive along and balanced by the party’s east-west (GB + Ireland) relationships.

I am a voice of opposition in a 108-member Assembly where 105 of the MLAs belong to government parties. However I plan to play a constructive role, I will not oppose [simply] for the sake of doing so. I recently spoke at an event celebrating 50 years of Amnesty International and I was reminded of the founding principle of Amnesty; “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” This is a principle that I take with me into the Assembly.

I want to applaud when good things are taking place. That is why I invited Alex Attwood here today, because I do believe that he is at least trying to do a good job in what are difficult circumstances, given his position on the Executive. Alex has shown leadership by engaging directly with the environmental movement and by putting environmental protection at the top of his agenda, despite the opposition he faces around the Executive table. Time will tell how much he can achieve in that regard.

I will benchmark all government policies against whether they are good for the economy, good for people and good for the environment. This was the commitment that was made by the Party in our manifesto and it is a commitment that I want to reaffirm today. I will oppose policies that do not meet these criteria, but only where I cannot offer a better alternative.

This approach is already achieving results. I have tabled two amendments to private members motions, both accepted by the Speaker, and both passed unanimously. In each case, what I’ve been trying to do is to highlight the need for joined up government in Northern Ireland.

Agnew spoke about his planned Private Members Bill:

My Private Member’s Bill, at the heart of it is the need for joined up government. If successful it will introduce a statutory duty on government departments to work together on the planning and commissioning of children’s services. Each government department has responsibilities in this area but they are all working in their own silos. This is incredibly inefficient. A lot of talk in politics is about finding more efficiencies within government … This is a way of creating efficiencies, that won’t cost us money, will in fact save us money, and will mean that through departments pulling their resources together, through commissioning services together, can actually deliver better for our children. And what could be more important than doing that? Currently children in Northern Ireland get a lesser deal that their counterparts in England, Scotland or Wales where some sort of statutory duty exists.

From his vantage point on the Enterprise, Trade and Investment committee, Agnew critiqued the questionable energy strategy of DETI.

On the one hand we have a target for 40% renewable electricity generation, 10% renewable heat and a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions, all by 2020. On the other hand, DETI’s overriding policy is to expand the gas network in Northern Ireland.

Prioritising gas over renewable generation? Agnew has influenced a piece of research by the committee looking into switching public sector buildings from oil to gas. The next version of the report will also look at renewables.

Despite all that, I’m enjoying being in the Assembly. It is a challenge, but I enjoy that challenge. There are people in the Assembly who get it. There are good politicians there.

There are some – as far as I’m concerned – who should never have been elected and shouldn’t be there. Not because I disagree with them on policy – that’s fine, that’s what we go to the electorate for – but some of them can’t even seem to read their own speeches that are written for them. That’s the thing that infuriates me more than anything.

I can sit beside Jim Allister and disagree with him all day. At least he knows where his point of view comes from. But some of these people, their point of view is being handed to them on a sheet of paper, and actually – when you talk to them – they don’t even agree with the thing they read out. (applause)

But there are good politicians there in other parties, and it’s important that my team works with them to try and get our policies implemented, because we can’t do it on our own. I can do one Private Members Bill – if I’m lucky, two – and face the challenge of getting them through the Assembly. But ultimately we need to work together with other parties and I intend to do that.

Agnew looked forward to the day when he’ll be joined by other Green Party colleagues in the Assembly. He highlighted the need to widen fundraising from just within the party to include members of the public. He said it was important that the Greens run a candidate in the European election in (less than) three years time.

We’ve had the opportunity to pause for breath and to pat ourselves on the back for the great work of the past year. But I’m afraid to say, tomorrow the hard work begins all over again.

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