There is some fascinating comment around the prospective deal between the Greens and Fianna Fail. Vincent Browne thinks a Green agenda will change nothing, because it is out of kilter with what people want: “It cannot be done particularly in coalition with a much larger party that is far more in tune with the will and mood of the electorate than you are”. In the Examiner, Steven King though looks at the party’s chances of success, by looking more widely afield:By Steven King
The negotiations aimed at agreeing a new coalition government have now gone on nearly as long as the election campaign itself. By European standards this might not be unusual. Following their (much closer) 2006 elections, it took the Czechs 230 days to agree an ideologically comparable centre-right/Green deal.
Nevertheless, it is in everyone’s interest that a Taoiseach be elected tomorrow, a government formed, and a start made to tackling the not-insurmountable economic challenges.
Over the course of the last week, evidence has emerged of understandable irritation at the Fianna Fail grassroots that so much time and energy has been devoted to talks about the formation of a FF/Green government. Did a single voter go into the polling booth hoping that would be the election’s outcome? Hadn’t both parties made it abundantly clear during the campaign that they didn’t see each other as potential partners? Wasn’t the electorate presented with two competing coalitions, two competing visions and didn’t it, by a small margin, endorse the FF/PD option?
Furthermore, it has been speculated that Brian Cowen, almost certainly Bertie Ahern’s successor, hasn’t taken too kindly to Green attempts to insert themselves into areas of policy far beyond the environmental agenda. As Finance Minister, he knows better than most how hard it would be to square falling tax revenues, a housing market downturn, and rising interest rates and inflation with Green demands that amount to cooling the economy and simultaneously increasing spending.
In the post-Good Friday Ireland, when perhaps Fianna Fail’s only remaining core value is the priority it gives to economic growth, the odds on a FF/Green coalition were never put that high. The talks had an air of unreality about them.
Why then did Bertie Ahern allow negotiations with the Greens to go on far beyond what was supposed to be their weekend cut-off point? Have we been witnessing a typically cynical attempt by Fianna Fail to hold on to office at any cost? Or was there method in the Taoiseach’s madness?
Perhaps, though, the question should be posed the other way around: why have the Greens been negotiating with Fianna Fail in the first place? After all, it’s not as though we have a hung Dail and a government cannot be formed.
What makes the Greens’ keenness all the more remarkable is that the evidence from other countries is that Green parties in government tend to punch below their weight. Their policy impact tends to be small and they are rarely able to broaden their constituency of support to compensate for the loss of those voters who plump for them precisely because they are radical outsiders. If the deal is endorsed today, the Greens might find the next election even more challenging than usual.
Conversely, that’s what makes Greens quite attractive to large parties. The policy concessions actually required on a day-to-day basis are fewer than those required for parties – like the PDs – which represent identifiable (and powerful) social interests. But Green politicians are politicians all the same: opposition can be a frustrating business with few perks.
Assuming the deal is on, many lazy parallels will be drawn with the best-known government involving Greens, namely the Socialist-led one that ran Germany from 1998-2005. But the comparison doesn’t work.
First, Greens and socialists tend to have more in common than Greens and free-marketeers and, for all Bertie’s claims to be a “socialist”, no-one believes Fianna Fail is anything of the sort.
Second, Gerhard Schroeder’s governments depended on the Greens’ votes for their survival. This FF-led ‘technicolour’ coalition will not. In that sense, the parallels to be drawn are with countries like Finland and Belgium where Greens were invited into government but were actually surplus to requirements. Green Party members today will have to ask themselves how much influence they can hope to exert when Bertie Ahern can invite them to walk the plank any day of the week. More influence than in opposition, the party’s TDs will counter.
Yet, whether or not the Green deal ever came off, Bertie’s tactics were sound. He wanted to see the whites of their eyes. Would they want substance or could they actually be satisfied with gestures? The truth will only be known if and when the programme for government is published but, at the weekend, there were hints the Greens only needed something “symbolic” as proof of Fianna Fail’s earnestness.
Possibly aware of their own strategic weakness – and mindful of the idealism of their party’s governing council – the Greens initially bid very high. When talks broke down, the supposedly unbridgeable gaps were in the areas of local government reform, the health service, education spending and planning. As if that weren’t a long enough list, it’s probably worth adding the Shannon military flights controversy, campaign finance reform, carbon emissions, roads policy and the top rate of tax. In other words, pretty much the whole shebang. No wonder Seamus Brennan spoke last Friday of “enormous financial implications”.
I understand that early on in the negotiations some of the sums being demanded for Green pet projects were in the 10-figure league i.e. billions, not millions, of Euro. If today’s convention rejects the deal, expect Fianna Fail “sources” to reveal much more of the Green wish-list.
Meanwhile, everyone else has been dancing to Bertie’s tune. He probably wanted Mary Harney as much as she needed back into government. Out of office, without a platoon of senators and advisors, the party’s future would be very uncertain indeed. But she still has immense stature. She doesn’t flap – not something you could say about your average Green. At the same time, with only two TDs, the PD grassroots know they are in no position currently to start waxing their ‘watchdog’ credentials. Further revelations from the Mahon Tribunal about the Taoiseach’s finances are, at least, one of Donald Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns”.
An even the clearer message has been sent to the other odds and sods – and some are very odd sods. Beverly Flynn has a precarious political existence anyway but Michael Lowry and Jackie Healy-Rae will have had to scale down the number of barrels of pork they could hope to bring home to Tipperary and Kerry respectively. As for Finian McGrath, having named about a dizzying list of priorities immediately after the election – from foreign policy downwards – he began confining himself to more modest territory such as disability rights. Tony Gregory probably knew all along that he is ideologically beyond the Pale and Dublin Central gets only what Bertie wants.
Assuming he is confirmed again as Taoiseach tomorrow – and it would be playing politics with the election result if he were not – the days since the election should be viewed as time well spent.
Bertie has added ‘environmentalist’ to his list of credentials, exposed the Greens to some serious scrutiny, taken some of the wind out of the Independents, made Enda Kenny’s own attempts to form a government seem fanciful, and even elicited a tap on his door – if not quite a knock – from the Labour Party. As an added bonus, Sinn Fein said they wouldn’t vote for him as Taoiseach so long as Mary Harney was back in government. All in all, not a bad fortnight’s work!
First published in the Examiner today