Can the Greens get over a muddled start…

So far the Greens have displayed all the confusion of a small group emerging into the deck of a ship after years in the dark, dank galley below. Yet far from shafting his junior partners in government Bertie Ahern has handed them two senior ministries, and Trevor Sargent a junior minister. That’s half the parliamentary party! Vincent Browne thinks that whilst Bertie will keep them soothed (and keep FF in power till 2017), if the leadership of the party switches to Cowen things could get rough, which may be one scenario Jenny is thinking of, when she says the Greens must learn when its best to walk. Much has been made of the scant flashes of green in the programme for government, but as Noel Whelan points out in last Saturday’s Irish Times, it may be control of the department that matters (subs needed):

Too much of the media assessment of the deal made by the Green Party has focused on the text of the joint programme for government, rather than the significance of the ministries which the party secured.

Although the speculation was that it might get one full ministry and a super junior, it achieved two full ministries. John Gormley and Eamon Ryan will hold real power in two substantial departments for five years. Day in and day out they will decide where effort and money should be prioritised, which legislation to fast-track and what Ireland’s position at European ministerial councils will be. It may be that much of the programme’s environmental and energy commitments had been promised by Fianna Fáil anyway, but the fact that two able Green politicians will sit at ministerial desks in these departments means that the proposals will happen, and sooner. Once they settle in, they will also be able to identify additional mechanisms and funding lines to move their agenda forward.

Many of the most significant policy changes introduced in this State never appeared in a programme for government or an election manifesto. Instead, they emerged from a decision by a minister to take a dramatic initiative. Micheál Martin’s decision on the smoking ban is the most significant recent example. Dramatic things can also be expected from each of the two new Green Party Ministers.

Protesting on the outside is easy politics. Getting involved in exercising executive power is more demanding but also more effective.

It’s not a million miles away from Smithy’s retrospective thoughts on an earlier occasion over at the Cedar Tree:

I keep thinking about a brief conversation I had with a friend of mine at the back of the conference room in the Gresham, after the decision had been taken. I was disappointed, but unsurprised at the result, and was lamenting the future of the party, the Left … the usual kind of thing. His response was short, but to the point: “Better us in there than the fucking PDs”.

Even though I didn’t agree with him at the time, it was a very hard point to argue against and it’s something which has stuck with me ever since. While it’s easy to stand back and make the argument that parties of the left should stay out of government until they can present a truly left-wing alternative in Irish politics, those who adopt such a position (and it’s a valid one) need to face up to the fact that, in the short-term at least and possibly for longer, it condemns the most vulnerable in society to a worse government than might otherwise have been the case. And it’s for that reason that I’ll try and defend the decision of the Greens to go into government, even if I’m not entirely sure that it’s the right one.

As Splintered Sunrise notes the irony of such seemingly incongruous combinations has a single root:

This is one of the joys of the PRSTV system, that it throws up these seeming coalitions of opposites, while those closest to you on paper are your most bitter rivals. Hence Clann na Poblachta coalescing in 1948 with a pretty much unreconstructed Fine Gael. Hence Dessie saying that FF, and in particular Charlie, were unfit to be in office, and then putting them back into office. Hence today’s FF-Green-PD combo. And why not a Blueshirt-Provo coalition in five years’ time?

If the DUP can do it, why not Fine Gael? The truth is that for a party which once prided itself in relying on no one else in government, Fianna Fail under Ahern have become masters of coalition, whilst everyone else of any size or capacity is still lingering on the starting line. Small, meaty, policy led parties like the Greens and the PDs will always find themselves in hock to one of the bigger less ideological, constituency rooted parties.

What Ahern possibly knows that his opposition seem to be discounting, is that if this coalition does genuinely dish up new Green policy directions his party stands a decent chance of hitting 2017 without drawing breath. In the meantime, although the pressure will remain on the Greens to stand up their end of the bargain, this a moment it was always going to meet, if it was serious about citing its credentials as a political party, not just, as Jenny points out, a pressure group.

That Ahern chose the Greens and not Labour to dance with comes down to a large extent to what each was prepared to bring to ‘the party’, and not simply the electoral mathematics that consumed most mainstream commentators.

In that respect, there is much for Labour to think on before 2012, in between their parliamentary bashing of what they presume to be the weak end of the government combo.

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  • Much as it sticks in the craw not to bash the Greens at any and all opportunities, their two departments are ones in which administration is usually more important than legislation; smart choices from them.

  • I think Noel Whelan’s assessment is the most sober and realistic I have come across since the Greens took power.

    The simple truth of politics for a smaller party in the Republic is that you are competing to share power, inevitably, with Fianna Fail or Fine Gael. And the prospects of a decisive recovery for FG under Kenny were always dim.

    The new Government’s complexion will be radically different across a number of areas, including transparency, a desire for engagement with social partners (e.g. Comhar, the sustainable development partnership has been brought into a more central role in the partnership arrangements in the Programme for Government), and both anticipating and anticipating risks for the Republic’s economic well being linked to energy security issues.

  • Greenflag

    ‘What Ahern possibly knows that his opposition seem to be discounting, is that if this coalition does genuinely dish up new Green policy directions his party stands a decent chance of hitting 2017 without drawing breath.’

    Possibly ? Bertie has ‘neutered ‘ Labour and FG for the present . Both parties will need new leaders by 2012 if they are to have a hope of Government . By 2012 both parties may have overcome their aversion to SF as a potential coalition partner .

    Bertie did the right thing by Mary Harney and has now signalled his choice for successor – the very effective Brian Cowan.

    Good to see Minister Ryan of the Greens opening up the ‘nuclear ‘ debate . Following on from Tony Blair’s decision to build more nuclear power stations in the UK it would be ironic if it was the decision of a Green Minister that Ireland also needed a couple of nuclear powered plants to secure the energy requirements for a growing economy in the decades ahead .


  • Mick Fealty

    I don’t think FG’s difficulty is half as pressing as Labour’s. New blood and all that. Besides, FG has to deliver constituency, Labour certainly has some capacity, but it is also going to live or die in the ideas market.

  • Crataegus

    The Greens really had no alternative but go into government. The other options were every bit as risky and with little opportunity to control events.

    Now their future is in their own hands and they simply must deliver to survive.

    With regards Labour and FG they will attack the Greens in the hope of fragmenting the government and achieving an early election. It is a strategy that might be short sighted as they themselves may need the Green Party in some future coalition.

    5 years in opposition will be cruel times for FG and in particular an aging Labour Party. As for SF 5 years of stasis will be difficult now the political dynamic has subtly chanced away from them. Not taking Dublin Central (and the reasons for failing) could prove to be one of those political turning points.

    What I was pondering, was what political party would some young left of centre type or progressive, idealist now join? The choice isn’t good.

  • circles

    It all reminds me of the “realo” vs “fundie” discussion that has split the German greens in recent years.
    The coalition they entered with Schröders SPD saw a green foreign minister (Fischer) sending german troops into combat zones, and dragging the party into some seriously murky dealings with the American secret service as well as agreeing to other policies that for grass roots greens were extremely hard to swallow. The argument being that Realplitik has a price and in order to stay relevant real decisions had to be made. The “fundamentalists” begged to differ (although Fischers charisma kept most in-line).
    However the period as a coalition partner has fundamentally changed how previous voters for the party now see it. For many they’re another neo-liberal middle ground party with the slightest shade of green – gathering votes mainly from the desparate midle class left who don’t know who else they could vote for.
    And they weren’t even shafted in their coalition negotiations!
    The greens have for me very much lown any credibility they had (and I had seriously high hopes). Sargents cosmetic resignation, cluelessness over the Tara affair, no change in Shannon, no change in funding. The price they paid was a good whack of their soul.

  • Greenflag

    ‘The Greens really had no alternative but go into government.’

    True .

    ‘I don’t think FG’s difficulty is half as pressing as Labour’s.’

    Also true .

    Politics in the republic is not for the ‘ideologically’ committed . FF is the main ‘pragmatic’ party and FG the alternative . There are centre left ‘progressives’ in both FG and FF but each party in the main is solidly centrist .The problem for the ‘left’ whether progressive or regressive in the Republic is that their present ‘market’ share is at most about 23% of the electorate . This is the narrow ground on which Labour /SF/ etc have to compete .

    The Irish people are ‘conservative’ by political choice . The last several decades have ‘opened’ their eyes to the realisation that Government expenditure has ultimately to be paid for by the tax payer . How the Government is managed and whether or not it’s policies are seen as effective in an increasingly competitiv global environment count for more than whether a political party is left of centre or right of centre etc etc.

    Pragmatism rules . Bert Ahern stands accused of being Ireland’s 21st century Sean Lemass . A manager -a doer and above all a politician with his finger on the nations pulse .

    SF have a much tougher job in the Republic to make breakthrough than was the case in Northern Ireland . Without HMG and their local UUP/DUP opponents these latter day Don Quixotes of SF found the windmills of the Republic unresponsive in the main.

    It is questionable whether even a successful stint in the NI power sharing Government will make things any better for SF in the Republic during future elections . While the Republic’s electorate is relieved that NI has finally appeared to have returned to political ‘normalcy’ yet there is also the understanding that the ‘powers’ of the NI devolved Government are strictly limited and that ultimately it is the English taxpayer who is paying the bill .

    Alex Salmonds efforts to align NI along with Wales and Scotland in an effort to win concessions re corporation tax from Gordon Brown may ‘backfire’ by resulting in England ‘withdrawing’ from the Union via a Conservative election win next time out ?.

    The UK has too much Government overhead to afford to reduce it’s corporation taxes to the level of the Irish Republic . Thats what being a world power albeit a second rate world power costs .

    Interesting times ahead for the UK but for the Republic it’s steady as she grows with a whiff of a slight economic downturn on the way .

    We’ll have to wait until Hilary Clinton replaces George Bush to see the direction of the new ‘wind’


  • Greenflag

    ‘The price they paid was a good whack of their soul.’

    Next time you fill up at a petrol station see if you can pay with your ‘soul’ . You could also try to persuade the ESB that you will pay your next electricity bill in ‘manna’ whenever it falls from the sky.

    Trevor Sargent did the right thing . Half a loaf is better than no crumbs at all . Government experience will raise the profile of the Greens . The Republic is not Germany and it does not follow that the GP experience in Ireland will be as it was /is in Germany .

    Germany’s biggest problem is turning out to be ‘demographic’ rather than environmental . With 30 % of German women opting not to have children and the rest ‘producing ‘ at less than the replacement rate it is estimated that Germany will have a smaller population than France by mid century . With millions of aging geriatrics at one end of the spectrum and millions of young non german immigrants at the other end the Germans have set themselves up for a ‘mess’ both economic and social and possibly also political .


  • circles

    The demographics of Germany (and indeed other European nation) have however very little to do with the fate of the green party Greenflag, or what happened to them when they slowly shed their principles for power.
    Of course it is a valid discussion on the necessary compromises a party has to make, but it has been well documented that green party voters are not fond of FG. They have therefore entered into a coalition with a party that their voters mainly placed as the 4th preference or so. Thats a bit of a blow.
    Then of their main promises (Sgt resigning, tara, shannon, sleeze) we got zero. Hmmmm.
    So while Sargent and his troops got half a loaf to divvy up between them, green voters didn’t even get crumbs from Bertie’s table.

  • Aquifer

    “it would be ironic if it was the decision of a Green Minister that Ireland also needed a couple of nuclear powered plants to secure the energy requirements for a growing economy in the decades ahead”

    ironic? Deeply weird going on no chance ever.

    Nuclear is just very expensive and not very good value. It would be cheaper to insulate all the houses.

    Ireland is the Saudi Arabia of wind, has some gas, and can burn the peat and lignite if it gets desperate.

  • Eamon Ryan’s call for a debate on nuclear should not be read as any indication that he is likely to support such a move. He is merely calling for a debate to bring the pro-nuclear advocates IBEC out of the woodwork (including shady characters with links to BNFL who turn up writing opinion pieces in the SBP, without declaring their affiliations)…

    Ryan is no supporter of nuclear and is most likely to use the debate to underline the clean, sustainable and economically viable options during the debate…

    You can read his ten arguments against nuclear at the Green Partys website

  • circles

    Just noticed – sorry!!! Meant FF not FG!!!!!!!

  • Greenflag

    ‘Nuclear is just very expensive and not very good value.’

    So why is a British Labour Government investing in more nuclear powered plants ?

    Certainly Ireland should make maximum use of alternatives to nuclear powered electricity such as wind/hydro etc but the being so dependent on oil fired stations for our electricty supply is a recipe for energy cost disaster !

    Nuclear power station technology has improved over the past 20 years.France and the USA and other countries rely on it for a large portion f their power needs .Why should Ireland be any different ?

    Because we don’t like the word ‘nuclear’ and presumably because we’d rather have a third world economy and go to work (if there was any) on a donkey or bike ?

    Like it or not ‘demographics’ particularly in the case of an aging population in Europe /USA /Japan will have a major impact on all political parties even those in Ireland .

    The Germans are already reconsidering their ill judged decision made a few years ago to phase out their nuclear power stations .

    An older population will result in greater conservatism -less tolerance of change and slower adaptation to rapidly changing economic and political forces .

  • circles

    Although considering the current political mood in Germany, Greenflag, the world’s leading export economy will most likely not reverse their decision to abandon nuclear – and all that without fear of becoming a third world economy.
    In my opinion equating nuclear power with modernity and a booming economy is a completel false reconception. Nuclear power is not a necessity, it is an option, with both its advantages and disadvantages. Having nuclear power won’t make Ireland big and clever, but it will crate serious headaches of dealing with spent fuel rods.
    And as demand for nuclear increases, the price too will increase.

  • Greenflag

    ‘In my opinion equating nuclear power with modernity and a booming economy is a completel false reconception.’

    Eh ? You are misunderstanding my point . Nuclear power is at least in the short term i.e the next 40 years the only practical and proven way to reduce our over dependence on oil. Wind power will help so too may hydro but if the Americans , French and British see nuclear powered electricity production as part of their energy future Ireland can ill afford to stick our heads in the sand .

    The Germans btw are already on their way to a reversal of their anti nuclear energy policy.

    ‘Having nuclear power won’t make Ireland big and clever, but it will crate serious headaches of dealing with spent fuel rods.’

    Never said it would . All it will do is reduce our energy dependence on oil from an increasingly unstable Middle East and would give the country some ‘insulation’ from uncompetive high energy costs brought about by future huge price increases brought about by dwindling supplies oil worldwide.

    Nuclear powered electricity will help to buy time until such time as scientists come up with another practical alternative .

    As for dealing with the ‘headache’ caused by disposal of spent rods I suggest that aches of a more serious kind would be engendered by having to pay 40 euros a gallon to burn oil to keep the light on in your house in mid winter .

    It’s past time that the Republic got ‘serious’ about it’s ‘energy supply’ future . Nuclear powered energy will have to be part of that future IMO.

    Uranium prices have already increased as any Australian mining engineer will tell you . But the supply should last several centuries as opposed to an estimated 30 years for oil. Chinese, Indian and other fast growing Asian economies may reduce that 30 to perhaps 20 . As I said it’s past time .


  • lib2016

    Nuclear power is in practice restricted to producing electricity. We are connected to an international electricity grid which will be able to make up any electricity shortage for the foreseeable future.

    The whole point of independence for a small nation like Ireland is that it gives us a choice of solutions to problems. In this case it seems to me that we would be much better to buy in electicity while giving ourselves a (totally false) image of being clean living hicks from the regions whose agricultural produce is well worth a substantial premium.

    The larger countries like England and France etc are stuck with the problem of cleaning up after nuclear industry. We should stay well clear of it, and turn a profit from doing so.

  • Greenflag

    ‘We are connected to an international electricity grid which will be able to make up any electricity shortage for the foreseeable future. ‘

    Fine in theory – Just as long as there is no major power supply crisis elsewhere or when the price of oil goes to over 100 dollars a barrel . Or wait till there is a major power crisis and guess who will be at the bottom of the waiting list when it comes to having enough power at a competitive price ? Here’s a clue . It won’t be the UK or France .