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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty