Two Es in Green – Education and Economy – and a pot-shot at Minister Poots

Today’s Green Party NI conference at Stranmillis College was dominated by education and the economy rather than environmental matters. Party leader Steven Agnew reckoned that the party’s policies on environmental matters were well established.

In a series of motions during the morning private session, party delegates voted in favour of motions that called for “a single, publicly funded, secular education system”, supported “a system of secondary education based on community centre campuses” (as opposed to the use of academic selection) and desired the NI education system to more incorporate the Waldorf (or Steiner) education method.

Away from education, motions looked at the gender balance of Green Party candidates, fluoridation, right to die legislation, guidelines on access to abortion in NI as well as emergency and vacant housing, and corporation tax. Motions to recognise “the importance of public transport to economic and environmental sustainability” and make it free at the point of use for either under 25s or everybody was defeated after much debate.

A number of motions were debated (listen along) in public immediately after lunch covering a range of topics: widening taxi access to bus lanes to all taxis that are wheelchair accessible, reducing the urban speed limit from 30mph to 20mph, late night public transport provision and corporation tax. It wouldn’t be a party conference without some mention of corporation tax!

The main afternoon session returned to education with Prof Tony Gallagher (in a personal rather than QUB capacity) delivering a keynote speech (listen along) on how “we achieve a shared and inclusive education system” given the current governance of schools in NI.

A panel of practitioners from different fields joined Tony Gallagher to discuss education (at times quite robustly). Listen to part 1, part 2, part 3.

  • Father Tim Bartlett (CCMS)
  • Rev Trevor Gribben (PCI and executive member of Transferors Representatives’ Council)
  • Mark Langhammer (Assocation of Teachers and Lecturers)
  • Brian McClinton (Humanist Association and my history teacher many moons ago)
  • Mary Roulston (Millennium Integrated Primary School)

I wasn’t there during the speech or panel discussion, but you listen to the three parts here. (Watch out for the comment about children “pissing in the same pot” being a sign of integration!)

The afternoon finished with speeches from the party’s 2014 European election candidate Ross Brown and party leader Steven Agnew.

Ross has experience as an assistant economist at the Treasury in London as part of his degree course, and also spent time as an assistant clerk for the Finance and Personnel committee at Stormont.

He recently beat off competition to become the Green Party NI’s candidate for the 2014 European elections.

In his speech he highlighted that “44% of all people here are living in fuel poverty”.

Our government spends so much time dealing with the issue of identity that it is failing to solve the issues dogging our society today and has lost all concept of a vision for the future. Ask yourself this, what would really change if any one of the other parties on the Executive won every seat in our Assembly? Even the Alliance party – a party that owes its very existence to the division in our society – isn’t presenting anything different when it comes to the economy.

Every one of the Government parties are happy to offer a slice of what little we already spend on our children, the sick, the elderly and the homeless as a windfall to big businesses through lower rates of tax. This lack of vision has also meant that NI has become a follower in the world rather than a leader.

He said that the Green Party is “offering a true alternative” with its proposals which

… aims to localise rather than globalise, meaning that the Government should focus its efforts towards developing our economy not by racing to the bottom in competition with other countries on cost to attract foreign direct investment but by enhancing the domestic economy by supporting consumers to buy locally produced goods from local businesses. It’s an economic model which acknowledges that our economy is more resilient when it is localised and therefore less exposed to global shocks and systemic risks.

Ross would seek to “[work] at a European level to end the practice of harmful tax competition between EU states”.

He was optimistic about electoral success:

… in the last European election, for example, each of the three elected members for Northern Ireland received less than 12% of the first preference vote of the voting age population. We have an MEP sitting in Brussels today who was elected with the support of 7.3% of the voting population. The point is this: if you want change, it is possible. But don’t expect change if you vote for those who are already in power and don’t expect change by not voting at all!

Out of 754 MEPs in Europe, 49 are Green Party MEPs, and another 10 MEPs join them in the Green group.

We might be a small party in Northern Ireland but in Europe we belong to not only the fourth biggest group in the Parliament but the most coordinated party at a European level.

With a year and a half left before the election, Ross is up for a fight:

I would like to strongly encourage non-members that if you share our vision, agree with our principles and believe in democracy then please do get involved. Don’t expect to find quick, easy and immediate success, however. Rather acknowledge as the Chinese proverb suggests that “the man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones”.

I spoke to Ross Brown earlier during the lunch break about his journey into politics and what difference he would make in Europe.

Next up was party leader Steven Agnew. [MP3] He said that Stranmillis College was “perfect setting” for the conference looking at education.

As Disraeli put it “politicians just think of the next election but statesmen think of the next generation”. The next generation has always been at the heart of Green Party policy and children have been at the heart of the conference today as we have looked at the issues that face our young people from cradle to career.

Steven said it is “a difficult time to be a young person” with rising youth unemployment and rising student debt.

All forecasts suggest that it is women and children who will be hit hardest when the cuts to social security take effect. This is why we have been resisting the UK Government’s proposals simply being copied and pasted into Northern Ireland legislation.

Good laws and good policy should be based on evidence. The work of Suzanne Zeedyk and others shows that the key development stage for children is from 0 to 6. From birth to age three is the most active period in a child’s brain development and by six years old the consequences of social disadvantage will have already been set and are much more difficult to reverse thereafter.

The failure of the Executive parties to come up with an Early Years Strategy is but one example of how they are failing children. The draft Early Years Strategy was so severely criticised that it has been scrapped altogether. It was fundamentally flawed in that it sat solely within the Department for Education meaning that the 0-6 strategy would not be taking effect until age three!

The Green Party’s challenge to this “silo mentality” is a Private Members Bill to “put a duty on government departments to plan, commission and deliver children’s services in a more co-ordinated fashion” and make cross-departmental policy making mandatory.

Steven spoke out against “demonising” young people saying that some “politicians seek to condemn our young people” rather than to celebrate them. He criticised the chair of the Justice Committee who wants the age of criminal responsibility reduced from 10 to eight.

Given some of his colleagues desire to bring back the death penalty the DUP seem to want to swap “hug a hoody” for “hang a hoody”.

Steven stated that Health Minister Edwin Poots was “unfit for office”:

The outcomes for children growing up in care in Northern Ireland are poor in terms of health, educational achievement, risk of offending and risk of suicide. However our Health Minister seeks to deny those children the opportunity of growing up in a loving family home because some of those families may not reflect the values of the minister. The minister’s decision to challenge the court ruling that unmarried couples and those in civil partnerships should be allowed to adopt is a disgrace.

The minister claims to be a protector of the unborn child but he is failing those children who have been born into families that are either unwilling or unable to meet their needs. He should be ashamed. As far as I am concerned, he is unfit for office.

Turning from “future generations to the future of the party” Steven praised Green Party councillors who “are upsetting those resistant to change and in particular our party rivals who fear that change” holding up the front cover of this week’s Spectator newspaper. (The headline of ‘Gay Marriage Proposal’ refers to councillor John Barry’s council motion.)

I am proud that our councillors are upsetting the status quo. So that instead of having to shout at the TV, people who were previously unrepresented in Northern Ireland politics now feel that their voice is being held.

We must use the momentum we have to get us into the next set of elections. You have just heard from our European election candidate – and I’m sure you’ll agree with me he is much better than the last one.

Looking to future elections:

No one gets elected for what they do over a six week election period, it is work put in on the ground over a period of years that is needed to break through into councils and ultimately to seats in the Assembly.

Earlier this afternoon I spoke to Steven Agnew about the Green Party priorities, and his view on the maturity of the Assembly.

While I was only there for a couple of periods during the afternoon, it was clearly a Green Party conference where debate and dissent was not feared, with various alternative motion amendments being discussed and disagreement embraced.

Green Party NI membership is apparently growing, and I spotted some new faces in the room. However, in common with some other parties, large numbers of members are not motivated or available to attend the annual conference. Perhaps more active in their local constituency groups, a relatively small subset of the membership are voting on the policy areas being discussed. (In contrast, a very large number of people will no doubt attend the DUP conference, but there will be no significant policy decisions.)

On the transport front, at least three delegates travelled up to the Stranmillis conference venue by bike!

, , , ,

  • Alan,

    You do great reports.
    Little typo in Agnew’s remarks. Should be “..birth to age three..”

  • Comrade Stalin

    “Don’t employ the person who’s going to usurp you” 🙂

  • While it was not my intention to comment on the Green Party conference I feel I must respond to Steven Agnew’s comment that I made a mistake in employing him as Comrade Stalin has pointed out. The fact was that when I was elected as the first Green Party MLA I had to establish an office at Stormont as the party had no staff or office. To do this I employed a press officer Katrina Doherty and together we tried to present a credible Green party at the Assembly. I believe we were succesful and for the first time the media and the public began to treat the party as a significant player in the local political arena. Some months later I asked Steven Agnew to help out in the Stormont office on a temporary capacity as a research assistant as he was at that stage unemployed and I felt he had potential. I do not believe this was a mistake as he is now an MLA.
    I had agreed with the Green Party that I would not stand again so over the next two years we groomed Steven as a potential replacement. While his Green credentials were impecible he had a lot to learn about Northern Ireland politics and the working of the Assembly.
    The opportunity to promote his profile and introduce him to the realities of politics in Northern Ireland came in the 2009 European election. In this election which I funded from my salary and Katrina acting as PR Steven performed very well and acheived a high profile and credability. My decision to employ him and promote him was clearly correct and not a mistake as he suggested in his speech.
    I kept my pledge to the Green Party and stood down in 2011 although I would have had no difficulty in retaining my seat. In hindsight, given my treatment by the Green Party, perhaps I should have reconsidered my decision
    .I funded Steven’s 2011 campaign and I am pleased that there is someone in the Assembly to continue to promote Green values. However I am disappointed that Steven feels my employment of him as a research assistant was a mistake and that the work that Katrina Doherty and myself did to establish the Green Party at the Northern Ireland Assembly has been Air brushed out of history.

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru

    Hi Brian,

    Perhaps I’m not fully across the inner workings of the green party, but wasn’t his whole comment just a bit tongue-in-cheek to just support their new candidate?

    I never listened to that clip and thought it was someone who couldn’t wait to push you out, I thought it was a joke that apparently hasn’t gone over well.

    But please correct the record if I missed something

  • I’m having a spot of deja vu tonight. Brian Wilson also managed to enter the third comment under my post about last year’s Green Party NI conference. Next year, I may auction the third comment to the highest bidder.

    I am reminded of Lyndon B Johnson’s quote about FBI Director J Edgar Hoover …

  • Hi Charlie
    You may be right but I do not feel it is appropriate to make a joke at my expense.
    I am not sure the point you are trying to make. I had absolutely no intention to respond to Steven’s speech as I am proud that I was the first member of the Green party to become an MLA and do not wish to harm the party. However when someone makes a public joke at my expense I feel I have to respond.

  • Charlie Sheens PR guru

    Thanks Brian,

    I respect your viewpoint and I’m sure Steven has since read this and will reflect on it.

    But I think I am probably speaking on behalf of the majority of the bog-standard readers here when I say that to the observer it didn’t come across as particularly vitriolic or mean-spirited.

    He might have reconsidered on the grounds that it wasn’t a particularly funny gag.

    By the way, what level of interaction do you maintain with the party? I know you are married to an alliance party councillor so do you not go to the conferences anymore or something else?

  • jagmaster

    Seeing as much of big business doesn’t pay corporation tax anyway (I’m looking at you Starbucks) all this hoo ha for corporation tax reduction is tasteless in the extreme. Maybe the Executive should concentrate on what they’re owed before even thinking about implementing more reductions.

  • abucs

    Why only fund secular education? Isn’t this narrow minded discrimination?

    This is the tired old Watermelon Party, Green on the outside and red on the inside.

  • colonel_mustard

    Brian, I was present during Steven’s speech and I can assure you that the joke was absolutely not aimed at you and was entirely in good humour. I honestly wouldn’t get wound up about it.

    The panel discussion and Tony Gallagher’s speech were very interesting. I was delighted to see representatives from the Presbyterian and Catholic churches on the panel, but Fr Tim Bartlett made a real howler with his suggestion that the motion passed about secular education was a step towards ‘secular dictatorship’. I voted in favour of that motion, and I wasn’t impressed to hear accusations of dictatorship coming from a representative of one of the least accountable and least democratic institutions I can think of.

    Abucs, can you explain how a desire to fund a secular education is somehow ‘red’? I don’t see the connection myself, and the the joke about ‘watermelons’ is rather lazy.

  • Los Lobos

    Why was no mention made of the biggest proposed road Northern Ireland has ever seen – the A5? This proposal (if allowed) will see over 3000 acres of the best crop growing land Northern Ireland covered in tar! The fact that the Green party supported this proposal when they were in Government in the Republic of Ireland should not in any way prevent the Green Party today from taking a robust stance against this frankenstine proposal. If the Green Party cannot make a stand against what has come to be known as the biggest ‘land grab’ in the history of Northern Ireland then i doubt if they can be taken seriously on other worthwhile issues they rightly support.

  • Newman

    Grateful to Alan for truly first class coverage of conference

  • The Green Party is clearly one of the more positive forces in NI politics, but I’d have thought that its behaviour in coalition in the south removed any doubts about whether it was a Watermelon Party or not.

  • Rossbrown

    Hi Los Lobos, I take your point – our opposition to the project should have been mentioned. We have however made our position clear on a number of occasions. E.g.

    While the background to the It’s my understanding that the decision by the Irish government to support the A5 project was made in 2006 as part of the St. Andrews agreement and when in government the Greens in ROI didn’t have responsibility for the transport portfolio.

  • Los Lobos

    Thanks for that Rossbrown. Mr Mc Cann’s article is good on the topic. However its his article, nowhere does the Green Party come out fired up against the A5 proposal! This is the biggest environmental issue to hit Northern Ireland for many years. Its something the Greens should be mentioning everytime they get the media’s attention, instead it is now been left to 18 individuals in the AA5A (Alternative A5 Alliance) to do all the heavy lifting, in terms of seeking legal redress! I personally spoke to Eamon Ryan on this issue when the Greens were in Government, he just shrugged his shoulders and said that there was nothing they could do about it! That position seems to have remained within the Green Party, for that reason i cannot find it in my heart to take seriously your concern for the environment. Blithly stating that “the Greens in ROI didn’t hav e responsibility for the transport portfolio” is limp in the extreme, have you never heard of ‘collective responsibility’ when in Government? The Greens didn’t have many other portfolios in that Government, however they reaped ‘environmental kudos’ when positive environmental outcomes occured and heralded the benefits of coalition Government. And for the record the St Andrews Agreement did not offically include the A5 (google lord lairds question to the house of lords on that point). Regardless of what happened its to little to late for the Greens to be taken seriously on this topic. They didn’t even object or send a speaker to the Public Inquiry last year. You can only judge a party by its actions not its words. I’m sorry to say that the actions of the Greens on the A5 proposal to date have been dismal.

  • Rossbrown

    I can’t say nothing more than the Green Party is opposed to the development. This has been stated on a number of occasions.


    The final link is to the debate which went through Stormont. Given how the system works (d’hondt) there is 1h30m allocated and we only get to speak so long as there is time at the end. On this occasion, it worked against us but you can see that we voted against the A5.

    Unfortunately the reality is that with what is going on day and daily in this country it feels like we are fighting a war on all fronts. On environmental issues I personally am involved in representing the party on what is an incredibly technical planning inquiry into the city airport and also have been involved heavily in campaigning against fracking. The environment covers everything from waste, emissions, energy, farming, marine, planning, transport etc and while there are many issues which we put significant effort into there are also so many serious environmental issues which we would like to work more on but simply cannot due to our capacity e.g. the tragedy of the decimation of the salmon population from our rivers.

    As a party its also important to consider we are concentrated in the Belfast & Co Down area – and this is where our campaigns tend to be focused.

    And we are a political party – not just an environmental group so we are dealing with all sorts of issues from justice, to the economy to health and education etc etc. Steven doesn’t sit on the regional development committee nor does he sit on the environment committee at Stormont so our work tends to focus on the Economy & Energy issues to reflect the fact that he is on the ETI committee.

    Just because we havnt been as involved as we would like doesn’t mean that we don’t oppose the development of the A5. And I find it a little bit insulting to be told that we’re not taking the environment seriously when we so many of us put our hearts and souls into campaigning on environmental issues and doing a lot of heavy lifting like yourselves.

    On the issue of collective responsibility. The Greens had 6 TD’s in the south and were the very junior partner in a coalition. It isn’t helpful blaming a party which is on your side when the real culprits are the bigger parties who are the ones with the power – ultimately you only weaken an ally and your own case.

    Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    The Greens have a panel discussion on education and exclude the Irish-medium sector. No wonder Cllr Cadogan Enright jumped ship.

  • Reader

    Scáth Shéamais: The Greens have a panel discussion on education and exclude the Irish-medium sector.
    By ‘exclude’, do you just mean it was not represented on the panel? But it’s a small sector, and a small panel (at a crowded table, by the looks of things).

  • Rossbrown

    I think you need to change your choice of language and rethink your assumptions. No one was “excluded”

  • Green Party NI’s Mark Simpson has blogged his impressions of their confernence under the title “Mild mannered? Us?