Green Party conference: Euro candidate Ross Brown sets out his stall and his journey #GPNI #GPNI14

The Green Party has come a long way. Over the years I’ve been popping into its annual conference, the number of delegates attending has steadily risen, their dress code has smartened and the professionalism of the organization has grown. Yet there is still an informality and an ability to crack a joke in the midst of resolutions and formal speeches.

Steven Agnew spoke of targets for the May elections. The Greens are aiming for Ross Brown to receive more first preference votes than Steven Agnew got in 2009, and for there to be an increase in the number of Green councillors (currently two). Given the crowded Euro electoral field, and the smaller number of council seats available, success is not guaranteed.

What was really obvious at today’s conference – and also last week at Alliance’s conference – is the power of a personal invitation. Candidates and activists spoke of the moment someone approached and asked them to join or stand for the party, cementing existing concerns or activism that aligned with the party and moving them from a vague leaning to political participation.

It was clear from conversations that the impact of NI21 entering the local political marketplace is on the minds of smaller moderate parties.

NI21 tweet open call council candidates[Yet the power of the personal invitation seems sadly lacking in NI21’s open call for council candidate volunteers. Perhaps the Greens need not fear.]

A series of resolutions in the public session sought support for:

  • a ‘civic conversation’ that engage citizens and not just the political class and civil society groups on issues of flags, parades, the past, structures of government, a formal opposition, etc;
  • specific targets to measure and increase diversity in public appointments;
  • a mandatory and strictly enforced Code of Conduct for all Councillors together with public and transparent register of interests detailing all forms of remuneration and interests (to take account of the increase in planning powers and Green’s opposition to corporate donations);
  • keeping the management of public leisure services directly accountable to elected councillors and avoid the “Walmartisation” of services by using local councils’ “prudential borrowing powers to invest directly in leisure services”;
  • regional government to robustly promote city/town/village small independent retailers and restrict out-of-town multinational retailers through planning system and a review of the business rates system;
  • not permit fracking in Northern Ireland due to the risks to human health and well-being, a sustainable economy and our natural environment;
  • a post-18 plan to be put in place for all young people with special educational needs before they leave the education system (to avoid the gap between child and adult services).

Green Party Voting wide

Earlier in the morning, members had privately debated whether or not to create the role of deputy leader of the NI Greens, and whether DUP-style letters of resignation should be lodged by elected representatives with party officers. Suddenly it’s all getting serious. The Northern Ireland Green Party formally selected their Euro candidate over 18 months ago, so this wasn’t Ross Brown’s first speech to conference. He’s following in the path worn by Steven Agnew, graduating from working for the party’s MLA to becoming the Euro candidate.

Ross Brown wide shotRoss Brown began by recounting his journey story from loyalist stalwart to join the Green Party and becoming a “European unionist”.

I was born and raised in East Belfast and am from a family with a protestant background … As a young person I was exposed to these prejudices every day and the “them versus us” attitude in the world around me. I attended state (or protestant) schools, I went to Scouts and Sunday school in the local church, I played with the other kids in my street and neighborhood and went to local youth clubs, I went to watch and supported a local football team and I went with my friends to the bonfire or to see the bands in July. Even though my family are good people who tried their best to raise me as a tolerant open minded individual, like everyone from their generation in Northern Ireland living in such anxious times they too had their own opinions.

Traditionally unionist communities have suffered from a siege mentality and as I grew older I of course studied history at school and learned about why Northern Ireland was such a divided place. But instead of adjusting my prejudices to reflect this new knowledge and understanding of the world, I searched for reasons to reinforce them.

The cultural and political insecurity of the community I was from was bolstered by my own personal insecurities about my own identity and acceptance among my peers as a young person growing up. I wanted a distinct identity. I wanted to belong. I wanted to feel like I was from a community. My way of dealing with this was to seek out everything British, Protestant, Unionist, Loyalist and Ulster Scot and to adopt it as my own. I became a flag waving unionist– a for Queen and country cheerleader. I did my 5th year work experience with the DUP and even ran for a mock school general election as a DUP candidate and won!

My understanding of what was British was also reinforced through a rejection of everything else, especially Irish. I developed a fear of the other. I am ashamed to say that this led to me becoming prejudiced and intolerant of others and not just to people from the nationalist community. I’ll never forget the anxiety I felt for example in my first months at Queens University when I saw so many people wearing Gaelic and Celtic shirts. Thankfully, my journey through university profoundly changed my life …

Three of the most life changing events happened to me while I was going through university. The first was the year I spent living and working as an assistant economist for the European Economics team at the Treasury in London. This year proved to be such an eye opening and worldly experience because of the multicultural nature of the city where basically everyone was from a different place or different background and where a culture of tolerance largely prevailed. In my team of 9 people at work everyone was from a different country.

The second life changing experience was the opportunity I had to study abroad in the USA. The program which is offered to all students at University in Northern Ireland sent us all to religiously affiliated colleges in America. I was sent to St. Anselm College – a catholic college in New Hampshire. I’ll never forget arriving at the college to be greeted by the dean of the college Father Augustine who was dressed in an all black robe. Even after living in London for a year, for a boy from east Belfast this experience had me raising my eyebrows.

I’ll also never forget the first students I met that year. They were first years who dressed up in Irish to meet me – with a flatcap and Celtic jersey. Or my roommate who had put a tricolour up on the wall for my arrival. My anxieties soon waned however as I settled into the role of being the Irish guy on campus. This of course came with many perks like the right of admission to any party …

ross brown holding journeyWhen I came home from these years my eyes had been opened up to the world. I was a far more open minded and tolerant person and I was much more comfortable with my own identity. Being exposed to the rest of the world taught me that identity is much more profound than your nationality or the traditional culture of where you are from. It is about how you relate and interact with other people, your sense of humour, the colloquialisms that you use in your language and the values that you hold. And your culture is much more than that which is traditional from where you’re from – it’s the modern day interests or hobbies that you have – in my case for example playing ice hockey or DJing and electronic music, the food that you enjoy eating, the TV shows that you watch and computer games that you play.

What I came to understand is that in this part of the world we understand identity not as it ought to be understood but through a poisonous lens of British and Irish nationalism. We’re living in a society where two communities living side by side hate each other not because we are different but because we are becoming alike and want to be different.

The third life changing experience came in my final year of university when I took a class with John Barry – who some of you may know. And for those of you who don’t John is an Professor at Queens who teaches green political theory. Suffice to say John was an inspiration. His class was fantastic and taught me the foundations of what I now know about Green politics. Before I had John most of my course had been in economics which taught me about a model and how to apply it to society – John taught me to question the model. Right after John’s class I joined the Green Party – and here I am today.

Wide view of Green Party conference from aboveAs the party’s European candidate (he’s also standing in Ormiston DEA for Belfast City council) Ross Brown said that he believes that “Northern Ireland needs to change direction, not just to overcome all of the huge social and environmental issues”.

For me what is also crucial is that elected representatives have to truly want to overcome the legacy of the troubles, deeply ingrained prejudices and the deeply ingrained divisions in this society.

I have also come to understand that the values of Green Party are the antithesis of nationalism – whether it be British or Irish. And I believe that it is the very idea of nationalism that we need to challenge because it is illogical, irrational and imagined. George Orwell rightly commented “All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side . . . The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.” …

I believe as Greens we are offering that alternative. For we are a party based on co-operation, tolerance, openness, understanding and solidarity. We are Northern Ireland’s post conflict party. And at a time when we not only face dealing with the legacy of a deeply divided society here but the retreat into nationalism, the rise of right wing populism and the growing levels of intolerance against minorities right across Europe we need political parties like the Greens in charge.

Most importantly though the Greens don’t just talk about these values – we actively practice them as well. As a party we are unique in demonstrating an ability to operate effectively outside the realms of nationalism and on a cross community inclusive nature on an all island and east-west basis.

Ross Brown played up the size and strength of the Green group in Europe: the Green’s “are big in Europe with 48 MEPs [working] in solidarity and co-operation with Greens right across the continent for the common good”.

No other party has put together and adopted such a comprehensive common EU election manifesto. And as a global movement we are unique in how we share a common vision, which is so strong that when Greens from other places come to live in here they find a home with us.

 

Responding to a tweet from Alex Kane that said there were five pro-union candidates running in the Euro election, Ross declared:

I am a unionist – a European unionist! For candidates in this election this is the only union that matters. This election is not about whether Northern Ireland is in our out of the UK or Ireland – its about electing a representative that will vote on issues that affect the lives of 500 million people including both the UK & Ireland. I sincerely hope voters and journalists will set aside the sectarian agenda and start asking our candidates the tough questions that actually matter.

The reality of where we are and where we are heading is deeply concerning. We have designed an economic, food and transport system system which as a system is so interlinked that is highly exposed to systemic risks, external shocks and in the worst case scenario collapse. Whether we look at the peaking of maximum production of fossil fuels, the threat of antibiotic resistance or the colony collapse of our most important pollinator the honey bee – we are exposed. And all the while our political leaders spend so much of their time and energy focused on arguing about flags, parades and the past. What are we doing!? Canada’s most famous environmental scientist David Suzuki described the situation like driving towards a brick wall while everyone is arguing about where to sit. Let’s start to focus on the fact that we are all so connected that our fate is dependent on that of others!

This is why the European Union is crucial – the world’s biggest international democratic political framework containing the world’s biggest economy. Fundamentally however Europe needs to change direction because it is not working in the interests of the common good.

While we have had some successes in Europe which do improve the lives of ordinary people by for example ending roaming charges and the excessive credit card surcharges, the European Union is failing on so many levels. The imposition of austerity which has pushed millions of people into poverty, the lack of control over our financial system, the avoidance and evasion of tax and excessive wealth accumulation of those at the top, the failure to address the fact that 80% of our CAP paymants are going to just 20% of our farmers and tackling climate change are just some of them.

Green Party conference front rowRoss singled out the contributions of Green Party representatives like Brighton MP Caroline Lucas, French anti-globalisation activist Jose Bove, and Green MEP Philipe Lamberts (dubbed “London’s dreaded [bank] bonus snatcher”).

As a party we’re standing for change in Europe – for a platform of social justice, sustainability, solidarity. We want equality for all and an end the austerity agenda imposed by the troika, we want a green economic revolution in our economy, and we’re the only party that puts ethics right at the heart of our foreign and trade policies.

The reality is that we are the leaders on so many issues – we’re the only party actively opposing secret TTIP trade negotiations between the EU and US which will give significant power to corporations and fundamentally undermine our democracy, we’re the only party standing up strongly against fracking and we’re the party leading in Europe on digital rights to ensure net neutrality and that our digital commons are protected!

Corporate political donations and the lack of transparency was a theme throughout the day.

Most importantly though as the only party that published all our donations over £500 and refuses to accept corporate donations – we’re the only party not only standing up for transparency in politics but actively practising it also. As a party democracy is one of our key principles – but democracy is a sham when it is so obviously corrupted by the influence of money. While other parties of the so called radical moderates call for a normalization of politics in Northern Ireland – we are the only ones who recognize that normal is not good enough! The orthodox economic model is the problem – not the solution. And we cannot settle for the low energy democracy that exists – we need to raise the temperature of politics and the level of organized popular engagement in public life. We need to make it more direct and legitimate and to make it work in the interests of the common good and not corporate greed.

Back home it is the Greens – as a big European Political party – who are truly transcending the divide in N. Ireland. And Back home it is the us who are the ones who recognise that the issues of intolerance, nationalism, bigotry should not only be tackled head on the surface but that dealing with these issues requires significant and genuine long term investment and commitment from our politicians. This is why we prioritises the underlying social deprivation, unemployment and lack of hope in our communities in order to build the foundations for a more peaceful society in N. Ireland. This is why also the Greens are the only party in the Northern Ireland Assembly with the courage to support the vision of a secular and integrated education system for our children.

He finished:

One thing is for sure in Northern Ireland, Ireland, in the UK and beyond Europe – no one should be afraid to vote green.

steven agnew speechParty leader Steven Agnew spoke after lunch. He is confident of his brief and spoke from scribbled notes rather than a full transcript. He began by reflecting on the Skainos building that the conference was being held in.

I think it’s a building and a concept that very much reflects Green values: it’s by the community, and it’s for the community. It’s a building very much based on sustainability principles … The word “skainos” means practical engagement with the community, and literally means pitching a tent in its midst.

For me and the Green Party, that’s exactly what government should be. It should be of the community, of the community, by the community. I don’t believe we get that here in Northern Ireland. This building contrasts very much with the place that I work – Stormont – which sits on top of a hill looking down on its people. We should be among our people. We should be serving our people.

He defined the party’s strapline of “common good” as “serving the interests of the many not just the fortunate few”.

On the economy:

What is the benefit of increasing GDP that just centralises the wealth in the pockets of few. What benefit is a strong economy if we’re so stressed out, so overworked that we don’t have the time to spend with our families. The Green Party’s vision is of a sustainable economy that serves people rather than making people slaves to the markets …

We want an economy and a society that was equality of gender. We want a society that has equality among races. We want a society that has equality of sexuality. As a party we should always stand strong so that there’s no domination of one group or another …

Using Bangor as an example, he explained how people frequent shops that are accessible, particularly if pushing a pram.

We need our communities, our towns and our cities to be family-friendly places … We need to rethink how we build our towns and our cities with families in mind, with prams in mind, with people with disabilities in mind. It will be for the good of our people as well as for the good of our economy.

We want equal pay for equal work … we know that many women are still in low paid jobs and in part time employment …

We need to change our political culture. We should start by challenging ourselves. We have a target for one third female candidates in all multiple-candidate elections, and unfortunately we’re going to fail to meet this in these elections. I want this to be the last time that that happens. Credit where it’s due: in Belfast and North Down we have strong female candidates, and in priority areas 40% of our candidates are female. So we’ve shown that we’re not doing token female candidates just to get our numbers up, we’re putting strong female candidates in winnable seats and I hope to see strong female councillors at the end of these elections.

Steven Agnew spoke too of racism raising its head as an issue in the election.

Today England has seen the first marriages of gays in the UK and its something I am absolutely delighted to see. But absolutely ashamed we’re not going to see it here in Northern Ireland. (applause) I was proud to be the proposer of the first ever motion on LGBT rights in the Assembly calling for marriage equality and whilst it was narrowly defeated it was a vital step forward getting the issues of the LGBT community recognised in our Assembly. It gave me the opportunity to put other not just other Assembly members but ministers right in the difference between civil partnerships and marriage: the fact that it’s not equality, it’s not the same, and it’s not enough …

I think it’s a sad indication that Northern Ireland’s politics has shown itself to be more conservative than the Conservative Party. It’s why we need the Green Party. Not just to champion issues of the environment but to be the champions for true progressive politics in Northern Ireland. The common good requires that minority rights and entitlements are recognised by a generous majority. We should include our minorities in our society, we should welcome them and indeed we should facilitate them through our laws and through our structures.

The Green Party has a vision of one Northern Ireland and many communities. We want to see diversity, not division. We do not stand for election promising to represent a single community. Instead we stand for election promising to serve all the communities. And community will be at the heart of our local government manifesto, bringing politics closer to the people and bridging that gap, bridging that divide that I believe has been created by our governing political parties … The Green Party was opposed to the reduction in the number of councils, because we felt that the financial gains that have been promised have been overstated and are not enough to compensate for the potential loss of local democracy. But we will work on council to ensure that that local democracy is not lost, to bring politics to the people … and ensure that communities are not only represented on our councils but included by our councils in decisions that affect them.

steven agnew podiumOn the planning functions that will move to local councils:

Green Party councillors will serve community need and not developer need. We can stand over that promise because to this day we’re still the only party in Northern Ireland that publish all our donations over £500. So [people] can see who funds this party. And anyone who looks on our website, [Ed – new website also available] it’s our members, we fund this party and we work for the communities we are elected to serve.

There has been a loss of faith in politics and we are the only party who can credibly seek to restore that faith by being open, by being transparent.

But I call today on the other political parties to step up, because whilst I want people to vote Green, I want the people that I serve and represent to have genuine and transparent democracy. I want them to have confidence in the planning system when it’s handed over to the new councils and know that their councils are making decisions on their behalf and not on behalf of the parties who fund them.

I can’t say today that there has been corruption in our planning system, that parties have been bought off. But equally they can’t come here today to say they haven’t because they operate under a veil of secrecy that we don’t know who funds them. So we all speculate – and I’ve heard it in my own constituency – was that planning application passed because of their links to that party? I can’t say it was, but they can’t say it wasn’t. And that’s why our communities will continue to speculate and have no confidence on planning decisions until we lift the veil of secrecy, until we have open, transparent democracy, until we have a genuine commitment from all our parties, not just the Green Party to serve community need and not just developer greed.

The party leader paid tribute to the work Ross Brown does supporting him in the Assembly as well as Ross’s existing contributions to the wider European Green Party movement.

Steven Agnew spoke about the oft-frustrated attempts by the party’s two councillors to being more transparency to their councils. [Of course, that used to be three – don’t mention the war Down District Council!]

I think if we need an example of why we need transparency, Castlereagh Borough Council is the example, because no one knows what goes on there. I’m shocked by the reports I get back from Martin Gregg.

He went on to refer to the ejection of reporter Rebecca Black from Castlereagh Council for tweeting what was being said by councillors in a public meeting.

Steven Agnew addressed the challenge the party face in May’s elections and set some targets.

I think there’s no doubt we’re in a strong place now than when we went into the 2011 council elections. We’ve got very good candidates. We’re better known as a party. We’ve got a track record in council and the Assembly that we can really trumpet. But we have a challenge.

There are less seats to contest. But I want to lead this party to increased seats. I don’t want to be making excuses to the media that there’s a reduction in the number of seats and we did well to hold what we have. Absolutely I want them, to keep the two fantastic councillors we have. I want us to grow. And I want us to show we’re growing.

[On] the European elections when Ross is going to do one over on his boss and beat my total in 2009, but also and particularly in the council elections where I want to see new Green councillors right at the heart of our community.

… We’re different, but we’re proud to be different. Because the Green Party is the one party in Northern Ireland politics that is going to work for the common good.

John BarryLater in the afternoon, North Down Green Councillor (and Professor) John Barry spoke about the need for an “innovative local democracy in Northern Ireland”. He saw local government reform as an opportunity to refound what councils and councillors do. I’ll try and return to his comments later in the week.

(Caricature by Brian John Spencer – he’s posted separately about his weekend’s drawings.)

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.