John Barry: “We need legislators, not negotiators…”

I had an interesting chat today with John Barry. A fellow Dubliner but a far more interesting and indeed public character than that may suggest.

John is a Green Party candidate in the forthcoming Council elections standing in the Abbey ward of the new North Down and Ards Council. He was co-opted onto the existing North Down Council when Steven Agnew was elected as an MLA and will be seeking to retain the Green seat in the forthcoming elections but he is much more than that.

John Barry has been a key strategist for the Green Party in NI since 2003. He was a joint chair of the party until 2009. He is a senior academic and Professor of History and Politics at QUB.

Rather than going over predictable ground such as the traditional Green “boxsets” such as sustainable energy, global warming, and environmental fundamentalism (eg: by the likes of the fundamentalist wing of the DUP). We talked about strategic planning and how the Party intended to develop and grow their vote in the years ahead.

He expressed frustration at how the mainstream media tended to only contact the party when an obviously “Green” issue was at stake. This was interesting given his views below. It was clear to me that John still retains a key idealogical and strategic development role within the party.

We kicked off with a discussion about the All Ireland nature of the party (naturally, given my own bias). John was a prime mover behind the all Ireland nature of the Green Party and I was curious as to why. It was a simple enough matter for him. “The environment doesn’t stop at the border” being the show stopper.

We discussed Fracking in Fermanagh in depth and the need for a cross border public response to this. I need hardly add that he wasn’t a fan. He also pointed out that we are a small Island and we’re stronger (better) together on these non partisan issues.

John also emphasised the east / west importance and commonality of environmental issues and the links between green politics in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England and across Europe.

We moved onto the strategic targets for the Greens in the forthcoming elections at Council Level. I deliberately avoided the subject of the Euro vote as it has been covered in depth by others and the motivations of voters may be entirely different.

Currently the Green Party have 3 councillors. John himself in North Down plus 1 in Castlereagh and 1 in Down. I asked what the plan was for the May elections. John candidly said that 5 seats would be a realistic and achievable objective for this electoral battle. His target seats were interesting.

South Belfast is a definite target seat. A Castlereagh hold is being worked hard on and a possible Lisburn gain is in sight for the party. East Belfast is on the horizon but interestingly Omagh apparently is emerging as a distinct possibility with candidate Ciaran McClean generating strong party optimism west of the Bann. A genuine breakthrough if it happens.

We moved onto the ideological stuff eventually. It was fascinating.  John knows his stats, I’ll give him that. It is well known that the Greens favour reducing the voting age to 16. The 16 year olds agree with that although almost nobody else does but Johns argument was one I would agree with. The average 16 year old is much more politically savvy now than the average 18 year old was 20 years ago. I argued that the Greens would be likely to benefit electorally from younger voters. He agreed. Hmmmmph.

We then went onto another entire strategic planet regarding Green policy on Gay Marriage,  Female choice, trade union rights and some very interesting stuff regarding the Alliance Party and their inability to agree policy on any of the above. Very clear green water was put between both parties- subject for another blog perhaps.

The next topic is one I could write chapters on also. John’s experience as a Dubliner on North Down Council and his thoughts on the administration in Stormont. I have some personal experience of both myself.

When John was co-opted onto the council to replace Steven Agnew he was, understandably, the only Dub on the Council. The most unionist council there is. He was unsure what reception to expect. It was, for the most part, polite and “diplomatic” if not overwhelmingly welcoming. Until, that is, a certain DUP senior member leaned across to pass a smart comment about his “funny” accent “sotto voce”. John leaned back and replied “sotto voce” “I’m your worst nightmare mate. A Taig with a PHD”

Our discussion on Stormont is best summed up with a succinct quote by John which I thought summed a lot up with very few words: “We tend to elect negotiators, not legislators” Enough said.

We ended our discussion with a reflection on President Michael D Higgins meeting with Queen Elizabeth today. As Equals. That is a true Republican ideal. It is also a degree of progress. John thought, and I agree with him. that Martin McGuinness attending the state banquet tonight was leadership and stepping ahead of the electorate.

He made the very astute point that being a step ahead of your consituency was good politics. Being five steps ahead is a very risky place to be unless you are a very confident politician.

May is looking interesting.

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