Green Party Conference: growth, contrition, ambition & creating a surge in NI … for the common good

Steven AgnewMembership of the Green Party in NI has doubled in the last six months and there was an increase in attendance at todays party conference in the centre of Belfast.

In his conference speech, leader Steven Agnew welcomed new members and explained his priorities in the NI Assembly.

For eight years there has been a campaign to see joined-up government in relation to children’s services. Too many failures have been made; too many opportunities wasted; and the lives of too many children have been affected by the failure of our government to work together to help them achieve their true potential.

He pointed to single departmental strategies and bills for children that were seemingly 0-6 but actually started at age 3 and did not work across Education and Health and Employment and Learning.

I have produced the Children’s Bill and finally after years of political resistance the Assembly has agreed in principle to place a statutory duty on all government departments to work together to improve outcomes for children. I believe strongly this will make a dramatic impact on the lives of children growing up in Northern Ireland. More importantly than that, the experts believe so too.

Steven Agnew spoke at length about the welfare reform and described his party as the only one that had opposed the introduction of Tory cuts at every stage. He criticised Sinn Féin’s understanding and handling of welfare and explained how he had consistently warned that the figures did not add up

While others sought agreement in a behind closed doors deal, the Green Party argued that such issues should be debated on the floor of the Assembly, in full public view.

We proposed more amendments than any other party, but they were voted down. We were told by Sinn Fein that our amendments were not needed, a deal had been done, and the money was there, no one would be worse off.

The numbers never added up. Before the deal we were told by the Social Development Minister the extra cost to maintain the current system would be £115m per year while NICVA estimated it at £250m per year. Sinn Fein said it was £560m per year.

Yet we were being asked to believe that no one would be worse off because we had a top up fund of £94m per year. I believe the public were being misled.

On adding his signature to the Petition of Concern raised by Sinn Féin:

When we signed a petition of concern to stop the welfare cuts, we did not back Sinn Fein – we signed a petition of concern against something which we opposed at the start, middle and end of the process. We were never prepared to sell out the sick, the poor and the disabled in a dodgy deal with Tory Party. Sinn Fein signed the Stormont House Agreement but when we exposed them it was they who came to us. They found us where we always where – standing against welfare cuts.”

He spoke about the difference between shared education and integrated education saying that ‘shared’ meant different schools, uniforms, principals and ethos.

We should not start our children’s journey promoting difference; we should promote togetherness.

He criticised the “conscience clause” bill – calling it “an odious little bill” – and promised to do all he could to prevent its passage through the Assembly. He was disappointed that the opportunity had not been used to have a debate about the balance of rights.

Referring to his comments following English Green leader’s statements about terrorism, Steven Agnew apologised to Bangor Central councillor Noelle Robinson who recently resigned from the party and is now an independent on the North Down and Ards Council.

The issue of terrorism in Northern Ireland is a sensitive one. It is one that we still find hard to get the correct language and it is inevitably an issue that it’s hard to discuss without causing offense to someone. The comments I made on the back of a Natalie Bennett interview upset one of our councillors to the extent that she left the party. It also upset some of those who were victims and survivors.

I have met with victims groups on this issue. I’m pleased to say that they accepted by explanation and my restatement of this party’s commitments to non-violence and opposition to terrorism in whichever community it originated from in our society. And indeed they put out a press statement to that effect.

I apologise to Noelle Robinson who you know left the party. And I again explained and restatement this party’s commitment to non-violence. It was a difficult conversation. And as you’ve heard today, efforts are being made by the leader of Ards & North Down Council – Councillor Barry – to ensure that the commitment that Noelle gave to return the seat to the party becomes a reality, but preferably that she also comes back with it. And I hope that that will be the case. (applause)

But I think it’s important that I apologise to you conference. I seek to lead this party in the best interests of our society and for the promotion and growth of our party. On this one I got it wrong … it’s incumbent of me to stand up in front of you today and apologise for getting it wrong on that occasion. I will learn from the experience …

The Green leader confirmed that the party would be running five candidates at the Westminster election.

But it is more significant than that. The history of politics in Northern Ireland has meant that party loyalty has been fierce – generations of families all voting for the one party or along constitutional lines. To any different could be seen as an act of betrayal.

But I have spoken to many new members who have outlined similar stories of dissatisfaction with the traditional politics and the traditional parties of Northern Ireland. They are excited by the Green Surge, they are excited by what Caroline Lucas is doing in Westminster, what Patrick Harvey is doing in Holyrood and they are excited by what I am doing in Stormont.

They are excited about politics which offers hope, not despair. They are excited about politics which offers reconciliation not division. They are excited about politics which offers solutions not excuses. They want to work not for one community but for the common good.

He was against electoral pacts that were sectarian in the sense that the parties involved “garner support almost exclusively from only a single religious background” and reduce Westminster campaigning to …

… a single issue that was settled by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement which included the principle of consent. These parties offer nothing in a Westminster election. In an election where we will be raising issues of austerity, welfare and the living wage, they will be engaging in a historical re-enactment, stuck forever in the politics of the past.

The five candidates are:

  • Clare Bailey (South Belfast)
  • Ross Brown (East Belfast)
  • Tanya Jones (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)
  • Ciaran McClean (West Tyrone)
  • Steven Agnew (North Down)

Steven Agnew finished his speech by encouraging Green groups across NI to plan for the Assembly elections in 2016.

One MLA is not the height of this party’s ambitions. There is too much talent in this room and too little of it in the Assembly. (laughs and applause) Northern Ireland needs people who will work for the common good, and if not us, then who?

Green Surge panelEarlier in the day during a private session, delegates rejected a proposal by the East Belfast Constituency Group that would have required “all current councillors and prospective election candidates to pre-sign a resignation letter” that could be used to resign them from their seat if they left the party. Consensus could not be found and the motion did not pass. Dealing with people as individuals and trusting them won the day.

An afternoon session examined the Green Surge with contributions from sister parties in Ireland, Scotland England and Wales. Clare Bailey reminded delegates that their party was the only local one that did not exist because of conflict.

The audio is indistinct in places – since one of the three microphones wasn’t switched on – but it’s uploaded in two parts in case you want to listen.

Policy Motions passed:

While the party’s opposition to the privatisation of natural resources (including NI Water) remains, there was strong opposition to a motion that opposed the introduction of separate water charges and called on the rate cap to be lifted. The complex issue is likely to be revisited before the publication of the Green Party’s Assembly election manifesto. [Paragraph reworded.]

An exploratory motion on minimum pricing for alcohol was debated with party leader Steven Agnew speaking in favour and deputy leader Clare Bailey speaking against. You can hear their speeches … though I left before the discussion opened up to delegates. The motion was defeated. So too was a motion arguing that school children in Year 13 and above should not have to wear a uniform.

– – –

David McCann interviewed Green deputy leader Clare Bailey and asked her how the Green Surge applies to Northern Ireland. She characterised Northern Ireland as “quite politically juvenile … as our institutions haven’t been about for very long”.

What we’re seeing here in Northern Ireland is that the people are starting to acknowledge and recognise and see that the system we’re putting in place – or allowing to take place – is not actually meeting their needs and not representing their voices. So I don’t think we’re going to have to wait very long to see the Green Surge coming.

Electorally, in South Belfast she wants to give everyone who cast their first preference for the Greens in 2014’s elections the opportunity to put an X on the ballot paper for her in 2015 and looking forward to 2016’s Assembly elections.

– – –

Other parties will be jealous of the youthfulness of the Green delegates and the movement’s growth.

When I meet Green Party members, I’m often struck by how few sound like they would fit into another party that stands in Northern Ireland if the Greens didn’t exist or stand. They tap into a post-conflict market, that care about the environment and people as much as the economy. (While faith is never spoken about, the party – or at least its membership – is a haven for atheists.)

There’s an honesty to their manner of debate and discussion at conference. What other NI party leader would apologise in public and at length to a member and colleague who had left the party over something he had said. Contrition is largely absent from Northern Ireland politics, but today Steven Agnew demonstrated gracious humility.

The Green Party’s commitment to growth is demonstrated by the five Westminster candidates who all have an eye on further growth at the 2016 Assembly election. (Older Green Party haunts like South Down still seem to be off-limits until former members move aside and make space for new candidates.) The Greens are sticking to their guns principles and not standing aside in East Belfast due to Alliance’s approach to welfare cuts.

In previous speeches, Steven Agnew has borrowed Kermit the Frog’s line “It’s not easy being green”, though today it was comic Frankie Boyle who quipped on Twitter:

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  • Ernekid

    I think I’ll probably vote for the Green Party this year. It’s so refreshing to hear a positive non sectarian alternative. I like what the Greens stand for and I like the way they’ve campaigned against fracking. I don’t want to vote for the SDLP anymore after Alisdair McDonnell’s outrageously backward comments on abortion so Claire Bailey has my support now.

    Steven Agnew has been one of the hardest working MLAs in the Assembly and I think it’d be great if there was more Greens in the Assembly providing a mature alternative voice.

  • Korhomme

    There’s a lot to like about the Greens and their policies, in particular their opposition to ‘austerity’. Some of their economic and social ideas, from what I’ve seen, are a bit loopy. But then I’m not anyway ‘youthful’; but I’m delighted to see a Green candidate in my constituency.

  • Joe_Hoggs

    I thought you were voting for Michelle?

  • Ernekid

    I just changed my electoral register details to my Belfast address so I’m registered in SB now. Looking at the candidates who are running Bailey looks like the one I like the best.

  • Dan

    So, how do the Greens intend tackling NI’s benefit culture where some rake in £56000 a year, and thousands enjoy at least £26000……is that all ok with Agnew?
    Just let the rest of us continue to pay for this looting of the public purse with public services that get worse by the day?

  • Catcher in the Rye

    You have to give it to Agnew – he stood up in front of his party conference and apologised in public. That takes courage.

  • Chingford Man

    Is Agnew apologising for what he said about terrorism or just the way he said it?

  • Turgon

    The policy regarding Full Reserve Banking was passed with no debate. This is a policy which would seem potentially to restrict to a colossal extent the supply of credit to small businesses.

    Essentially this is more an extreme right wing than a socially progressive move. It would be likely to force banks to charge private customers for banking and would be in danger of helping unofficial and unregulated lending: loan sharks etc.

    There is a significant chance that such a proposal would hurt working and lower middle class families and would also be a major brake on rises in wealth and living standards for ordinary people.

    Despite these potential dangers the Green Party adopted this potentially dangerous policy without any debate. Of course the Green party policy in GB is to avoid economic growth which in turn means preventing ordinary people from getting richer.

    These policies are far from progressive: they are socially regressive and would increase poverty. They would make us all poorer: all sacrificed to the god of environmentalism. A long way from for the common good.

  • Sp12

    Seriously?
    The Green’s position on banking regulation is adding to the decades long growing gulf between the rich and everyone else?
    How does that work out Turgon?

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Yes I agree Korhomme, they are the only NI political party who comes out with any honour regarding ‘austerity’ their position never changed on the issue and that has to be applauded. They should do well in the 2016 Assembly Elections. I am going to take a bet on them taking the sixth MLA seat in South Belfast but they need to get a good core 1st Preference Vote and then pick up all the transfers that they will get from all the voting bases.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    And they are, after all, the only local party not “working” the violence during the last fifty years in some way as their core centre stage event. Even Alliance set themselves up within this context as the “good guys” during this period. Only the Green party addresses some real issues effecting real people (“austerity”) and calls (perfectly sincerely) for really transparent government rather than regurgitating the big reifications of competing nationalities.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I sat in on the open part of the conference, Ernekid, after their closed “Party Only” section. Very impressed by their clear sincerity, and above all, really evident concern for really open, “transparent” government here. That alone would make much of the nonsence we all seem to have to simply “shut up” and endure impossible.

    And all my old adolesent Anarchist roots reacted well to their (unique in this place) concern for real grass roots “democracy” that really involves everyone rather than the authoritarian “authorise me to act in your name for five years and then get out and let me get on with it” version we get from every other party.

  • Turgon

    Sp,

    The Green Party’s position is no doubt designed to try to prevent banks over lending and causing chaos.

    However, the law of unintended consequences is a very high danger here.

    If we greatly reduce the amount banks can lend they are less able to lend to small businesses or home buyers / private citizens. This limits the supply of credit which those groups need. Those wealthy enough not to need credit are unaffected. Likewise large businesses which can issue shares are much less affected.

    The hope on the left may be that analogous systems of small scale share ownership may occur. However, I suspect a more likely option is that the small businesses will become at the mercy of venture capitalists who, having fewer rival sources of loans (the banks), will demand more from the businesses. Meanwhile poorer people will have to go to pay day lenders even more than they do now and some to loan sharks and the like.

    As such you are exactly correct: this policy is likely to increase the gap between the rich and the poor.

    This policy is practically the opposite of Kenysian in its plans and is an example of a paradox of thrift. It would limit economic growth and reduce improvements in living standards. That of course is actually an inevitable outcome of the Green Party’s plans for zero growth.

    This proposal may be in keeping with Green ideology but is a regressive proposal.

  • Ernekid

    There’s a well meaning Naivety that comes with the Greens and Economics, but personally I’d rather support nice people who want to try something different than the cold hearted capitalist who only cares about enriching themselves.

    Another reason why I like the Greens is that they have the courage to question the absurdity the heart of capitalism of the idea of unlimited economic growth on a planet with finite resources. The idea of growing forever is ridiculous and to achieve that goal means wrecking the planet we’re standing on and using up all our natural resources. We’ve only one Earth and we need to look after it sustainable instead of rapaciously pillaging it. Money becomes meaningless if you can’t drink water or breath any air.

    We need to change the frame of the economic debate from just GDP figures to how people feel in life satisfaction, happiness indexes and sustainability.

  • siphonophorest

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  • Catcher in the Rye

    Turgon is right.

    The Greens are not merely proposing “banking regulation”. They are proposing to end fractional reserve banking. In other words they want to restrict the ability of the banking system to raise money for loans on the capital markets and instead restrict them to loaning out only the funds that they have on deposit.

    I think they voted this straight through because very few people in the party understand economics very well. Restricting the ability of the banks to issue loans will make credit more expensive and inhibit the ability of businesses to expand, which in turn will reduce the flexibility of the economy in terms of job creation.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    There’s only one problem. Their position on austerity is based on a lie. Local parties don’t have the power to prevent welfare reform from taking place, nor do they have the power to do much about the size of the block grant we are allocated from Westminster.

    The Greens are behaving like a party proposing policies safe in the knowledge that they will never be asked to follow through on them.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    personally I’d rather support nice people who want to try something different

    The economy is not a toy where people can simply try out the things they read about on the internet. The implementation of these ideas could well put large numbers of people out of work.

  • mickfealty

    On the basis we are an aggressively pluralist site, I’ll ignore the fact you keep reposting that same man playing comment in spite of previous removal and invite you to re-read the commenting rules.

    Here’s hoping you’re elevated learning does not exceed your native intelligence, but we really have no time for time wasters here.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The problem is that so few people actually understand the concept Full Reserve Banking and how it might be applied. There are infinite shades of grey as to how such a system might work here.

    Simply, it would ensure that current accounts are held in full, and significantly could be accessed when the customer wished to withdraw funds. This was at one point even argued by Milton Friedman! In the wake of 2007 and the very evident dangers of massive decline in reserves levels under deregulation its case has been argued by a number of significant economists such as the chief economics commentator of the Financial Times, Martin Wolf, who stated “It would bring huge advantages.” It is very far from a lunatic fringe issue, and if the inconsistencies of Fractional Reserve Banking create further destabilisation may be adopted by any political party actually wishing for some kind of economy to endure beyond another serious collapse!

    Full Reserve Banking would not apply to any accounts with a time lapse for withdrawal, where they could be loaned out as easily as now, but with a customer awareness of the possibility of loss. As it would only entail “base money” as opposed to “broad money” it would make the kind of amplification of money that created the 2007 crash impossible. This site is worth a look:

    http://www.fullreservebanking.com

  • SeaanUiNeill

    And another collapse in the poorly patched up edifice of Fractional Reserve banking would not put us all “out of work”? I’d think that fantasy “fiat money” based on chains of IOUs, credible only because its the system we have become rather used to since the last war, is much more of a “toy” than demanding real accessible money.

  • Ernekid

    Frankly I haven’t a baldy about that sort of thing but the Greens stance on that sort of Macroeconomics is meaningless as they can do nothing about it from a regional Assembly in Northern Ireland,

    The Greens have a fairly steep learning curve regarding economics (but who doesn’t) but I like a bunch of civic minded well meaning former hippies who want something different.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Yes, as a clapped out old NICRA hippy from the late sixties I’d be interested in having honest, sincere, really liberal people in Stormont, just for a change, myself!

    The point I was trying to make is that Full Reserve banking is not a fringe, but a mainstream idea espoused by serious people such as Wolf rather than just a wild idea for tree huggers like my self, and also by some economists who would consider fractional reserve banking as a kind of fraud against the public.

  • siphonophorest

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  • Reader

    But is there any reason Turgon shouldn’t have an opinion on economic matters?

  • Sharpie

    How many “rake in” £56000? 1, 2, 10? You have no idea, do you? These comments are idiotic and serve to distract the general public from the bigger issue of inequality. A family “raking in” £56 000 a year from public welfare (if they even exist) is still way closer to the average income than the wealthy elite who tell us how to live our lives. The earnings gap between top CEOs (FTSE 100) and their employees is 131 times. It helps them to have you squabble over crumbs rather than take a discerning or collective view on that level of societal brutality and corruption. Those same CEOs are supported by legislation and by fiscal policy. Their wealth is protected by national and international rules, tax evasion is accepted, and the poorest are squeezed into relative penury with little prospect of ever finding the comfort of prosperity.

    You have few choices – try to rip the system (as ably demonstrated by those at the top), or climb over the bodies of others in a grasp for wealth, or pick your way patiently and slowly, pay packet by pay packet hoping to set up a better life for the ones coming after – just your own mind because in a dog-eat-dog world where we attack welfare recipients, self interest rules, each to their own. Just be careful not to get cancer or a disabled child on the way!

  • mickfealty

    But you are going way off topic in order just to try and discredit the opinion of another commenter, presumably because you cannot think of a way of tackling them on topic.

    This kind of behaviour brings down the general quality of the debate and that is why we have the rule as a protection, not against proper challenge, but against deliberate fair gaming (http://goo.gl/NSiwz).

    Now people do do that on Slugger (AND GET AWAY WITH IT), but it’s outside the scope of the rules and in doing so you put your ability to comment here in jeopardy.

    Now, I’ll leave it at that.

  • siphonophorest

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  • Sharpie

    There is no God if there is no environment. How can you not see that? There would be no tree to crucify anyone!