Over the last four or five years that I’ve been covering Green Party conferences, the number of exhibitors, the number of delegates and the confidence of the delegates has been increasing. There were a lot of new faces this year, many but not all of them young.
As Green Party activists south of the border nervously awaited results from the Irish General Election, the conference agenda in the Clayton Hotel in Belfast included encouraging video messages from the Green Party leaders across Britain and Ireland.
Nineteen motions covering legacy issues, prescription charges, TTIP, flooding, rights of access, regulation of live/commercial poker, UK’s membership of the EU, sex and relationship education, retail food waste redistribution, sign language in schools, VAT reduction, votes at 17 and cannabis legislation. Not every motion achieved the required two thirds support but dissenting voices were listened to, challenged and respected within the room.
On opposition, Alex Kane said that it was ridiculous that after this election the Assembly might have an opposition of two: Steven Agnew and Jim Allister.
I look at their choices, opportunities and options … and more often than not they’re a carbon copy of what I was offered at their age. And that’s not good enough …
The same parties, talking the same language, with the same conversations and sometimes the same faces sitting in the same seats asking “will you vote for me”.
On party growth:
This is our largely party conference to date and over coming years they’ll only get larger as people seek alternative solutions to the almost intractable problems facing our society and world.
Commenting on the absence of a religious divide in the Green Party politics:
We are a political party that demands something else, something more, something better. Green politics is about hope and not fear … We’re using hope to empower the individual and community to know that change is possible. We’re not about the black and white days, but the rainbow of living.
She was applauded when she said she looked forward to joining Steven Agnew in “the naughty corner”. While her party leader may be sometimes characterised as “a little green man”:
He may be little but he has stature and integrity and that’s a rarity.
Clare explained that established parties have continually failed LGBT people, and acknowledged the party’s diverse party membership as well as its appeal to the “queer” community.
She said that the Greens are the only local party wanting to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland which she supported “because I trust women”.
North Down candidate Steven Agnew began by reflecting on his five years as leader of the Green Party (which has felt “like a lifetime”). Back then the party worried about having a quorum at conference, now they worry about having enough seats!
But the bigger question is: what change have the Greens made?
- Belfast City Council – energy policy being developed; support for an animal cruelty register; opposition to oil drilling at Woodburn Forest.
- Ards and North Down Council – council transparency improved and “subversively” inviting people into the (public) meetings to see what is happening; a ban on circuses with animals on council property; and John Barry’s stand for genuine community workers, standing up to vested interests in communities where for too many years people have been scared to speak out.
- NI Assembly – successful motion to oppose fracking in NI; exposing unauthorised sand dredging in Lough Neagh and illegal land dumps.
The Greens are traditionally expected to be environmental champions …
… but the planet is only the place where you live … Ultimately as an environmental campaigner I’m a campaigner for people. My Children’s Bill … ensuring resources are not wasted, ensuring joined up working so more resources go to children and families who need them …
On welfare reform we secured a better deal. Though to be very honest, it’s not a good enough deal. Welfare cuts are coming to NI and some of the poorest people in our society will receive a further cut due to Assembly’s dereliction of duties by passing control to Westminster. We said numbers wouldn’t stack up and they don’t. Ultimately we brought honesty to the discussion.
We’ve had five Assembly debates on marriage equality. What a waste of time [not because the issue is not important but] because we’re still debating the issue. We could have passed the first motion I brought to the Assembly in 2012 … but instead we see other parties struggle with this issue. We can be proud that we set the agenda and started the conversation. We know that some of the others are on a journey and in our frustration we sometimes we deride parties who claim to be progressive but don’t step forward for progressive policies. We shouldn’t deride them. That’s the challenge of leadership to clear the path for those people. The Greens are used to being ahead …
A vote for the Green Party is not a wasted vote. A vote for the same is the only wasted vote …
Waste is holding back Northern Ireland …
Close to half our population live in fuel poverty. We’re still part of one of the richest nations in the world. Yet more people die due to winter related deaths than in Finland where temperatures reach minus 30. Is it people are tougher in Finland with Viking spirit? … Or is it because [government intervention means] every home in Finland has cavity wall, floor insulation and double glazing. Maybe that made the difference.
Steven Agnew said that Green policies were “good for people, the economy and the environment” and it was “time these were priorities within the Assembly”.
Waste within education system. Segregation of costs … we had the opportunity to have one school and educate our children together. What did our Executive do? Two schools in one building! … Is that the best we can do for Northern Ireland? … Make it more economical, reduce some of the waste of finances, but the greater crime is the waste of opportunity.
Waste at Stormont. Probably the most popular thing we’ve done is to reduce the number of MLAs because people don’t believe that we’re delivering anything. As one MLA from a minority party I introduced legislation that will change children’s lives …
People are frustrated with the waste …
On the party’s slate of Assembly candidates:
We’re putting forward 18 candidates for the first time ever, saying we won’t waste your vote, we will seek change, and everyone in NI can now vote Green. I’m proud that our list of candidates reflects how society is and reflects the Assembly as it should be.
Is it radical that in a society of 50+% women we’d have 50% women candidates?
While other parties argue about quotas, the Greens achieved this with a policy of “a quota of one third women candidates”.
He thanked Ellen Murray for her honesty and tireless campaigning on many different issues including mental health and public transport, and said that as a candidate for West Belfast there was much more to her than her transgender identity.
The Green Party will never have a better opportunity to increase our representation in the Assembly than this election.
Mike Nesbitt once described me as the most dangerous man in Northern Ireland politics – I chose to take it as a complement – I couldn’t help thinking that in an Assembly with Gerry Kelly that’s quite a statement (laughs)
Fielding and administering eighteen candidates will be a challenge for the Green Party. It will encourage supporters who have up to now complained that they have no Green candidate to vote for in a majority of constituencies. The party are confident that Steven Agnew will be re-elected. South Belfast and East Belfast offer other opportunities if bigger party’s votes fragment and the Green candidate can stay ahead long enough in the rounds of exclusions.
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about and reports from civic, academic and political events, reviews cultural performances, chairs discussions, and live-tweets, streams and records lectures and conferences. He delivers social media training, coaching and consultancy, produces podcasts, is a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland, FactCheckNI board member, and is a member of the Corrymeela Community.