The rise and fall of the Irish Greens

By Joseph Healy

August 8, 2009 -- Being Irish, one of the thousands who left the country during the 1980s economic crisis, I follow Irish politics closely. I joined the Green Party of England and Wales in 2002. In 2006, as part of a group of Irish Greens members in London, visited Dublin to make contact with the Irish Green Party. We went to raise the issue of support for the Irish diaspora in Britain.

These were the days of the Celtic Tiger — the apparent runaway success of the Irish economy, which tempted many Irish emigrants to return home.

We met one of the party’s TDs (members of the parliament, the Dail) John Gormley. However, it quickly became apparent that he was not very interested in the issue of Irish people abroad, probably because we have no votes to offer him.

The same year, I became the secretary of the Green Islands Network (GIN), which brings together representatives of the Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh parties. It was recently joined by the Cornish Greens.

The network aims to share political experiences and ideas. It played a central role in working out relations between the Northern Irish Green Party, in the six counties that make up the northern statelet, and those in the southern republic. We finally got agreement, leading to the Northern Ireland Greens becoming a full part of the Irish party.

There were indications, however, that all was not well in Ireland. At the council meetings of the European Green Party, the Irish delegation was consistently outvoted in calls for a low rate of corporate taxation in Ireland and the type of economic model the ruling Fianna Fail (FF) party was implementing with the support of its property and financial speculator friends.

This model finally ran the Irish economy aground on the sandbank of greed and recklessness.

In 2007, I attended the Irish Greens conference as an observer. It was on the eve of the general election and the party leader, Trevor Sergeant, promised he would never lead the party into a coalition government with the neoliberal FF. Gormley gave a powerful speech in which he excoriated FF for its corruption and venality.

But it was also obvious that the conference was tightly controlled, including a strict dress code, and largely stage-managed. I told people in London I had felt distinctly uncomfortable. It suggested a party seeking “professionalism” at all cost and very thin on ideology.

It was perhaps indicative that international issues were not discussed at all.

Within a few months, following a special members conference, Gormley was the new leader and the party was in a FF-led coalition government. Sergeant had resigned, but still accepted a junior ministerial position in the new FF-led administration. In the first few months of coalition government, there were already signs pragmatism had replaced principle for the party’s three ministers and three further TDs.

The infamous motorway through the world-famous Tara heritage site in County Meath was approved by the outgoing environment minister. Gormley, the new minister, claimed his hands were tied and could do nothing.

The Green Party of England and Wales passed an emergency motion at its conference calling for the motorway scheme to be stopped. The motion was not even acknowledged by the Irish party.

We were deluged with requests from anti-bloodsports organisations in Ireland to try to influence the new Green ministers to ban hare coursing — a particularly bloody and barbarous activity. I explained that we could only pass on concerns.

Opposition to US renditions of prisoners to countries where they would be tortured via Shannon Airport, and US military supply aircraft using the airport, which the Greens had campaigned on in opposition, was also dropped.

And the campaign by Shell to Sea to stop Shell building a pipeline across bogland in County Mayo in the west of Ireland was ignored by the new Greens energy minister. This is despite this campaign, which led to local farmers being jailed for refusing access to their land, hunger strikes and a huge national campaign, being key for the Greens in opposition.

GIN meetings became increasingly fractious, as Green Party of England and Wales delegates argued with the Irish delegates. We were told we were naive. One member of the Irish executive told us we had to get out of the NGO mindset and think what it was like to be in government.

One of the final straws came when the party’s spokesperson on Europe, Senator Deirdre De Burca, who had told the Scottish Green Party conference only a few months before that the European constitution and the Lisbon Treaty were anti-green, suddenly did a volte face. The Irish Greens’  MPs decided to support the treaty.

However, they failed to get the necessary two-thirds of the party to support them and had to take a neutral stance during Ireland’s referendum last year on whether to accept the treaty or not. The “no” vote won.

Critics within the party, such as the former European parliament member Patricia McKenna and Dublin Councillor Bronwen Maher, became increasingly forthright in their opposition.

The collapse in the Irish economy, and the resulting pigeons coming home to roost for the FF-led government, has caused massive problems for the Greens. The Greens supported a proposal to end free medical care for pensioners. The issue led to a near insurrection in the streets of Dublin by thousands of angry pensioners. The government was forced to back down and a Greens TD who attempted to address the angry crowd was shouted down.

Now the government is pursuing a program of radical cuts in social welfare and even suggesting a minimum wage cut.

Greens councillors called an urgent meeting with the parliamentary party to ask them to change tack. They urged pursuing radical green policies rather than being FF’s lapdog. This came after two prominent councillors, including Maher, resigned from the party and publicly accused the leadership of selling out green principles.

In the June 2009 local elections all of the Green Party councillors lost their seats in Dublin in an electoral backlash. McKenna also resigned from the party and stood as an independent in the European elections held the same day. Although she didn’t win, she gained more votes than the official Greens candidate, De Burca. Her vote transfers helped ensure the election to the European Parliament of the Socialist Party's Joe Higgins.

With a great deal of internal unrest, another special members’ conference was called to debate the Lisbon Treaty referendum part two and the Greens’ position in government. With most of the dissidents gone, Gormley secured the necessary two-thirds vote to support the treaty — by one vote.

The leadership calmed the membership with assurances more Green policies would be wrung from FF.

The general feeling in Ireland is that the Greens are living on borrowed time and its members in parliament will go the same way as its local councillors. Gormley is hoping for an economic upturn, but is going along with the savage cuts imposed by the FF government.

In the interim, dissident Greens are looking for new political options. Maher will be coming to address a fringe meeting on Green coalitions organised by Green Left, an eco-socialist current in the Green Party of England and Wales, at the Green Party of England and Wales conference in September.

The Irish Greens has made the same error as the Czech Greens of becoming subsumed in a right-wing coalition and, with no basic radical ideology to rely on, becoming a prop for the ruling right-wing party.

This is the problem facing all Green parties that follow the creed of “neither Left nor Right, but Green”. They end up increasingly resembling green mushy peas served as a puree by the right.

Greens must stick to their radical roots on the left, while pushing the left to not leave the planet and climate change as an optional add on. This is why Green Left, inside the Green Party of England and Wales, stands by the ideas of eco-socialism and will continue to sound the warning whenever we feel that Green parties are going down the same disastrous road as the Irish.

[Joseph Healy is a co-convenor of Green Left, an eco-socialist current within the Green Party of England and Wales. This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #806, August 9, 2009.]