Green Party Special Report: Ready to take advantage of rising tide of concern on climate crisis

Green Party Special Report: Ready to take advantage of rising tide of concern on climate crisis

Six seats next general election could see the Greens in government again, even if some party members are still bruised by their previous experience of coalition.

Having captured the public imagination and gained support at the ballot box, the Green Party is now poised to re-enter government.

However, the party has learned difficult lessons from numerous past wipeouts and is keen to downplay the victories of this year’s local and European elections.

In true understated Green style, they have refused to revise upwards their chances when it comes to the next national vote.

While they may be riding a wave now, the Green Party — more than anyone one else — knows that the tide can go out as quickly as it came in.

Green party leader Eamon Ryan has not budged from his target of six Dáil seats — up from the current two — a number that was set as far back as March 2018, long before the green wave rolled in.

For Mr Ryan six TDs is the “magic number”.

“To get that you need about one in 20 Irish people to give you their first preference vote, that’s important as it gives you political capital, even just imagine in a room every one in 20 in that room are voting Greens so it’s symbolic.”

Six was the number of TDs the party came back with after the 2002 election and the same number they had when they went into coalition for the first time with Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats back in 2007.

“In the past, we would have six TDs, two ministers. I think it’s important if you are in government to have two representatives at Cabinet because then you can swap notes, report back more effectively and so on,” said Mr Ryan.

Newly elected MEP Ciarán Cuffe is marginally more ambitious, “I would urge caution, I would love to think that we could get 10 seats in the next election but having said that who knows what the public mood will be. 

"There is an air of unpredictability around this but climate change is not going away and people see that the Greens have a good track record on this and they see that we offer solutions.”

But while the party may stubbornly refuse to let real optimism get the better of them, it is true to say that they have never been in better condition.

The group have come a long way since their beginnings when under the Ecology Party, set up by teacher Christopher Fettes in 1981, they were very much seen as a niche organisation.

Throughout the 1980s when the group changed its name once again to Green Alliance in 1983 before settling on the Green Party, the public remained sceptical of their message regarding climate change and the damage being inflicted on our ecosystem. 

And even the merits of recycling and going vegetarian were dismissed as fringe notions.

Indeed, making his maiden Dáil speech as the first elected Green Party TD in 1989 Roger Garland said:

While the Dáil dithers, planet Earth goes down the tubes.

This couldn’t be further from the truth today when parties and political groups tussle for attention when it comes to their green credentials.

Having returned 49 councillors in May’s local elections — up from 12 in 2011 — they now have a national network of representatives and in a few short weeks have managed to build strong coalitions on many councils.

Mr Cuffe said: “It was an extraordinary result at local level. To have 49 councillors elected is a new departure for the party and I think that will strengthen us regardless of what happens in the next general election.”

However, the first signs of regrowth came in the 2016 general election when Mr Ryan and Dublin Rathdown TD Catherine Martin were elected to the Dáil.

This allowed the Greens to expand their operation which had been made of up of just two permanent staff members, who were bolstered by volunteers.

Having two members in the Dáil as well as senator Grace O’Sullivan meant that the party had the capacity to take on secretarial assistants.

Each of the TDs recruited two full-time staff members, while Ms O’Sullivan, before being elected to the European Parliament in May, had one full-time staff member and another part-time. 

Added to this is around six full-time employees in party headquarters, this number again swelled ahead of the recent elections where a number of people were recruited on a contract basis.

One background party member said this shift to a professionalisation of the organisation has been one of the most significant changes which have driven support and has cemented their platform.

Green Party Special Report: Ready to take advantage of rising tide of concern on climate crisis

Another significant change has been a slow shift in public attitudes.

Long gone is the notion of crusty tree-huggers in hemp clothing with do-gooder ideas.

Now being vegan is mainstream and parents have been influenced by their teenage sons and daughters who in March took to the streets of Dublin in their thousands and were supported by many other protests across the country during the day of climate action. 

“Before, if we wanted to introduce a Bill, let’s say on microplastics, we would have had to explain what microplastics were and the damages they posed.

“Now people already understand, so that has really helped us,” one party member said.

The ‘David Attenborough effect’, as well as powerful contributions from teenager Greta Thunberg, have finally made climate change a topic of discussion.

“The issues that we have been concerned about and speaking on for years are centre-stage,” said Mr Ryan.

What we have been saying for 30 or 40 years is coming home to roost and people can see that — they realise that what we have been saying for so long is true.

"We are a representation of the public’s increased consciousness of the need to protect our environment and that change will be good for our economy, good for our society, it’s not a cost it’s not a negative thing,” he said.

However, the Green Party has good reason to be cautious: they have been in positions of strength before and saw their representation wiped away overnight in numerous elections.

While Mr Garland entered the Dáil in 1989 he failed to gain the same public support in 1992 when the next election came around.

Likewise, gains made in the European elections in 1994 and 1999 when they returned two MEPS slipped away in 2004 when they failed to get a single candidate elected.

It has been a long wait until this year, when the Greens finally reclaimed two European seats, joining a growing Green cohort of 74 MEPs in Brussels.

2011 was undoubtedly an all-time low when the party was completely wiped out and only managed to get less than 200 people to show up to its national convention.

Nevertheless, the party is prepared to re-enter power, even if that could in the long-run see its support wane once again.

Even Fianna Fáil is not off limits.

Green Party Special Report: Ready to take advantage of rising tide of concern on climate crisis

However, Mr Cuffe said that this time around the party would need clear commitments on timescales for the implementation of measures and policies.

Instead of red lines, the party would go into any possible coalition negotiation talks with a list of principles that potential partners would sign up to.

While the party wasn’t completely naive when it entered power with Fianna Fáil, it has certainly learned what is actually achievable once in Government.

“There is an institutionalised memory of knowing what can be done and what can be difficult. Those of us who have been around for a while know how difficult government can be and we know the problems around promising too much,” said Mr Cuffe.

But for now, the Greens will keep their aspirations in check, focusing on putting pressure on the current Government to bring about change on carbon taxes, public transport and the National Development Plan.

“We haven’t changed in the past year or two, our fortunes have. But we want to keep our feet on the ground,” said Mr Ryan.

Public now realise that going Green makes absolute sense

I’m writing this piece from Berlin, a city where the Greens’ influence in their senate is evident in so many ways, writes John Gormley.

This city of 3.8m people has excellent public transport and cycling facilities, rents which are affordable and tenants who have real security of tenure.

The government has also maintained sound environmental protection policies for the city’s many parks, forests and lakes.

Contrast this with our own capital city, with its poor public transport and dangerous cycling conditions, a housing crisis and spiraling rents and, worst of all, a beautiful bay which is now routinely polluted and off limits to swimmers, and you begin to understand why so many Dubliners, Corkonians and other urban dwellers opted for the Greens in the local and European elections.

The German Greens are, according to recent opinion polls, the second biggest party in Germany, just marginally behind the CDU. 

Much of the German Greens success has been attributed to the co-leaders Robert Habek and Annalena Baerbock. 

The Irish Greens have their own dynamic duo in Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin.

Eamon is a superb television communicator, a man who radiates moderation and optimism and whose measured tones persuade even the sceptics that radical ideas are realistic and reasonable.

His visionary style is complemented by Catherine’s no-nonsense approach and incredible work ethic. 

It’s a formidable partnership unmatched by any other political party in Ireland at present.

But the recent success of the Irish Greens was only partially based on personalities, a fact acknowledged by Eamon Ryan in his own post-election analysis. 

For years, the party had been flatlining in opinion polls at around 2%, causing a lot of soul searching amongst the elected representatives and party members.

So what changed all that? Well, like so much in politics — events or political circumstances. 

The unprecedented coverage of climate change, the inspiring speeches of Greta Thunberg and the resulting protests by school children raised public awareness of green issues.

Now climate change was being raised spontaneously on the door steps, something that hadn’t happened before. 

In my 20 years as a Green Party elected representative climate change was raised in a positive way no more than 10 times. Now it was coming up 10 times a night! 

Was this the start of the long awaited paradigm shift?

For years we had said that there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. 

I had assumed — perhaps naively — going right back to the 1980s that the voting public would understand the true extent of the ecological crisis and the Green Party would quickly become a major political force in most countries. 

Now there was a possibility of a breakthrough after so many false dawns.

So what conclusions can we draw as to the future voting intentions of Irish electorate?

Were voters simply salving their middle-class consciences by voting green before reverting to type in the general election? Can this green momentum be turned into more Dáil seats?

So far, the poll indications are positive, but the party has to quickly address a number of issues if it to realise its undoubted potential. 

The biggest problem is revealed by even a cursory examination of the election results: the Greens’ lack of appeal for rural dwellers.

For reasons which are often unfathomable, the party is viewed with suspicion and downright disdain by farmers. 

Indeed those astute political operators, the Healy-Raes, have long known that indulging in wanton greenbashing is a certain vote getter amongst certain rural dwellers.

The election of Pippa Hackett, a beef farmer, to Offaly County Council may help to ease some of those fears and change the perception of greens as a party representing only city dwellers.

A keynote address by Eamon Ryan at the ploughing championship could persuade farmers that they have less to fear from an Taisce leaflet urging people to eat less meat than they do from the Mercosur trade deal.

Some of them might even realise that the Greens, not Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, are their greatest allies on this issue.

The party also needs to show that the Greens are good for business. Again, this is prejudice, with no basis in fact, that needs to be confronted. 

The party has many small business people in its ranks and their pro business attitude needs to be effectively communicated.

Because of the major increase in elected representatives, the party constitution and ‘rules and procedures’ need to be updated, so that there is effective cohesion on the councils. 

Green Party Special Report: Ready to take advantage of rising tide of concern on climate crisis

The party has a proud tradition of operating through consensus and collegiality, which served us well during our difficult times in government. The team will always be more important than individuals.

Finally, the party needs to effectively target seats in the forthcoming general election. 

The number of targeted seats will have increased now because of the local election successes.

The party can realistically target 15 seats, a number which would have been unthinkable previously. The party general secretary and chairperson and all at head office have already demonstrated their organisational talents. 

Now it’s up to the candidates and their election teams to get out canvassing for an election that will take place in 2020.

Green success in the general election would inevitably raise the prospect of the party entering government. 

Our previous time in government was a chastening and even brutal experience for many young party activists.

I detect a marked reluctance on their part to contemplate another such foray. 

One influential party figure, who witnessed first hand the tribulations of the Fianna Fáil/Green coalition, confessed to me recently that the mere mention of the word ‘government’ induced a bout of post-traumatic stress disorder.

If there is debate on whether to enter government, he will undoubtedly argue against such a move. 

Green Party Special Report: Ready to take advantage of rising tide of concern on climate crisis

He is part of the new generation of impressive green candidates who are eager to ditch our adherence to incrementalism.

For them the current environmental crisis demands a greater level of ambition than being a mere adjunct to Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael and suffering electoral annihilation as a result. 

They dare to dream a bigger dream — like the German Greens — of becoming the majority party in future coalitions. And who can fault them for that?

They know that the political history of our modern state shows that small parties — think Clann na Poblachta, Democratic Left and the PDs — shine brightly for a while and then fade into oblivion, often after a period in government.

The same fate was predicted for the Greens after we lost all our Dáil seats at the 2011 election. 

The party has proven its resilience, enduring longer than any other small party. Party membership is at an all-time high. 

Local meetings are well attended and there is a general buzz about in head office. It’s good to be green.

The public is just beginning to grasp the gravity of the environmental crisis. Ciaran Cuffe described the recent European elections as the climate change election.

From now on, every election may be a climate change election, and voters may be realising that only the Greens have the courage and imagination to face up to humanity’s greatest challenge.

John Gormley is a former leader of the Green Party

GREEN PARTY TIMELINE

A foot in the door

Green Party Special Report: Ready to take advantage of rising tide of concern on climate crisis

1989 The Green party which had been founded in 1981 under the Ecology Party of Ireland banner, before changing its name, won its first Dáil seat with the election of Roger Garland in Dublin South.

However, success was short-lived and Garland would lose this seat in 1992.

Breakthrough

Green Party Special Report: Ready to take advantage of rising tide of concern on climate crisis

2007 Having made a breakthrough in the 2002 general election in returning six TDs the Greens managed to retain the same number of seats in 2007 putting them in a strong position to enter Government.

Led by Trevor Sargent, they entered coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats.

Wipeout

Green Party Special Report: Ready to take advantage of rising tide of concern on climate crisis

2011 Having remained in Government as the economy collapsed the Green Party paid dearly in the 2011 General Election which left them without a single Dáil representative.

While the party had threatened to pull out of coalition over the setting up of the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA) in 2009 they stayed the course and were punished at the ballot box.

An added blow was the fact that the party’s share of the vote fell below 2%, meaning they could not reclaim election expenses.

Green shoots

Green Party Special Report: Ready to take advantage of rising tide of concern on climate crisis

2016 After five years in the political wilderness, the party managed to return two TDs to the 32nd Dáil, Green leader Eamon Ryan and Dublin Rathdown candidate Catherine Martin.

Grace O’Sullivan also became the first elected Green Party senator, claiming a seat on the Agricultural Panel.

Green wave

Green Party Special Report: Ready to take advantage of rising tide of concern on climate crisis

2019 The party managed to capture public attention and gained considerable support in the recent

local and European elections.

The so-called ‘green wave’ saw them make significant gains, increasing their number of councillors from 12 to 49 and becoming the second largest party on Dublin City Council.

Two Green Party candidates – Ciarán Cuffe and Grace O’Sullivan – won seats in Europe, while Saoirse McHugh became the surprise of the campaign but narrowly missed out on a seat in Midlands Northwest.

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