Alison O'Connor: Government deal not yet in the bag, for many reasons

Alison O'Connor: Government deal not yet in the bag, for many reasons
Members of the Green Party: Neasa Hourigan TD, Catherine Martin TD, Marc O Cathasaigh TD, Ossian Smyth TD arrive for Government formation talks. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins.

In the Dublin suburb of Phibsboro there is a cafe, which, on the basis of its website, looks to be really charming. Bang Bang is a greengrocer and deli with “top coffee”.

The hipster venue, run by a brother and sister, was named after a famous Dublin character whose real name was Thomas Dudley. In a video on their website the pair, Daniel and Grace, come across as lovely people with wonderful ideas of what a local business should be, looking at collective and community interest.

Their aim is to have a “net positive impact on the area”. Making money is not a top priority, just enough to live on, they say. They raise money for charity and for people in Direct Provision. For them it is about “people looking after each other, a sense of community and that the State is looking after people.” They even have their own podcast.

They stock everything from vintage clothes to locally sourced products – favouring “localisation over globalisation”. On the “An Siopa” section there is a small selection of items you can buy including tote bags. One of those, in black and white, has the message “F**k Fine Gael. F**k Fianna Fail”.

That message, a little less crudely, but certainly quite powerfully, came through in our February general election in terms of the point delivered to our two main, and mainstream, political parties. The upending of politics as we had known it for so long had been signalled for some time in advance, but this forceful kick to the system was still quite the surprise when it happened. We had seen the way the wind was blowing with the global environment movement Extinction Rebellion.

The increasing polarisation caused by Brexit in the UK, and Trump in the US, did not leave us unaffected. Now the magnificently powerful Black Lives Matter protests form another part of the political protest movement.

Back to our general election. After running a very impressive campaign Sinn Fein were the undoubted winners in February. This was on the back of voters, many of them young, feeling utterly disenfranchised in terms of ever being fully functioning members of society, owning their own homes or availing of a proper health service. The other party to avail of that protest vote was the Greens.

In the four months since we all cast our votes the world has changed in a way we could never have imagined. As I type Beijing has been placed back into a form of lockdown as dozens of new coronavirus cases emerged. In the US Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called on certain states to move aggressively to prevent recent increases in cases from turning into “a real surge”.

Previously Covid free New Zealand is struggling with tracing two arrivals from the UK who have reintroduced the virus to the country.

Back at home it is not that we do not need more houses – we do, just as urgently as ever. Neither does it mean a reformed health service is less of a priority – in fact it has never been more so, as we discovered in recent months.

Neasa Hourigan, the Green Party’s finance spokesperson, has said the deal does not do enough in terms of housing and deprivation. Pic: Sam Boal/RollingNews
Neasa Hourigan, the Green Party’s finance spokesperson, has said the deal does not do enough in terms of housing and deprivation. Pic: Sam Boal/RollingNews

So if you are forming a Programme for Government in this context ideally you would not start from the middle of a pandemic. But this is exactly where we are. No matter how much people might wish differently this is the realpolitik. We need recognition of that as the country struggles in the quicksand of international recession. The Greens are key to us getting the stability we need but the way things currently stand with that party is a serious worry.

Newly elected Green TD Ossian Smyth was one of the party’s Programme for Government negotiators. On the Tonight Show on Virgin Media on Tuesday night he said the Green Party had negotiated “really, really hard” with the other two parties. The Dun Laoghaire TD laughingly said the Greens had not rushed into agreeing anything.. “By the end of six weeks of negotiating people were almost crying, you know. We squeezed and squeezed and squeezed”.

The following night on RTÉ’s Prime Time, addressing the attitude of some of the Green Party’s younger activists, Ossian Smyth said: “I don’t hate the people in the other parties. It’s not part of my identity, that ‘I am me’ and, you know, ‘I’ll never speak to these people’… I worked very closely with the other parties over the last few weeks and part of this was not just to discuss policy but also to establish trust.”

A short while later, switching channels, his party colleague and another key member of the negotiating team, Neasa Hourigan, was telling of her experiences. She was one of three parliamentary party members to subsequently abstain on a vote on the deal. Her messaging was at best confused. She believed it “probably is the best deal in the circumstances that we can get”. But asked what she would be recommending to Green Party members, after five weeks of being in the room as a main negotiator, she said: “To be honest with you I need to read it again and I haven’t decided completely.”

She also said: “For me there are questions that leap off the page and I want to see if other people have those same questions.” The newly elected TD raised concerns with the Programme around economic strategy, including deficit reduction, significant tax breaks, yet no tax increases over the lifetime of the government, with promises to invest in things like climate action and basic services. “We have discussed this for five weeks and I still can’t square that circle”.

It was also of interest that early in her contribution she said that as a Dublin Central TD she was dealing with deprivation, housing, evictions and homelessness and did not want child poverty rates to increase during the coming recession. Impossible to argue with these laudable points. However in mentioning her constituency in that context, she also raised the issue, whispered by many in Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, that in the next election Sinn Fein would run a second candidate there alongside party leader Mary Lou McDonald. This could put Neasa Hourigan at a high risk of losing her seat in Dublin Central.

Bang Bang café is in that very constituency. Neasa may even have been there. We don’t know how she’d feel about the explicit message on that tote bag, directed at her potential coalition partners, She certainly appears to channel a version of it, admittedly in a far less crude way. But, in trying to be both inside and outside the tent, while also minding her Dail seat, her efforts end up looking very local, in every way. It’s very shortsighted.

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