Material for columns pop up in various places and this week it came from a tweet posted by Irish Examiner fellow columnist Alison O’Connor the other day.
“When the history of the Great Pandemic of 2020 is written, I wonder how the Green Party’s contribution to the national effort will rate?” Alison wrote.
And went on to provide an answer. “On the available evidence so far, nearly a zero, I’d suspect.”
When the history of the Great Pandemic of 2020 is written I wonder how the Green Party’s contribution to the national effort will rate?
On the available evidence so far, nearing a zero, I’d suspect.— Alison O'Connor (@alisonoconn) March 26, 2020
Her question is timely and highly relevant. Roll the clock back a few months and the Greens were the coming power.
Prior to the general election, there was a wide consensus, based on local election results and growing awareness of climate change, that the Greens had momentum, ‘the big Mo’, behind them.
In their leader, Eamon Ryan, they had a politician who was refreshingly candid. Ryan’s political persona may not be to everybody’s liking, but he stands apart from all his counterparts in his honesty.
Where others habitually use every media outing to further a political point or position, Ryan always appears focused on the issue, playing the ball rather than the man (or woman).
He comes across as a conviction politician who is willing to work with anybody to forward his agenda and let the credit fall where it may.
He can, as he did in a recent speech in the Dáil, lapse into folksiness or stray from
a point, but even that has a refreshing quality.
Being forever on message, parroting what the spin doctors or focus groups dictate, is standard in modern politics and contributes to cynicism from the public.
Ryan didn’t have a great election. Some of that may be down to his leadership style, but circumstances also contributed.
Awareness of climate change is one thing.
Accepting that it demands a change in lifestyle, and an inevitable reduction in living standards, is not the kind of message that a broad swathe of the electorate today wants to hear.
Contrast the message of impending doom that the Greens — honestly and admirably — sold during the election with an approach by another party to another distant threat.
The pensions timebomb was a major issue in the election, specifically the requirement to raise the pension age to make provision for future generations.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald dismissed the actuarial projections by inferring that people would procreate more under a Sinn Féin government. (This was live on air during one of the TV leaders’ debates).
“The demographics will take care of themselves,” she said.
Feelings, a hunch, a capacity to project empathy, when this stuff comes up against science today there is — or at least was before the pandemic — only one winner.
In particular during an election, telling the people what they want to hear always beats telling them what they need to hear.
The Greens, in contrast, told it like it was and saw, to a certain extent, how there is not yet universal acceptance that a distant threat requires serious action today.
So Sinn Féin, rather the Greens, were the story of the election.
Yet, despite not exactly rising to the occasion, the Greens landed by far their biggest representation ever, winning 12 seats.
This can be partially attributed to a residual cohort accepting the societal changes required to tackle climate change.
But it was also, through transfers, a reflection of the mood for political change which reaped a major result for Sinn Féin.
In the immediate aftermath, the smart money said that the Greens, with their dozen seats, would be in the position of kingmakers.
All of which brings us to the current station. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been thrust together, principally because neither is willing to break bread with the Shinners.
That coupling may be in conflict with the mood for change, but we live in a representative democracy, rather than one where governance is determined by mood.
The big two are still about a dozen short of a workable majority in the Dáil, but the Greens have declared they’re not playing ball. Wherefore the planet?
The decision to walk away from government formation is rooted in a sound, if cynical, calculation.
When the pandemic is spent, there will be a financial reckoning. In all probability, a recession is likely. Tough times may be ahead. Governing will be no picnic.
It could well be a great time to be in opposition, scaling the heights of righteous indignation, feeling the pain of the electorate rather than running the country.
On the other hand, there will also be opportunity in governing.
With a proper moral compass, the country could emerge from this pandemic with values and focus realigned.
For instance, there are already possibilities sprouting to tackle the housing emergency with renewed vigour.
Positive, lasting change is still possible.
But quite obviously, the mood in the Greens is to let the big two at it.
The calculation has been made that the party will be better off sitting this one out rather than getting its hands dirty.
Or, to put it bluntly, the planet can wait till after the next election. Or maybe the one after that.
What, for instance if, against the odds, an administration led by the big two manages to do a half decent job?
What if they last the course and even get re-elected? That could take us up close to 2030.
The planet would by then be waiting a decade for its leading advocates in this country to get their act together.
According to the Greens themselves, that would be too late.
Their trepidation at going into government is understandable.
The big two would dominate. Both are a fair distance to the right of the Greens in terms of economic agendas.
Voters who looked to the Greens as a vehicle of change from the Civil War parties might react in anger.
Neither Fianna Fáil nor Fine Gael appears committed to real change in the name of the planet, but does anybody believe that an alternative government led by Sinn Féin would be more amenable in that respect?
Fighting their corner in any government today would be a tough task for the Greens, but that’s the nature of conviction politics.
Another reason for trepidation is the experience of going in with Fianna Fáil in 2007, after which the party got hammered.
That was largely down to sheer bad luck and timing.
Today, timing is also important but in this instance it has to do with the rapidly deteriorating condition of the planet’s climate and biodiversity.
Either there is an emergency about climate change or there isn’t.
If an emergency exists, then is the Green party by its decision to walk away for government effectively walking away from the premise of its own existence?