'The idea of walking away now is crazy' - Inside the Green Party split as coalition talks commence

As the first day of government formation talks kicks off between the leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, the Greens membership are in a quandary.
'The idea of walking away now is crazy' - Inside the Green Party split as coalition talks commence
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan canvassing ahead of the General Election earlier this year

As the first day of government formation talks kicks off between the leaders of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party, the Greens membership are in a quandary.

Reports of a split within the parliamentary party reflect the split in opinion within the wider membership of whether a coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael would spell a bright new beginning or a bitter end for a party who have been enjoying an upward trajectory.

The split isn't, as many have assumed, a generational one, this doesn't appear to be young new members against the older generation of Greens, but a difference in opinion over whether Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael can be trusted.

Members of the party who are in favour of coalition say that the recent agreement to a 7% emissions reduction in government represents a "huge shift", and should be seen as one of many possible victories the Green Party could garner in this critical time for the climate.

Those opposed say the two larger parties have shown repeatedly through Ireland's poor performance in emissions targets, that they are not interested in being ambitious, are playing to a rural voter base, and point to the Green's "less than effective" time in government with Fianna Fáil in 2007.

Some believe the split, which is becoming increasingly divisive, can be attributed to the party's growth in the last four decades.

Back in the 1980s, when the Green Party first emerged on the island, "we were considered a sandal-wearing, granola-eating eclectic bunch", as one long time member recalled.

The group, although small, were united on its major concern of climate breakdown, however, had a number of small cliques within, some dedicated to animal rights or justice and nationalist principles.

The party has grown exponentially ever since, now holding 12 Dáil seats, two Seanad seats, two in Brussels at the European Parliament and tripling their membership in the last number of years.

Sadhbh O'Neill, a lecturer in environmental politics in DCU, and Policy Officer for Stop Climate Chaos Ireland, says this coalition offers a chance to have the Green agenda pushed to the forefront of Irish politics.

"The Green Party always tried to get past the left or right spectrum, it wasn't just about state or private-led action, but when you get a bigger membership, fragmentation begins," Ms O'Neill said.

Things are now not so clear where the Green Party stand as a collective.

"Environment used to be a narrow concern, but now up to 30% of people vote with climate in mind, and people gave the Green Party their votes because they know they will take it seriously.

"The idea of walking away now is crazy.

"The difference between now and 2007 is the Green Party is a bigger party, with more resources, and climate is front and centre of the conversation.

"Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael will have to implement these policies anyway, and if the Greens were to walk away they would get no credit for it.

"Individuals who have an ideological approach to government formation and refuse to countenance going into coalition, have to ask themselves whether they're in the right party - because there has always been a spectrum of opinion within the party, but the Green Party has been pragmatic."

The most vocal contingent is clearly those against coalition, the likes of the Young Greens Convener Gavin Nugent, former MEP candidate Saorise McHugh, and local Councillors like Lorna Bogue of Cork City South East, which one senior party source says is to be expected, as "it's easier to be out and openly against something, than being pragmatic about it".

Members say that coronavirus lockdown has had the unexpected side effect of more debate between members, rather than less, due to everyone's continual availability to talk.

Robin Cafolla, a member of the party's Dublin central branch, and activist group Extinction Rebellion, says he would vote against any deal, even if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael were willing to make more commitments, because he doe not believe they will ever be seen through.

"I can't see us radically changing their world view with 12 TDs," he said.

"They've have 10 years in which they could've made changes and they haven't.

"What's likely to happen is they'll stall any climate bill for years, frustrate us at every turn, knowing we won't walk away from government without it.

"We've heard how they refused to be moved in 2007, and I believe that's how they will behave this time too.

People who say that we're being too ideological need to be realistic about how decisions are made.

"The party is pragmatic, but realistically there aren't many right-wing parties fighting for climate justice.

"The party has grown in opposition, and in the last Dáil the opposition passed more bills than the government.

"At the minute, there's a deep sense of disappointment that this was not what we ever envisioned during the election campaign, and I can't see the wider membership being radically different than the activists in that view."

The party would need a two-thirds majority membership vote to enter government, due to social distancing guidelines, it is understood the party are discussing online and postal votes as options for such a ballot.

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