Special Report: Can the Greens stay the course when the going gets tough?

The Greens are no strangers to government even though most of their TDs are. 
Special Report: Can the Greens stay the course when the going gets tough?
23/07/2020 Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin it was was announced that Eamon Ryan was re-elected leader of the Green Party for another term and Catherine Martin is Deputy Leader at a press conference at Brooks Hotel Drury Street Dublin this evening.. Stephen Collins /Collins Photos Dublin

It has been little over a month since the new coalition Government took office.

The Greens, after a fraught few months in negotiations with the two civil war parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, voted to take part in government.

The plunge was not as close as many predicted: Green Party members endorsed the programme for government by 76% — above the two-thirds that was needed for the deal to pass.

Since that decision, the Government has gotten off to a shaky start by anyone's standards, and it's hoped that the summer recess will provide some much needed respite for the three strange bedfellows who are running the country together.

In the coming weeks, the Irish Examiner will study each of the coalition parties, where they came from, how they got into Government, and what might happen should they stay.

Ancient history: from the Ecology Party to a Green wave of electoral recovery

Eamon Ryan, left, and former leader and then-Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley TD, right, just after calling for an election in 2011, after a failed Cabinet reshuffle by coalition partners Fianna Fáil. Photo. Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie
Eamon Ryan, left, and former leader and then-Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, John Gormley TD, right, just after calling for an election in 2011, after a failed Cabinet reshuffle by coalition partners Fianna Fáil. Photo. Mark Stedman/RollingNews.ie

The Greens, as a party, are no strangers to Government, even though most of their current TDs are.

Founded as the Ecology Party in 1981 by Dublin teacher Christopher Fettes, they went on to become the Green Alliance in 1983 and finally The Green Party, who first entered the Dáil in 1989.

Back then, "we were considered a sandal-wearing, granola-eating, eclectic bunch", one long time member said.

The group, although small, was united on its major concern of climate breakdown, though it had a number of small cliques within, including some dedicated to animal rights or justice and Irish nationalist principles. Most were less concerned about left or right politics, but one core set of beliefs, which fragmented as the party grew.

The Green Party has participated in Irish government once before from 2007 to 2011 as a junior partner in a coalition with Fianna Fáil.

The party has approached each election independently, unlike others in the Oireachtas, not ruling out working with any party, and 2007 was no different.

As we have come to see as the norm in Irish politics, no party had sufficient seats to form a majority. Fine Gael ruled out a coalition arrangement with Sinn Féin, leaving it up to the Green Party to negotiate with Fianna Fáil. Despite a shaky start to the talks which, at one point saw the Green TDs walk out, the deal to enter government was passed by 86% of their just over 500 members.

The "deal with the Devil", as MEP Ciarán Cuffe once called it, turned out to be exactly that.

The party failed to get almost any of their red line issues addressed by government, overridden by their much more experienced coalition partners, and were often described as the "Green mudguard", trotted out to explain the failures or deliver the bad news of the day.

The 2008 budget for instance, announced in December 2007, did not include a carbon levy on fuels such as petrol, diesel, and home heating oil, which the Green Party had campaigned on during the election. Another two years trundled on with very little wins for the Greens, who felt blocked at every turn and could see support dwindling.

The financial crash also spelled the end of the Green Party after they supported the passage of legislation for Ireland's bank bailout. Less than 24 hours after Cabinet ministers agreed to ask the International Monetary Fund and Europe for the funds, then-Green leader and Environment Minister John Gormley demanded a date for a new election.

At the time, Mr Gormley said, "The past week has been a traumatic one for the Irish electorate. People feel misled and betrayed."

Following the collapse of the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition, the party suffered a "total wipeout" in the February 2011 election, losing all six of its TDs and all government funding. 

What followed was years of blood, sweat, and tears for those left in the party, who saw their membership decimated along with their electorate. In 2011, Eamon Ryan was elected as party leader and Catherine Martin appointed deputy leader. After trojan work from a small team, the February 2016 election saw Ryan returned and Martin elected to the Dáil with two seats.

The party has grown exponentially ever since, owing to a "Green wave" of climate-conscious voters across Europe and a new younger more progressive Irish electorate following two historical referendums on abortion and marriage equality, which the Green Party were on the right side of each time.

Following their greatest electoral success in February, the Greens now hold 12 Dáil seats, two Seanad seats, two in Brussels at the European Parliament, and have tripled their membership in the last number of years.

The voters: climate-concerned youth are fuelling change in a broad church

Minister for Children, Green Party TD Roderic O'Gorman
Minister for Children, Green Party TD Roderic O'Gorman

The Green Party has always considered itself a broad church, and that has never been so clear as in its recent local and general election success.

The party has spanned generations, but its strongest support is now among those aged 25 to 40; voters increasingly concerned about the climate emergency and their own, as well as Ireland's, carbon footprint.

Across Europe, green-party members tend to be female rather than male, and aged in their mid-20s and upwards.

They tend to have third-level education and consider themselves "internationalist" in their views.

"It's fair to say, they aren't the richest sector," one member said.

"But they do have a standard of living that allows them to think beyond bread-and-butter issues."

The Fridays for Future initiative, sparked by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, saw a wave of new recruits for the Green Party, with students and their parents taking to the streets of Ireland as the climate became one of the top issues. In 2019, the party quadrupled its council seats. The party drew former Sinn Féin and Fine Gael voters, demonstrating how seriously the Irish public was taking climate.

Gone are the days of the Ecology Party, whose members reportedly held freestyle dance sessions before each meeting.

Although still deemed 'nutters' by some who subscribe to Civil War politics, most in Irish society would state that the Green Party is no longer "sandal-wearing eco-warriors" and, during successive elections, has dropped its notion of one-policy politics, towards a more inclusive "just transition".

On the doors, many canvassers said they spent an inordinate amount of time apologising for the mistakes of the last government, in which the Greens were in coalition, but emphasised that time was running out to fix Ireland's laggard environmental status. The notion that climate action would come at the expense of the poorest was dispelled. 

A slick, climate science-approved manifesto left other parties, such as Sinn Féin, Fine Gael, and Fianna Fáil, 'greenwashing' their own policies in order to claw back some ground.

"Our essential message was on climate change," one former Green Party TD said.

"The Irish reaction to the climate emergency and our responsibility to it.

"We were also acutely aware of the two pressing issues in housing and health, and they remain the major issues," the former TD said.

"We had already had the local elections a few months before that, and there was a definite sense the Greens had come back and were seen to be on the up and representing people who felt they didn't have a voice in Irish politics."

Many of their older voters see the party as incrementalists. The younger group see climate intrinsically linked to social justice issues like health and housing, and believe one cannot be aided without the other.

The party has gone from 1,000 members in 2011 to 3,000 today. Now, with hugely divergent personalities and beliefs, many within the party say they saw some of the conflict coming.

"One thing about the Greens is I've never met a dishonest person in there; everyone fundamentally believes in what they were doing," one former executive council member said.

"The growth in the party has been like being injured for a season and coming back and scoring two goals. It couldn't have been expected and now they're a bit unsure how to proceed.

"We had no real, strong party structures until 2016, and, as a small party, didn't have the resources to put them in place," the former executive council member said.

"So, we're like a house built on no foundation. It's fine on the ground floor, but the second storey is shaky."

Since entering government, the losses to the party have been well-documented. Many members and TDs have baulked at some of the legislation brought forward by the Government of which the Greens are a part.

Some of the TDs did not vote with the Government whip in the election of the leas ceann comhairle, Catherine Connolly, in a secret ballot. Whether these members and, more widely, these voters, stick with the Green Party into the next general election remains to be seen, as Irish political history dictates that coalitions are often not kind to the smallest party, something the Green Party have experienced before.

"Generally, the Greens are good at being straight up and fair at higher levels, but the grassroots and the people who have to make things happen don't always gel", said one source.

Eamon Ryan: a party saviour that has become 'too thick-skinned'

Eamon Ryan, after his re-election as leader of the Green Party at the Brooks Hotel in Dublin.
Eamon Ryan, after his re-election as leader of the Green Party at the Brooks Hotel in Dublin.

Once dubbed "the thinking man's Green", Eamon Ryan has been at the helm of the Green Party for almost ten years.

Son of a banker, and educated at the fee-paying Gonzaga College, Ryan has probably experienced more than most politicians in Leinster House, despite being in a smaller party.

Succeeding John Gormley, Ryan became leader after a disastrous election in 2011, and the party had no representation in the Oireachtas. The former minister for communications, energy and natural resources has rightly been credited with bringing his party back from the brink, working part-time as a consultant after the 2011 election, and spending much of the rest of his time rebuilding the party with a young family in tow.

The Greens' return to the Dáil following their wipeout in 2011 was the first time that a political party had been able to survive losing all their TDs and return to the parliament.

Most in the party agree that Mr Ryan's leadership style has worked well for him over the last decade.

He has led the party to their greatest ever electoral success, has been known to support young and first-time candidates in whom he sees potential "going on solo runs" and making decisions without acknowledging the party structure.

A number of people interviewed stated that Ryan is a "narcissist" who rewards those close to him. This reward for loyalty was aptly demonstrated in the allocation of cabinet ministers in the new Government, where Ryan overlooked some of his most senior TDs to appoint Senator Pippa Hackett as a super junior minister, and appointing eight special advisors from the Green Party past and present to aid him in government.

"He keeps his supporters in important positions to defend him," one member put it, referencing TD Steven Matthews and Senators Róisín Garvey and Pauline O'Reilly, as examples.

Those who were overlooked for roles say they were not surprised, due to Ryan's past behaviour.

"Eamon's strategy has worked out pretty well, you have to hand it to him," one senior member said.

"Recently, I do think more and more of Eamon's fans and those he trusts are putting Eamon's people under pressure to reach out to members.

"I think part of the issue is his skin is too hard at this stage — nothing bothers him.

"He's been left with such thick skin that when he does genuinely do something wrong, he doesn't notice."

It's widely accepted within the party that Ryan is not a man who focuses much on how an organisation functions, nor on many other organisational issues.

"He couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery: People like him think big and prefer to listen to their instincts than to be limited by structures," one former member of the party's executive council said.

"Without him, the Green Party may not have survived its 2011 electoral stunning, so he deserves praise.

"He's also a passionate environmentalist and climate activist.

"He operates very similarly to what you see. He's a charismatic, respectful man. Underneath it, there's vanity there — a big ego.

"He has betrayed people close to him, and he never does it upfront — he takes steps behind the scenes."

Ryan does not do confrontation, according to those close to him, which has proved an issue when minor problems appear, "as they tend to fester", and he rarely raises his voice.

"He's a little too into the Dublin public schoolboy crowd, he agrees to a lot," said another member.

His agreeable nature also came to the fore during the government formation talks, when Ryan was accused by his own TDs of "giving away too much" during negotiations, and not fighting for the Greens' policies hard enough, with a suspicion that he would "do anything" to get back into Cabinet.

"He loved being a minister, I'm certain of that. He used to tell people around the Green Party office after 2011," a former Green HQ staffer said.

"Fundamentally, the public picture of Eamon Ryan is not wrong. It's just not the full picture."

Ryan is well liked around Leinster House by politicians and journalists alike due to his easy-going nature and approachability, forming long friendships with both Simon Coveney and Micheál Martin over the years.

In his former ministerial role, Ryan would bring his four children, who were very young at the time, to Leinster House and they could often be found playing in the courtyard of the Oireachtas, something unheard of previously.

Catherine Martin: at the helm of Greens almost as long as Ryan 

Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht Catherine Martin pictured as she visits Hawk’s Well Theatre in Sligo on Tuesday, 4th August. Photograph: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland
Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht Catherine Martin pictured as she visits Hawk’s Well Theatre in Sligo on Tuesday, 4th August. Photograph: Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland

The deputy leader of the Green Party since June 2011 and Minister for Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht since June, Catherine Martin has been at the helm of the party for almost as long as Eamon Ryan.

An English and Music teacher from Monaghan, she has been described as having "an understated seriousness but still with a sense of humour".

"She's always been very respectful of Eamon," one former senior member said.

"She's well capable and vocal when required, but always seemed cognisant there needed to be one leader in order to rebuild the party.

"She's the sort of politician that's on every door in her constituency twice before the election and very focused on what she and the party are doing."

When first elected, many in Leinster House said Ms Martin "focused on learning to be a TD".

One former TD added: "She's been elected as a councillor and TD in what were mathematically very difficult areas for Greens to win, which speaks both for her skill and dedication to staying elected which was not something that has been a very prized value in the Greens before she came along."

In previous years, Ms Martin had been incredibly complimentary of the leader, most notably at the party's election manifesto launch last year, where she lauded Mr Ryan's work and dedication to the party.

More recently, she has found her voice, and has appeared more comfortable taking a centre stage role, with media appearances becoming more common.

"Since the change in the party over the last couple of years, I feel she's moved herself to where she naturally politically sits, away from Eamon's viewpoint and towards pragmatism," one former executive council member said.

These shifts in leadership style were most notable in the difference in opinion between Mr Ryan and Ms Martin when she voted against entering government formation talks.

"She wasn't anti-government, she was supportive of government, but knowing her, she didn't want government if it was going to be a bad deal," the former council member added.

Ms Martin was backed by a number of younger Green Party councillors to run for the leadership, with many noting she had been the driving force in a more gender-balanced candidate ticket.

Ms Martin founded Mná na Glas, the Green Party women's group, and was the first chair of The Irish Women's Parliamentary Caucus, which she spearheaded the creation of.

She was backed, although not exclusively, by those within the party who had reservations about the recent programme for government and entering coalition talks with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, many of whom were younger or newer members of the party.

The split: A lack of debate, paired with the lockdown, have created a 'perfect storm'

Party TD Neasa Hourigan and Leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan. Hourigan lost Dáil speaking rights for two months after two votes against the government. Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
Party TD Neasa Hourigan and Leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryan. Hourigan lost Dáil speaking rights for two months after two votes against the government. Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

The recent split in the party has been well documented. It culminated in a number of high-profile resignations in the last few weeks, an edge of the seat leadership race, and the shock vote against the government from TD Neasa Hourigan and an abstention from junior minister Joe O’Brien.

As revealed in the Irish Examiner last week, some TDs have already discussed with colleagues when they should walk away from government, after being “kept out of the loop” by cabinet colleagues, and “forced” to vote for legislation that they don’t agree with.

Meanwhile, Eamon Ryan barely held on to his leadership, retaining his position as Green Party leader by just 48 votes in an island-wide postal ballot.

After the win, Ryan said, "It's a really close result, numbers are tight, and could've went either way, I will reflect on that."

In her conciliatory speech, Catherine Martin pleaded for the members to stay with the party, which must now "unite after the divisions it has experienced in recent months".

Many members say that the exponential growth in the party after the local elections and a more diverse membership heading towards a quickly organised general election meant that a lot of fundamental debates on ideology did not happen and lead to the breakdown in relations.

The lack of detailed debate paired with a Covid-19 lockdown which saw members at home, with little to do, and many losing their jobs, became the "perfect storm" for a split within the party.

"The reason is a lot of debates which needed to be had, weren't argued," a senior source said.

"A lot of us felt that dealing with a few centrists isn't the worst thing in the world, its easy to unite that group around an image like climate, or about housing, nothing too controversial.

"We'd all go to the pub and chat about the climate.

"When it comes down to the programme for government question, we had so many new members. We took voters from Sinn Féin and Fine Gael so, when the serious questions happened, we started arguing, people were cooped up in the house with nothing else going on, it just got worse from there.

"You're going to find people getting really angry. You're going to find people who can't speak to each other in person. It was all over WhatsApp and phone calls, even between TDs, it was a recipe for conflict.

"If we were speaking in person in the last few months, it would be hard to be rude around a table with people. You're forced to be mannerly, you get a read on people, but it's impossible to do that at the minute."

One early warning sign that this issue would rear its head was tabled at the party convention in 2019, proposed by Cork city councillor Lorna Bogue, who had tabled a motion to rule out working with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in any future government.

"The first real mention of a coalition took place at last year's convention. People said it was too early to have that debate, six months before an election, which was true, in a way. The debate never happened, really, but it became apparent some were more open to a coalition than others then," the source added.

"The way it worked out, the pressure was all on the Greens. It became a binary choice. The reality was everyone was open to some kind of coalition, but there were different opinions when it came down to going in with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael."

Despite promises from the party to tackle reports of harassment and bullying which followed the weeks of internal rows, "no real work has been done up to now," an executive council member said.

"Senior people are being asked a lot of questions because a lot more people have been made aware of it, ordinary canvassers for example," they said.

"It's easy to be oblivious if you're just a day to day member, so there is definitely more of awareness of the issue now.

"It's been weeks and nothing has been done, something like that would need a strategy in place, and meetings to deal with complaints, as bullying usually results in complaints and mediation.

"I am really surprised at how bad it's gotten."

Bullying: Atmosphere among party members described as 'toxic'

Green Party councillor Lorna Bogue: an outspoken and radical figure within an incrementalist party. Pic: Dan Linehan
Green Party councillor Lorna Bogue: an outspoken and radical figure within an incrementalist party. Pic: Dan Linehan

The party is accused of bullying among its membership.

The Green Party has been rocked by allegations of bullying in the months since the election.

The original story, revealed by the Irish Examiner, came from Cork city councillor Lorna Bogue, who said she was temporarily suspended by the party after she spoke out against government formation talks.

She said what happened had been part of a consistent campaign of harassment from within some of the party membership.

Party leader Eamon Ryan said the Green Party's head office has been "swamped" with more bullying complaints than party structures can deal with.

"I'm not being critical of the people involved in the current system. We have just grown so fast and been in such contentious and difficult space that I think we haven't managed and coped well," he said.

The resignations of former general election candidate Julie O’Donoghue and former MEP and Seanad candidate Saoirse McHugh gave credence to the issue. Ms McHugh described the atmosphere within the party as "toxic".

"It's toxic in there since the locals and, really, I should've left after the convention last year after I had people saying I should join another party for speaking my mind, even back then that was an issue," she said.

Ms McHugh's admission notes another recent dynamic within the party: a new type of insult is levelled at members by some of their colleagues.

Those who questioned the programme for government, or opposed the coalition Government were frequently told they were in the "wrong party".

Many of those have been told to join Sinn Féin or People Before Profit, had their loyalty to the Green Party questioned, while one senior member — Harry McEvansonya — was accused by Senator Róisín Garvey of being a "Sinn Féin front".

One member told the Irish Examiner that: "Some of the party are just terrified of Sinn Féin. It really is 'red under the bed' stuff. I hardly think Sinn Féin even need to take us over."

Others surmise that the fear of Sinn Féin comes from a long-standing belief that the Green Party has a duty to enter government.

"That's probably only really come to the fore in the last few months," a member of the executive council said.

"Some see Sinn Féin as happy to be opposition and started saying that if we don't want to go into government we're "Shinners in disguise"."

Notions that "we don't want to become Sinn Féin', 'we're not Sinn Féin', or 'why don't you join Sinn Féin'" were borne out of the idea of remaining in opposition, they said.

"There's very much a school of thought that if you're in the Green Party, you should want to be in Government.

"Since the debate on the programme for government and the effect of the vote, a lot of people probably still think that."

Members say that this school of thought comes from considering themselves left-wing and different to Sinn Féin in the willingness to "go in and make decisions".

"It's definitely an older member thing. They think of themselves as left-wing and are sick of Sinn Féin getting left-wing support as they don't consider them on the left," the source said.

"We're supposed to act on our word, take action when we get the opportunity."

The future: consensus that Rural Ireland is key

Lord Mayor of Dublin, Hazel Chu with partner Patrick Costello and their daughter Alex. She is the first Green Party Lord mayor since John Gormley.
Lord Mayor of Dublin, Hazel Chu with partner Patrick Costello and their daughter Alex. She is the first Green Party Lord mayor since John Gormley.

Grassroots members, as well as party HQ, are in agreement that the party has gone as far as it can in the cities.

After the Green Party was wiped out electorally in 2011, they lost all government funding after only gaining 1.9% of the vote. Those who were there for the rebuilding say concentrating on the cities first was borne out of a need to survive.

"In absolute certain terms, we put together a survival strategy after that," said a former staff member of Green HQ.

"How could we get money into the party? We needed a new IT system, we needed a new website, we needed to retain and grow the membership.

"We couldn't even pay rent for the office, people kept telling us to get rid of the office, but where would we meet?

"Everyone was doing everything they could."

The Green wave must expand for it to continue, and many members are optimistic that the negative stereotype of the Green Party in rural areas is beginning to wear off.

Previous incantations of the "Green bogeyman" coming to cull the national herd and take away your foreign holidays in order to help the environment appear to have subsided.

"The future is rural Ireland, it has to be," one executive council member said.

"There are 10 constituencies in Dublin, we have a representative in eight of the 10. We have TDs in Waterford, Limerick and Pauline (O'Reilly, Senator) in Galway.

"Where do we go? We'd maybe pick up seats with (councillors) Lorna (Bogue) and Oliver (Moran) in Cork, but we have to grow in rural areas. We've gone as far as we can go elsewhere."

During the recent leadership race, many of those who backed challenger Catherine Martin said that her appeal to rural Ireland was one of the main reasons they were backing her, noting that Eamon Ryan "didn't win any votes outside the M50", according to one member. However, others say that without Ryan at the helm, the party would not have garnered as many seats as they did in February due to his well-known and respected persona in Dublin.

The party has fought hard against the reputation that their party's power would be detrimental to rural Ireland, a common refrain used by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael during the election campaign, though with little proof this would be the case.

The appointment of Senator Pippa Hackett as Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity was seen by some as the party leadership making further moves in this vein. An organic beef farmer who lives in Offaly and raised in Mayo, Ms Hackett has been a passionate advocate for the diversification of farming, which has advantages for both the climate and the livelihood of farmers.

"If you speak to Pippa Hackett about farming, you'd get more sense out of her than some people in the IFA," one former executive council member said.

Some members say one issue that will need to be tackled to reach rural members will be proving their intentions are genuine.

Some of who have served in the executive council say that, on some rural issues where the Greens fundamentally agree with the rural population, they are remiss to show support in case it looks like "a PR stunt".

"The case has to be made with action now or it won't work, it's not enough to just throw our support behind rural people in minor issues," a source said.

"However when you look at people like Malcolm Noonan and Grace (O'Sullivan MEP), if people think the Greens don't see the need for rural Ireland, they're not listening."

The party is keen to look at areas where they don't have people elected, with some noting they have similar issues in their party contingent in Northern Ireland.

"There's a heavy Belfast bias, so the difficulty in outside of cities is replicated up there, places like Derry and west of the Bann are not without environmental issues, but the involvement of (Green Party NI leader) Claire Bailey in helping shaping the Taoiseach's 'shared island' unit may go some way in fixing that as we're the only all-island party in the coalition," one senior member said.

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