Greens must act before it is too late

THERE are four years, eight months and six days left until the next general election.

That means only one thing — the Government has left it too late to save their skins. They are toast already.

Ah yes, you say. A resurgent Fine Gael will become even more resurgent and will wipe the floor with them. Ermmm, no.

By the way they are shaping up so far, Fine Gael look like they will be merely spectators to the Government’s demise. I was speaking to a senior Fine Gael backroom person during the week and asked him about the state of play of its strategic planning for the next five years.

The answer I got was that there isn’t a strategy, not yet. The reasons?

It’s only a couple of months since a tough election. The new front bench needs to bed itself in. Give it a bit of time.

It was — and I didn’t quibble — a reasonable explanation. But it was also wrong.

Just as a week can be a long time in politics, a five-year term can be a short time in politics. And we have seen a couple of examples in the past week of Fine Gael spokespeopleopposing just for the sake of opposing and offering no cohesive or original proposals of its own (and before you correct me, the otherwise smart Charlie Flanagan’s suggestion to call in the army was not original).

And so in the new Dáil term, we have seen FG take up where it left off before the election. We don’t know if it’s still relying on the three pillars on which it fought the election campaign — health, crime and value for money — but it seems to be. And that’s a mistake.

There’s a school of thought within FG that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it — continue with the strategy that won it 20 seats and sure, won’t it yield even more?

A couple of weeks ago, FG’s young blade Leo Varadkar wrote to a newspaper arguing that far from trumpeting its success, FG should beflagellating itself for failing to winthe election.

The campaign (ie the superficial razzmatazz) was professional, but wasn’t enough. “We did not win the policy debates. We showed an unwillingness to take clear positions. We did not demonstrate competence to run the economy.”

As an example, he said, the party, by concentrating on the narrow issue of stamp duty (pandering to a skewed and perverse Sunday Independent campaign), abandoned imaginative plans for a 30% income tax for middle earners. To that end, they could learn from the flair that Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne has shown in terms of policy and presentation.

Mr Varadkar’s argument that Fine Gael “will have to look like modern Ireland” sounds like it comes straight out of David Cameron’s rulebook.

FG needs to do all of those things. But already, it’s beginning to look like it might not need to bother. The PDs already look like goners. There’s no dynamic for change within FF, which means that Brian Cowen and others will bide their time even if Bertie Ahern stays on until 2011.

If that happens, whoever succeeds him will be leading Fianna Fáil into opposition.

And the Green Party? The incinerator debate this week underlined the innate weakness of its position in Government. The media and opposition honed in not on John Gormley’s argument that Ireland will need two rather than eight incinerators, but on his tacit acceptance that incinerators will be needed in the first place. That’s a big concession.

Its biggest enemy will be time. In the Programme for Government, the Greens got a commitment to an international review of national waste policy. And it’s been agreed. That’s fine. But it won’t be completed until 2009. And by the time they’ve gone through the hoops of approval, procurement and delivery, it will be — well, way beyond 2012.

And with an economy beginning to feel the squeeze, its own big flagship issues — the annual 3% reduction in carbon emissions; the big push towards renewable and alternative forms of energy — will encounter resistance from FF ministers.

The Greens know that FF has red lines and is not prepared to cross them. So many of what the Greens want is predicated on reviews, reports, promises and vague aspirations (stuff that can be kicked into the blue yonder). Green ministers and their advisers are still talking naively about how nice FF ministers have been to them. But in technical terms that’s called a honeymoon period.

If they don’t start picking a couple of fights with the Big Beasts of FF soon, they’ll find themselves with nothing tangible to show. There are four years, eight months and five days left. But if they don’t start moving, it will be too late.

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