Greens in conference - High stakes but very few options

WE ARE, in so many deeply challenging ways, at a crossroads and tomorrow’s meeting of the Green Party to consider a revised programme for government represents just one of the many ongoing exercises to try to decide which path we might take.

Even though a relatively small group of people — far fewer than, say, the Irish branch of the Manchester United supporters’ club — will be involved the meeting’s significance should not be underestimated. It has the capacity to bring this coalition to an end. It also has, thankfully, the capacity to be hugely positive.

The Greens have set out 26 demands on education, most of which involve reversing cuts. It is not overly optimistic to hope that these demands will get a sympathetic hearing, especially as two of the Fianna Fáil negotiating team — Mary Hanafin and Noel Dempsey — have served as ministers for education.

At least as importantly, the threat posed to the prospect of any recovery by our under-funded education system was underlined by former Intel chief Craig Barrett’s warts-and-all address to the recent Farmleigh economic summit. He argued that our system was under-resourced and barely fit for purpose.

Yesterday’s reports that the Department of Education has, so far this year, spent just €455m of a capital allocation of €841m suggests that there may be the possibility of diverting resources.

There are very few people who would oppose improvements in education but the ghosts of reforms promised when benchmarking was introduced will haunt funding proposals. We cannot repeat that mistake.

The Greens’ meeting has the capacity too to wake us from our in-denial slumbers regarding climate change. We are stumbling towards a worldwide, circular crisis on energy, water, food production, fisheries, emissions, species extinction, habitat loss and overpopulation but it is hard to imagine that any of the main parties would have given these issues more than nodding attention if the Greens had not secured power for Bertie Ahern. Despite the great hullabaloo about politicians’ expenses over recent days, it is far more worrying that they seem so indifferent to these huge issues.

Of course we would prefer not to have to pay a carbon tax, water charges, domestic waste charges or have to import nearly 90% of our energy. Of course Ireland is a tiny country with a small population and can have little enough influence on global climate change. However, that does not mean that we can be happy being, on a per capita basis, among the world’s top 10 polluters. Neither does it mean that we cannot put programmes in place to help cope with the consequences of the coming changes now accepted as inevitable by the majority of the world’s scientific community.

If tomorrow’s meeting forces these issues up the agenda we should all allow ourselves a little cheer.

Undoubtedly NAMA will be discussed. It is probable that this week’s comments from Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to the effect that the Government should have let Irish banks fail instead of “squandering” public money on NAMA will have some influence. Before accepting Prof Stiglitz’s analysis, and it has certain attractions, anyone considering opposing NAMA tomorrow should consider the consequences and have a plausible alternative.

These are critical times and the options open to the Greens are very limited. They may vote to save Fianna Fáil or they may vote to save themselves but let us all hope they vote to save the country.

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Saturday, September 25, 2021

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