John Gormley: Collaborative unity government is what the country needs

The Greens have proposed all parties work together during the virus crisis. This would ensure legislative scrutiny and remove the need for an opposition, says former party leader John Gormley
John Gormley: Collaborative unity government is what the country needs
Green Party leader Eamon Ryan and deputy leader Catherine Martin leading their expanded cohort of TDs at Leinster House in February. New, younger Greens want radical action, writes John Gormley. Picture: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

The Greens have proposed all parties work together during the virus crisis.

This would ensure legislative scrutiny and remove the need for an opposition, says former party leader John Gormley

I’ve been thinking a lot about political metaphors. The ‘senior hurling’ metaphor has now become overused in commentary and I bear some responsibility.

I revealed that the late Seamus Brennan had said it to the Green delegation at the commencement of negotiations in 2007.

His exact words were: ‘You’re playing senior hurling now, lads. But you’re playing against fellows with All-Ireland medals.’

Those negotiations did prove to be as robust as any hurling match, with Dan Boyle and Noel Dempsey almost squaring up to one another, resulting in the Greens walking off the pitch.

Seamus had not been present for the bust-up, having been in hospital with the illness that would later take his life.

And it was Seamus who subsequently rang me to try to get things back on track. This time, he used an aviation metaphor: ‘Are we going to land this buckin‘ plane or not?’

I can appreciate now just what a skillful political strategist, tactician, and negotiator he was.

I can’t help thinking that were he still alive, he would not so readily dismiss the Green Party proposal for a unity government, a collaboration of all parties, during this unprecedented health crisis.

The criticism doesn’t stand up to any scrutiny.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said a unity government would be limited to six months or the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, allowing for detailed negotiations on government formation.

A cobbled-together programme just won’t fly with Green members, who look to the ambitious, detailed, and fully timelined programmes for government of other European green parties for inspiration.

The Finnish greens produced a 300-page programme for government, for example.

Eamon Ryan’s colleague Neasa Hourigan, in a Twitter broadcast this week, said the Green Party wants to be in government, but not under duress.

She rightly said that, in effect, we have had a unity government operating in the Dáil recently — which has included the contribution of Sinn Fein — and nobody can claim it has not worked.

Some of the most draconian and complex pieces of legislation have been put through all stages in a matter of hours.

Given the clear statements by Ryan and Hourigan, it’s unlikely the party will accept such a fait accompli.

Matters are also not helped by the stream of indignant commentators urging the Greens to ‘step up to the plate’ (a baseball metaphor, as far as I know).

Some of these people are quite familiar to Green Party elected representatives and members. Many of these very same people hadn’t a good word to say for the party when it was last in government, from 2007 to 2011, and urged the Greens to leave office ‘in the national interest’.

I don’t recall glowing editorials or articles praising the party for taking the hardest-ever economic decisions in the history of our State, after the financial crisis of 2008, in the full knowledge that it would result in electoral meltdown.

The Greens that I know are not in politics to protect their seats at all costs. Many of them would regard electoral martyrdom as a badge of honour, if it was for the right cause.

They know that even in the best of times, participation in government results in major seat losses. In straitened times — such as the period we are now about to enter — full-scale seat losses could be expected.

That would mean the loss of the vast majority of Green council seats, the two MEPs, and, eventually, the loss of ten of the twelve Dáil seats.

Would it be worth it? Perhaps. But only if the programme for government was a humdinger that ticked every green box and then some.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed that radical change in a short space is possible - the institutional inertia that prevents sensible solutions to the climate crisis has been shown to be a convenient myth.

The stakes are now much higher. And in all likelihood, the decision will be influenced by a new generation of Greens, who see things somewhat differently to their more cautious elders.

Traditionally, participation in government was based on the logic that half a loaf is always better than no loaf.

It’s an argument that simply doesn’t cut it with many younger Greens, who now make up a sizeable proportion of the membership. They want radical action: The national herd reduced, the scrapping of the Shannon Liquefied Natural Gas terminal, and two-thirds of our transport budget going to public transport and other alternatives.

Like climate activist Greta Thunberg, who recently dismissed the EU’s new green deal as lacking a ‘sense of urgency’, they would characterise as a surrender a programme for government that wasn’t ambitious about climate action.

Not only would such a programme not get the required two-thirds majority, it would fail to even get majority support within the party.

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed that radical change in a short space is possible.

The institutional inertia that prevents sensible solutions to the climate crisis has been shown to be a convenient myth.

Transformative politics that prioritises a just transition to a low-carbon future is the only way.

At this time of national crisis, cool heads must prevail.

Fianna Fáil needs to take stock. Precipitative action could result in an unstable government and have detrimental consequences for that party.

It’s time for a new Seamus Brennan to emerge: A reasonable, calm, wise personality, who realises that forcing an inadequate deal on the Greens won’t work.

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