GUEST COLUMNIST: Greens may yet have another 30 years ...

TOMORROW, the Green Party celebrates. At a gathering in the Central Hotel in Dublin, members will raise a glass to 30-years-a-growing.

The venue is the place where a small group of activists gathered to introduce the ‘green’ movement to Ireland in 1981.

Later tomorrow, the party will continues with a concert in Vicar Street. Among the musicians will be Steve Wickham (of The Waterboys), Martin Hayes, Donal Lunny and Eleanor McEvoy. Say what you like about the Greens, they know their music and the best musicians know them. (Former Green Party TD Dan Boyle launched his own CD last week).

What, you might well ask, have the Greens got to celebrate? The year now departing was one of the worst in the history of the party on this island. Having built up a Dáil representation over 20 years of hard work, last February’s election saw the party thrust out into the cold. None of its six TDs was returned. The party was fatally tarnished by its association with Fianna Fáil in the last government. The soft popularity that the Greens enjoyed in many quarters of society went up in smoke.

Anger at the state we’re in is not confined to Fianna Fáil. Just last week, in his budget speech, Minister for Finance Michael Noonan referenced the destruction of the economy by “the Fianna Fáil/Green government.”

And so, with the tide gone out, it looked like the end of the road for the party. Other small outfits, like the Progressive Democrats, had the grace to go gently into the good night of political graveyards when they lost their seats. Not so the Greens.

For one thing, the party is bound by more than personal ambition and a vague concept of how to improve things. The future of the planet is under a shadow, a state of affairs that was illustrated with frightening clarity, once again, at the recent climate change conference in Durban.

It is this fidelity to the long-term over the short-term that separates the Greens from other parties.

One thing that nobody can dispute is that they must be the unluckiest political party in the history of this State. Contrary to Noonan’s partisan interpretation of recent events, the Greens had precious little role in the destruction of the economy.

When it went into government as a junior coalition partner in 2007, the damage had already been done. The house was on fire, and in waltzed the Greenies armed with a few pails of water.

Ironically, they were the only outfit prior to 2007 to decry the way the economy was developing. While all the other opposition parties were sparring with the Fianna Fáil/PD government over how to divvy up the spoils of a property bubble, the Greens were questioning the sustainability of the bubble itself.

Repeatedly, the party decried the ludicrous planning that was a feature of the bubble. Questions were raised about the priority being given to housing instead of public infrastructure, like transport. The capacity of developers to dictate the pace of change was repeatedly raised by the Greens during those years.

After the 2007 election, in which they didn’t do as well as had been predicted, a crossroads beckoned. Do they go into power with an outfit which some within their own party regarded as the Great Satan? Or do they continue as a perpetual party of protest, always securing the high moral ground in rhetoric, but never actually getting their agenda implemented? For a party which places a high priority on saving the planet, it was a no-brainer.

Once inside the tent, they did what they could to further their own agenda, but the state of affairs meant that firefighting took precedence over everything.

Critics say they should have pulled the plug on Fianna Fáil once the extent of the damage became apparent. There may be validity in that criticism. By merely getting into bed with Fianna Fáil, they would have alienated many voters, and an early election would have done little for nerves. There is also a case to be made — as Green TDs did at the time — that the last thing the country needed at various points of the crisis was an election.

Should the Greens have pulled the plug over policy decisions like the bank guarantee and NAMA? Maybe so, but just look at the policy direction of the current administration. Remove a few bells and whistles and on a macro level it mirrors that of its predecessor.

In the midst of the firefighting, the party managed to push through elements of its agenda. John Gormley introduced some much-needed reforms in planning. Eamon Ryan got through an increase in the use of renewable energies, and there was a raft of legislative changes that bore the stamp of the Greens.

It could well be pointed out that Gormley abused his position as Minister for the Environment by using every trick in the Fianna Fáil book to stop the development of an incinerator in his constituency. But by the standards of abuse that have gone on, it was pretty minor stuff.

There had always been an element in rural Ireland that despised the party for its position on issues like planning. That latent opposition was mobilised in a deeply cynical manner over the banning of a stag hunt in Co Meath. A group set up to oppose the legislation — Rural Ireland Says Enough (RISE) — fashioned itself as the protectors of rural Ireland facing up to mad Greens.

In reality, RISE was a well-funded, well-run PR campaign designed to ensure the continued pleasure of chasing after stags by, among others, a couple of NAMA developers. It no more represented rural Ireland than Mattie McGrath represents the Nigerian community in Dublin’s inner city.

There is little doubt that the Greens were politically naive. Despite that, their ministers were adroit in wringing concession after concession from the senior partner of government when the opportunities presented. From the point of view of their own agenda, the Greens could be accused of cocking up on the biggest issue of all — the future of the planet.

The party’s climate change bill was published in December, 2010. At a time of huge upheaval, it was difficult to predict what was around the corner, but if higher priority had been given to the bill, it might have become law. Instead, the current administration has abandoned any bill on climate change, reverting to the short-termism that has blighted Irish politics for decades.

If fate had dealt different cards, and the Greens went into opposition in 2007, the smart money says the party would now be a junior coalition party to Fine Gael.

But them’s the breaks in politics. As it is, they haven’t gone away, you know. Tomorrow, they may plan the next 30 years. Despite their near-death experience, their take on the world is needed more today than ever before.

At a time when economic turmoil allows governments to ignore or reverse progressive measures on the environment, we badly need informed and passionate voices to shout ‘stop’.



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