Red Pepper, a UK left wing magazine, asked me to write an opinion piece on the Irish Green Party in Government. The article was written late December in time for Red Pepper’s current edition.
Government eats up the Greens
“Last October, Irish Green Party members reaffirmed their commitment to staying in power with the centre right Fianna Fáil party, by voting to support a mid-term renegotiated Programme for Government (PfG).
More significantly the party also voted to support the coalition government’s favoured initiative to rescue Irish financial institutions, the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA).
In the weeks leading up to the vote, Green Party Leader, John Gormley announced that the new PfG would be transformational – a statement which succeeded in focusing media attention on the new agreement negotiations and away from the controversial NAMA.
The NAMA solution had created widespread unease among party members but what many had failed to realise was that the two Green cabinet ministers had already signed off on NAMA at cabinet meetings.
Despite John Gormley’s stage-managed dramatic ‘transformational’ announcement, only a political dilettante would ever believe that there could be a transformation of the political policy landscape under a Fianna Fáil-led government. Green Party parliamentary party members and Green Ministers continued to nod through budget cuts in social welfare entitlements, along with cuts to the disabled, the blind and carers. And as if to add insult to injury, the Greens walked through the yes lobby in support of a Blasphemy Bill, championed by the hard-line Fianna Fáil Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The same Minister has decimated the Equality Authority and the Combat Poverty Agency.
Overall Budget 2010, agreed by cabinet and supported by the two Green Party Ministers identified savings of €4 billion by targeting child benefit, the young unemployed, the blind and community support schemes. Public sector pay has also been reduced; with all workers including the lowest paid experiencing sharp wage reductions. This year’s budget cuts specifically targeted the young and lower paid.
While all political parties have accepted the need to balance the national finances and agreed the need for cuts, there has been widespread condemnation, with accusations that the budget was callous and uncreative in its approach.
For example, recent research showed that if tax breaks on personal income and corporation tax were reduced to average EU levels, their cost to the Exchequer would fall from €7.2 to €2.2 billion making a saving of €5.2 billion which is €1.2 billion more than the cuts targeted at the less well-off.
A key problem for the Green leadership is that, despite much public hand wringing, they are firmly embedded in a Government that lurches from crisis to crisis. Ireland’s economic collapse has exposed grossly inept if not corrupt practices at the highest levels both in the political, financial and in senior public and civil service spheres. Not a single person has been sacked or jailed as a result.
So where does this leave the Greens? Many now believe that the decision to enter government in 2007 was a major tactical and strategic error. The Irish Greens were left with two choices – go into Government in a minority position and prop up a socially conservative, centre right Government or choose a more medium term view by remaining on the opposition benches giving the organisation time to broaden and deepen the party’s electoral strength and influence.
Indeed on the balance of probabilities, it was clear that the electorate’s choice was for a rainbow centre-left coalition of Fine Gael, Labour and the Greens, and while narrowly failing to achieve this, the Greens would have definitely increased its Local Authority base, its membership and expanded its Parliamentary Party to form Government in a subsequent election.
However now the exact opposite is true. The Greens were decimated at the Local and European elections.
The Greens strategy has been to define the party’s policy as a narrow environmental one and appears to have ditched its equality and social justice platforms moving the party to a more centrist Green-lite position. Its minor environmental gains while admirable have been dwarfed by its support for massive bail-outs of financial institutions coupled with draconian cuts to the most vulnerable. In essence, the Greens are perceived as upholding policies that support the most culpable to the detriment of the most vulnerable.
Finally, to be fair, any Government in power in Ireland in the current economic situation would face a backlash from the public, and being in Government will always involve compromise. The lesson to be learned from the Irish Greens experience is that before entering into any coalition agreement, adopt clear and unambiguous bottom line policies, and stick to them.