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The Devil’s Rejects: the Green Party in Government and after… November 29, 2011

Posted by smiffy in Uncategorized.
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Recently, I had the misfortune to have to spend a couple of days in the Accident and Emergency Department of Beaumont Hospital, and spent part of my time there reading Mary Minihan’s account of the experience of the Green Party is the last government, A Deal With The Devil.  Looking about at the patients around me stuck in trolleys for days on end, old women calling for a bedpan at three in the morning, teenagers in neck braces after road traffic accidents, it was hard not to sympathise while at the same time thinking: “They could be worse off – they could be Eamon Ryan”.

It’s evident that the decision to enter into a coalition was a disastrous one for the Green Party, wiping them out as an electoral force at local and national level.  While the prospects of recovery are a issue for the future (possibly far future), the question can still be asked: were the Greens well-meaning but naive progressives, outmatched by Fianna Fail and by an economic meltdown the scale of which no one could have predicted? Or were they, from the start, power-hungry cynics who abandoned any pretence of principle as soon as they caught the scent of office?

Minihan’s book certainly takes the former, more generous, interpretation.  It’s a relatively light, journalistic account of the almost four years of the Fianna Fail – Green Party coalition government, from the perspective of the smaller party.  There’s little in it that’s not already at least semi-public knowledge, and it appears to be based heavily on interviews with senior GP figures as well as reporting of the events covered from the time.  The lack of detail is, admittedly, disappointing and the book is definitely a first sketch, if not draft, of an interesting political story.  Surprisingly, given the impact (political, social, economic) of the events described, no one – Greens or FF – is particularly demonized, and few of the interviewees appear to have a bad word to say about anyone else.  The closest it comes to acrimony at any point is Paul Gogarty complaining about Eamon Ryan’s attempts to secure a Presidential nomination in 2004.

The book is very light on background, or any real political/ideological substance.  It’s very much the work of a political correspondent, rather than historian or political scientist (but – to be fair – doesn’t present itself as anything else).  On finishing this book, the reader would have little or no idea of where the Green Party came from, what its guiding ideological principles were, or where it stood in relation to other elements of the international Green movement (or even, indeed, that any such movement existed).

Further, while it’s difficult to be sure of this without knowing who the off-the-record interviews were with (the book doesn’t even give a list of on-the-record sources) but the narrative seems very skewed towards the Greens ‘leadership’, that is the elected officials who remained with the party through to the election earlier this year.  Where are the oppositional voices within the party?  Certainly references are made here and there to resignations, and Patricia McKenna occasionally pops up like Banquo’s ghost, but there’s no real sense of how significant or otherwise these voices were, or what the impact of participation in government was on the grassroots party membership.

Incidentally, this narrow approach of focussing only on those who stayed with the party, and of them only those in senior positions, also marred Kevin Rafter’s equally disappointing recent book on Democratic Left.

Finally, for a work attempting to tell the story of the coalition government, Minihan concentrates far too heavily on those issues identified as ‘Green’ ones, to the exclusion of far more significant points.  For example, significantly more space is devoted to Paul Gogarty’s ‘Fuck you’ to Emmett Stagg than to the September 2008 bank guarantee.  Similarly, the the run-up to the IMF/EU bailout last year is covered in more detail, but it’s primarily from the perspective of the Green Party ministers being sidelined, rather than with any explanation or analysis of debt crisis, or how the actions of the government had led to that situation.

While this is certainly a flaw in the book, it’s a somewhat appropriate one, as it points to a fundamental problem with the Greens Party’s governmental strategy and explains, in part, why their participation in the coalition was ultimately a failure.

On entering government, they appear to have learned well from the experiences of the Progressive Democrats.  It’s ludicrous for a party with a handful of seats to try to act as a watchdog over Fianna Fail, on policy or personality issues.  McDowell made a fool of himself in the previous coalition with his Grand Old Duke of York performance of repeatedly hinting at withdrawal from government, but never following through with it.  The Greens’ approach seems to have been a strategy of setting themselves a series of key, achievable policy objectives, and letting the larger party get on with everything else.

What’s forgotten, however, is that the PDs never really had any real ideological differences with their coalition partners.  Elements within the party might have welcomed a more extreme implementation of their neoliberal agenda, but essentially the PDs were a technocratic party most comfortable in government.  They had no problem with letting Fianna Fail run the show, as they were so like-minded in any case, and could stand over any decisions made by the larger party, even if they weren’t directly involved with them.

And that, I think, contributed to the failure of the Greens.  You can’t enter a coalition government in the hope of achieving certain objectives, but stand aloof from the other actions of the government.  If you are to more than a single-issue pressure group, you need to have the capacity to engage with all areas of policy, not just a few.  The Greens appear to have been out of their depth both in policy terms, in getting to grips with the financial crisis, but also strategically, in dealing with Fianna Fail, and the machinery of government.  Even on their own, limited, terms they failed.  I voted for the Greens in 2007 because I believed (and still believe) that climate change is the single most important issue facing society.  If they achieved nothing else in government, they should at least have managed to get the Climate Change Bill through during their time in office.  At least with that, they might have walked away with some consolation for participating in, and with responsibility for, what was arguably the worst government in the history of the state.  However, they did not.

I think that, unlike the PDs, the Greens will survive as a party into the future.  They existed for long enough in the past with little or no electoral support, so they probably can again.  However, what the new incarnation of the Greens turns out to be is still unclear.  One would hope that they will learn from the lessons of recent history and realise that a truly progressive politics (if that is what they purport to be) must be all-encompassing and innovative, and must be able to address a challenge like the bank crisis, and not just environmental concerns, important though they are.  The Greens must learn to embrace radicalism if they are not to become, to use the cliche, redundant.

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1. LeftAtTheCross - November 29, 2011

“One would hope that they will learn from the lessons of recent history and realise that a truly progressive politics (if that is what they purport to be) must be all-encompassing and innovative, and must be able to address a challenge like the bank crisis, and not just environmental concerns, important though they are. The Greens must learn to embrace radicalism if they are not to become, to use the cliche, redundant.”

They missed a chance to do that when they subsequently elected Eamon Ryan as leader. No break with the past there, no lessons learned.

Like yourself I view environmental issues such as climate change and resource scarcity, and addressing those concerns to the benefit of the 99% of the world’s population, as the biggest political issue facing society. However, I don’t view the collapse of the Green Party as a hurdle in that regard, because their politics simply doesn’t care who pays the price for climate change and resource scarcity.

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2. John Goodwillie - November 29, 2011

It’s a myth that the Green Party manifesto of 2007 included a call for a climate change bill (just as it’s a myth that there was a promise to stop the M3 which was already under construction). The climate change bill was a method of implementing the climate change policy, but the necessity for it emerged only after entry into government.

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smiffy - November 29, 2011

Thanks John. The point on the Climate Change Bill wasn’t so much about trying to match the commitments in the manifesto with achievements in governments. It was more an attempt to measure or determine the extent to which the damage caused to the party by participation in government could be balanced against successes in implementing core Green policy.

I did think it was a bit daft in 2007 for the Greens to be denounced for betraying their voters by the very fact of going into government (and if the amount of people who subsequently claimed to have felt betrayed by the Greens had actually voted for them in the first place, the party might have achieved an overall majority!). The point about going into coalition was precisely to have Green policies implemented, and the passing of a Climate Change Bill would have been an achievement the party might have been proud of.

Having failed to get that through, however, what substantial difference – even on the party’s own terms, not just from a left-wing perspective – can the Green’s participation in the coalition really be said to have made?

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LeftAtTheCross - November 29, 2011

“what substantial difference…can the Green’s participation in the coalition really be said to have made?”

1) The boom in bicycle shops, due to the cycle-to-work scheme.

2)…

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smiffy - November 29, 2011

Good point. Of course, the reason I was in A&E was because I broke my arm falling off a bike purchased under the Cycle to Work scheme, so that’s their fault as well. Fucking Greens! >:-(

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Laurence Cox - November 29, 2011

I would say the results are actually worse than that. As I recall (thankfully from the outside) participation in government was “sold” – as John observes – not on the basis of a climate change bill but on the idea of getting the Dept. of Finance to cost a carbon tax. This was apparently worth everything else that had to be jettisoned.

A quick balance sheet of the latter:

– Selling out the issue of US military use of Shannon was probably a given for any nominally progressive party in government with the right.

– However accepting Dick Roche’s stroke of legitimating the M3 on the last day of the previous government was unnecessary – a kind of arch-constitutionalism which was completely lacking in FF.

– Similarly it is probably true that going into government with FF meant accepting the existing dirty deal on gas and oil. However there was no call for the government to militarise the conflict as they did in 2009 with the deployment of the Navy against, em, fishing boats and kayaks. Similarly, accepting the situation where police “failed to notice” gangs of masked men hospitalising Pat O’Donnell and sinking his ship should have been a complete no-no for a party which had made such a parade of its legalism on the M3.

– Most gratuitous was the vote of GP members in Cabinet *against* accepting union offers at the start of the crisis and arguing that the government had to be seen to put the boot into unions – to achieve a roughly comparable result. The only rational explanation I have seen of this was that by this point the party was so shielded from any kind of real grassroots (not least due to the volume of resignations over the years that “government-at-all-costs” was pursued by leadership) that they had come to believe that the Sunday Independent actually spoke for the plain people of Ireland.

The net result of all this has been to take political environmentalism into a complete cul-de-sac and destroy relationships not only with those movements themselves but also with people who looked to those movements as representing the best in Irish society.

Part of the difficulty of the current situation is that since there was no place in the party for serious dissent, the tiny rump that is left still believes against all the evidence that they did the right thing down the line – and has no sense of irony or self-understanding. The party had the neck to hold a think-in at Carnsore, as if the current party would remotely have supported the protests there, and Eamon Ryan invited himself to give a talk at Occupy, as though he would not have stood right behind a garda clearance of the camp in power.

It’s hard to know quite what to say about self-delusion on that scale.

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Wacko Sadaka - November 29, 2011

1) The boom in bicycle shops = is this totally unconnected to Ryan and his family being bike sales people?
Climate Change Bill = what a load of rubbish, I think most people felt amused rather than betrayed by a group of gombeens with Nuevo rhetoric going tine government but when that shit Gurley went on about fighting corruption then supported its greatest crimes he committed treason against all Irish people. Next time I see any of them arseholes riding around on their bikes is a clothes line for them, whether they have their spawn in tow or not.

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Logan - November 29, 2011

Wacko Sadaka.

Neuvo rhetoric? …Gurley?
Are you sure you are not complaining about the Green party of some other country?

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Wacko Sadaka - November 29, 2011

meant nuevo rhetoric and Gormless

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Jim Monaghan - November 29, 2011

They helped sell bikes, FF helped sell cars. Same government. In spite of teh Green sell, they were part of the government.

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3. Organized Rage - November 29, 2011

” On finishing this book, the reader would have little or no idea of where the Green Party came from, what its guiding ideological principles were”

A bit like the Green party leadership who got into bed with FF.

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4. Wacko Sadaka - November 29, 2011

Green = middle class angst = good riddance to smug c’s + Mary Minihan former PD press officer, Madame “one good eye” side kick and all round lightweight = like Rafter a sucker up to the establishment

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5. Heckle - November 29, 2011

Really shakin’ your (Unions) cage, this. ?

HoHoHo. And good thing too.

Time to bring back the Greens and Progressive Democrats.

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6. Shay Brennan - November 29, 2011

Luarence Cox has said it all. But the PD analogy is mistaken surely. The PDs pushed a line and got results, and shifted the argument right-wards. The Greens changed nothing and influenced nothing. They were only useful for FF to blame a few things on to its more gullible rank and file. Stag hunting anyone?

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7. More on that latest Red C Poll… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - January 31, 2012

[...] in a way this reminds me of the Green Party, and like smiffy before me, I’m now reading the pretty light Mary Minihan book on their history in government. There’s a [...]

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8. the Irish polyglot - January 30, 2014

I visited multiple websites however the audio feature for audio songs current at this web page is in fact
fabulous.

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