The Devil’s Rejects: the Green Party in Government and after… November 29, 2011Posted by smiffy in Uncategorized.
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.