The Irish Greens are back in the Dail (the Irish national parliament). The recent general election saw the party receive 2.7% of the national vote, which resulted in the election of Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin. It represents a Lazurus-like comeback for a party that was written off by the pundits when it was wiped out at the last election. On that occasion I was one of casualties, having led the party during our very turbulent period in office from 2007 to early 2011.
In the last Irish General Election of 2011, the party lost all six of its members of parliament, including Eamon Ryan, and, crucially, dipped below 2%, resulting in the loss of all state funding. It was the lowest ebb in the party’s history, and the future looked very bleak. No party in the history of the Irish State has ever lost all its seats and made a comeback. In fact, no small party in Ireland has had the longevity of the Irish Greens. Much of the credit for the party’s resurgence must go to the party leader, Eamon Ryan — though he is quick to point out that this was a voluntary team effort. His unstinting optimism and his outreach abilities infused others with the enthusiasm for the uphill task.
A turbulent first term
The Greens had been part of the most unpopular government in the history of the Irish State — some would say the most unpopular government in the history of western democracy! Indeed when you look a the facts that doesn’t appear to be such an exaggeration. During our first year in government, there were of course some challenges, but the party was on the whole perceived in a positive light, and received its best ever rating in opinion polls — 8%. All of that was to change with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the economic crash. As a small open economy — the most globalised economy in the world — Ireland was particularly vulnerable to economic shocks. To make matters much worse, previous governments had indulged in light touch regulation of the banking and housing sectors. The housing bubble burst and the economy imploded. The Greens, the party that had warned of the dangers in opposition, now found themselves having to clean up a mess that was not of their making. Not that such excuses were accepted by the electorate. People resented the austerity measures that had to be introduced. It meant severe cutbacks in state spending matched by equally harsh tax hikes, a recipe guaranteed to alienate large sections of the electorate. And so when it came to the local elections of 2009, the party lost most of its seats.
But worse was to follow. The mood in the country was extremely hostile toward any green initiative or policy. The carbon levy was seen as an extra burden on hard pressed families and other legislation, such as animal welfare measures, were seen as irrelevant when set against the big picture. The party had to decide whether to remain in or leave government when there was mounting evidence that the IMF might be on its way. The vast majority of the parliamentary party decided that they had a duty to stay and take the most unpopular decisions. When the IMF did eventually intervene the Greens announced that an election was required but committed the party to vote for the budget. The party did so from the opposition benches. This sealed their electoral fate, and there was little surprise when all of the party seats were lost 2011. However, it was during this election that the seeds of destruction of Fine Gael and Labour were sown. These parties promised to rid the country of austerity measures and to stand up to the ECB and IMF. They quickly became unpopular when they could not fulfil these promises. Not even the excuse of having inherited a mess cut any ice with the electorate.
The uphill battle of the campaign
It’s important to point out that the Greens in government made two thirds of the fiscal adjustment. The incoming government introduced just one third of the necessary austerity measures. The four year plan, drawn up by the Fianna Fail and the Greens, was denounced as a blueprint for austerity by the incoming government and yet in office they implemented over 98% of it. The key difference between the two governments was the approach to the less well off in society. Every one of the Fianna Fail/Green budgets was progressive. In other words, the budget hit the wealthy harder than the poorer section of society. Fine Gael and Labour budgets, however, were all regressive, favouring the better off in society.
Society versus the economy became the focus of many of the leader’s debates in what was largely an insipid election campaign. The Greens were excluded by RTE, the national broadcaster, from these debates because the party had no members of parliament. The party reacted by mounting a legal challenge. The court case was taken in the High Court by the party trustee and former councillor, Tom Kivlehan. There were, of course, misgivings amongst a section of the party about adopting such a risky strategy, but most now agree that it was worth it. Even though the court ruled in favour of RTE, the resulting publicity undoubtedly won sympathy for the Greens, as members of the public felt that the broadcaster was acting in an undemocratic and unfair way. To the relief of the Executive Committee of the Irish Greens, the judge did not award costs to RTE, an important decision for a party that was essentially broke.
Turning the tide
In the subsequent radio and TV debates (not involving party leaders) Eamon Ryan performed convincingly. His role as a former government minister, once seen as a disadvantage, was now working in the party’s favour. He was viewed increasingly as the voice of experience and reason. The Fianna Fail leader, Micheal Martin, also judged the mood of the electorate with greater sensitivity than the government parties. For the most part, the opposition parties focused on the decline in public services and the need to maintain the tax base to fund health and housing. The government parties, on the other hand, promised tax breaks as a part of a deal to ‘keep the recovery going’. It was a message that resonated in the affluent parts of Dublin, but fell flat in those areas where there is little sign of ‘recovery’ i.e. working class areas and rural Ireland. Exit polls revealed that voters were particularly exercised about the chronic state of the Irish health system. This two tiered health system discriminates against the poor, but those with private health insurance also feel the effects of a dysfunctional system. The insured and the uninsured must all wait on hospital trollies in the Accident and Emergency wards of our hospitals because of bed shortages.
The deep disillusionment with the political system was reflected in the election results. The traditional parties of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Labour, which commanded up to eighty percent of the votes 10 years ago can now only muster just over fifty percent of the votes. Years of austerity have altered the political landscape, as they have in Greece, Spain, and Portugal. And like those countries, forming a government will not be easy. The Irish parliament now has a disproportionate number of independent and small left wing parties. For the outgoing government, the election was disastrous. Fine Gael lost 26 seats, leaving it with 50 seats; Labour were even more toxic to the electorate, losing 30 of its original 37 seats. The lesson is clear: government is not good for votes, especially for the Junior partner in a coalition. Is it any wonder then that there is marked reluctance on the part of some parties to enter government. Sinn Fein, a nationalist party of the left, have signalled clearly that they will not enter government until they are the senior party. They have urged Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, two parties with historical, rather than ideological differences, to form a government. For Fianna Fail this scenario is fraught with risk. Could they really afford to expose their left flank to such an organised and determined political force? Many in the party would resist such a move. The painstaking process to form a government has just begun, but all the indications are that it may take as long as other peripheral countries which have been convulsed by austerity. Voter’s confidence in the mainstream political system and mainstream media has been undermined. The only viable option for a stable government may be a coalition of the two largest parties of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, an unprecedented alliance that could spell the end of civil war politics and perhaps the beginning of a real left-right divide. However, given that the left-right divide in European politics is now largely illusory, perhaps we should not be so hopeful.
A symbolic breakthrough
To the outsider, the Green Party gains in this election may seem modest, but for the party members who had witnessed the obliteration of the last elections, it signals a new beginning, proving beyond all the doubt that the Greens are a resilient political force. Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin, the party’s leader and deputy leader, are in many ways the dream team: a moderate, articulate and photogenic pair, who have the capacity to provide a platform for further Green success. Over the last five years the party has moved towards the centre, emphasising its environmental credentials and toning down its adherence to fringe issues. It is now a resolutely pro-EU party, having occupied a more Euro-sceptic space in the mid-nineties. These changes have attracted many new young members to the ranks of the party and the latest electoral success is sure to result in a further influx. Already, party members are eyeing forth coming European and local elections with renewed confidence. Ireland’s political landscape is looking much greener already…