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The Irish Green Party is about to drink the poison chalice...again?

May 21st, 2020
topic:Election
by:Peadar O’Cearnaigh
located in:Ireland, China
tags:climate action, climate change, Coronavirus, COVID-19, election, environment, fossil fuels

Despite three months passing since the general election, a new government still hasn’t been formed in Ireland. The country is still governed by the pre-election government. Formation talks resume amidst the national emergency of COVID-19.

As reported by FairPlanet, the result of the general election in the south of Ireland on 8 February was a vote for change. The established 100-year-old two-party system of the conservative Fianna Fáil (FF) and Fine Gael (FG) was finally dead. But in recent weeks it has been thrown a lifeline by the Green Party (GP). The Irish electorate could be left wondering if it’s 2007 all over again.

The result

Despite three months passing since that historic result, a government still hasn’t been formed. And while the coronavirus has taken centre stage, there was over one month between the election and lockdown. So, Ireland is still governed by a caretaker government – the pre-election government - that includes unelected ministers and TDs (Irish MPs).

The follow up and the pandemic

In the weeks following the election, left wing parties led by Sinn Féin (SF) held government formation talks. SF’s popularity grew even further with the Irish public. And while the vote for a new taoiseach (Irish prime minister) in the Dáil (Irish parliament) in late February didn’t result in an outright winner, SF’s leader Mary Lou McDonald received the most votes.

Yet even with the support of all other left wing parties in the Dáil, a SF led coalition would fall about 12 seats short of the 80-seat requirement. Unless of course it could convince enough of the 20 independent TDs to join them.

Despite the FF and FG “demand” that SF take part in government in the north of Ireland, they ruled out sharing power with SF in the south. Then the pandemic took over and, for the time being at least, government formation talks seemed much less important. The prospect of SF being in the next government seemed to wane.

Talks start again and the unthinkable begins

Government formation talks resumed amidst the national emergency. Both FF and FG, who book-ended SF in the election tally, started government formation talks. But as their combined numbers were also insufficient, they sought a partner.

With SF ruled out and the participation of People Before Profit (PBP), the Social Democrats and the Labour Party unlikely, they approached the GP. The election was a big success for the GP also. It increased its seats in the Dáil from two to 12.

But a political marriage between the conservative parties and the GP should be unthinkable. The GP rated both of them poorly on climate action policies in their election manifestos. And of course, there’s the 2007 - 2011 coalition where the GP got badly burnt.

Yet regardless of how unthinkable such a three-way government might be, talks are well underway. It seems to be a fait accompli. The prospect of the first ever proper left-wing government in the history of the state is now a distant memory.

The Green’s record in government

The GP has been here before. And who knows, maybe this time it’ll succeed where it failed so miserably in 2007 with FF and the now defunct right-wing Progressive Democrats (PDs). In that election the GP won six seats. Fast forward to 2011 and it was wiped out. A huge change in such a short space of time.

Prior to entering government with FF and the PDs, the GP supported the ‘Shell to Sea’ campaign. This campaign opposed Shell’s highly controversial plan to build a gas refinery in the west of Ireland. And even though today’s GP leader Eamon Ryan supported the Shell to Sea campaign, he was the government minister who oversaw part of the onshore development.

In its 2007 election manifesto the GP said it would stop US forces using Shannon airport for the war in Iraq. US forces continue to use it to this day. The GP also failed to have the M3 motorway routed away from an “archaeologically and culturally sensitive area” near the ancient Hill of Tara.

Its changing position on the Lisbon treaty and its decision to remain in government with conservative parties and neo-liberal polices caused some elected party members to resign.

Yet most telling of all, for the ordinary Irish voter and taxpayer, was that the GP coalesced in the notorious and hated bank bailout during the economic crash in 2008/09. A bailout that cost the Irish taxpayer €40bn.

And while it can claim some achievements such as the bike to work scheme and a carbon emissions vehicle tax, the damage had already been done to its party and the taxpayer. It had to pay a heavy price.

And what about their partners to be?

Following the 2016 election FG formed a minority government through a confidence and supply arrangement with FF. An agreement that contained no mention whatever of climate change.

In May 2019 the FG led government declared a ‘climate emergency’. It got a lot of publicity as Ireland was just the second country in the world to do so. It also got broad support in the Dáil. However, such was the enthusiasm that only six of the 158 members of the Dáil turned up for the debate. None of these six were FF and just one was FG. Moreover, there was no detail in the declaration nor any strict guidelines for the government to follow.

In fact the minister for climate action Richard Bruton said while there’s a commitment to reduce ‘dependence on fossil fuels from 70% to 30% by 2030’, these fuels are “an essential part of the transition”. And just over two weeks later, the Irish government issued consent to a Chinese oil company to explore for oil and gas off the south west coast of Ireland.

Then in November last year, FG leader and caretaker taoiseach Leo Varadkar caused outrage when he said there were “plusses and minuses” to climate change as warmer winters led to “fewer deaths” and the need for “less energy”.

Government programme proposals

The current FF and FG document for government sets out an ambitious plan to achieve ten key goals:

  • Reigniting and Renewing the Economy – with a new economic plan
  • Universal Healthcare – following a ten-year plan to build a world-class health and social care service as recommended in SláinteCare Report
  • Housing for All– by preventing homelessness and making housing affordable for all
  • A New Social Contract – to ensure citizens have access to essential services like health and education, a living wage and dignified retirement
  • A New Green Deal– action to tackle the climate crisis
  • A Better Quality of Life for All
  • Supporting Young Ireland – to ensure younger people don’t suffer the economic consequences of the current emergency
  • Opportunities through Education and Research
  • A Shared Island - working towards a consensus on a united island.
  • At the Heart of Europe: Global Citizenship.

The GP responded to this with 17 questions. These related mainly to climate change, social housing, urban renewal, immigration, overseas aid, public transport, a universal basic income and a commitment to review the lesson learned from the pandemic.

In response to the 17 questions, FF and FG acknowledged the climate emergency and in particular the GP assertion that: “there is now just a decade to make the changes necessary to halt the warming of our planet and to save our natural world”

Yet it didn’t commit to a key GP demand; a commitment to “an average annual reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of at least 7%.” And while there were mainly positive responses to the GP’s questions, they largely speaking committed to “more discussion”.

The FF/FG response has led to “huge unrest” among GP grassroot members. One GP councillor said it’s ‘unlikely’ its membership would ratify the deal as it stands.

Not a done deal but…

For the GP to enter government it needs an agreement with FF and FG, assuming further talks to form a left-wing government don’t succeed. But it’ll also needs a two-thirds majority from its voting membership. And with current grassroot descent that’s not a certainty at all. The effects of the economic crash are still in the Irish psyche and are still being felt economically. Now as we’re in the midst of a much worse global crisis it would be a huge call for the GP to go into government again without fixed and time-framed guarantees from FF and FG. And this time it would have to be sure it could deliver real change.

What’s more, other left-wing parties haven’t given up. Both PBP and SF still believe a left wing government can be formed. PBP told FairPlanet:

“A Fianna Fail/Fine Gael government would not reflect the majority vote for change in the general election and would have worrying implications for workers rights, the environment, housing, healthcare and the potential for a return to austerity following the Covid19 crisis.”

It responded to the prospect of a FF/FG led government with the GP saying:

“There is a very real concern that, as with the last time that the Greens were in power with Fianna Fail, that they will provide a sort of progressive cover for right wing policies and significantly undermine the credibility of the movement to address the climate and biodiversity emergency.”

So while current negotiations are advanced, they are by no means a done deal. But if it is to be done, the GP must nail down unprecedented commitments from FF/FG. Otherwise it’s role in government is little more than a mudguard for neo-liberal policy. Whereby the environment and the Irish taxpayer will once again be the losers.

Article written by:
peter-kearney
Peadar O’Cearnaigh
Author
Ireland China
As reported by FairPlanet, the result of the general election in the south of Ireland on 8 February was a vote for change.
Despite three months passing since that historic result, a government still hasn’t been formed.
The prospect of the first ever proper left-wing government in the history of the state is now a distant memory.