Ireland’s Green Party has agreed to go into a coalition government with the centre-right Fianna Fail party — despite having spent 10 days in negotiation failing to get the larger party’s agreement on several crucial issues.
A hastily arranged Green conference secured a solid 86 per cent majority of party members for the coalition deal, an outcome earnestly desired and passionately sold by almost all its most visible politicians — three of whom will pick up ministerial office, while others pick up various government appointments.
The word “Betrayal”, however, has echoed through the party and the wider left, as the Greens go into a government that will continue to facilitate thousands of US troops at Shannon Airport; that will send a motorway through an archeologically sensitive area near the Hill of Tara; that will continue effectively to privatise the country’s disastrous health service; and that will prop up the leadership of prime-minister Bertie Ahern despite ethical and financial questions hanging over his head (as Eamonn McCann has discussed here on Counterpunch).
You don’t have to agree with Alexander Cockburn about anthropogenic climate change to acknowledge that fighting global warming has become a flag of convenience for governments and companies who want to appear to be doing something progressive. Sure enough, the Greens made their happiest noises about the promises they had secured on “climate change”– the usual mishmash of “carbon taxes” and “greenhouse targets”. This earnest concern ignores certain salient facts: despite phenomenal economic growth that has sent Ireland’s emissions well above the country’s Kyoto limits, it is a comparatively tiny carbon-contributor; and Ireland was picked out by the IPCC as one of the country’s that will do relatively well out of even dramatic global warming, thanks very much. (You should see my tan already this year.) Moreover, the new government’s continuing fealty to the White House over Iraq doesn’t promise much resistance on a global level.
The Green leadership also draws attention to certain nominal gains in the new programme for government, e.g. on education spending and local government reform. But their main argument for taking a piece of state power seems to be that they can: office is on offer, how can they refuse? The conference on Wednesday saw many members in tears as they contemplated the party’s capitulation on crucial matters, but also saw the chance for its leading deputies to take control of a couple of government departments. (Or so they hope, though we’ll see what the senior bureaucrats have to say about that.)
The members and leaders of the party are, by and large, patently decent and honest people who have stood on the right side of many of the great debates in Irish public life — including the one over US troops and CIA flights at Shannon. But it’s hard to believe they haven’t seriously overestimated the Greens’ capacity to wield real power in a government where they are not even strictly required to make up the numbers: Bertie Ahern could have cobbled together a majority with a few easily bought independents and the remnants of the right-wing Progressive Democrats, who were nearly wiped out in the May 24th elections. The Greens have failed even to remove the PDs from the health ministry, which will continue to operate for the benefit of private providers, insurers and developers.
Like many small parties in coalition, the Greens will be used to put an attractive spin, a Green tint, on the same old policies, and will act as a lightning rod if and when popular opinion turns against the government. Historically in Ireland, coalition has been virtually suicidal for small parties, who fare worse when the next election rolls around and they take the blame for what they did and failed to do.
Ironically enough, the Greens did quite poorly in the election on May 24th, securing just six seats with a vote of less than 5 per cent — after opinion polls early in the year showed them with possibly double those figures. It is not fanciful to imagine that potential Green voters and election-workers were turned off by the eagerness for office displayed by the party’s leaders in the run-up to the election, an eagerness that rose to fever pitch in the three subsequent weeks of inching toward the cabinet table. (Sinn Fein’s electoral support fell nearly as far with similarly eager leaders and disillusioned ground-troops, but that’s another story in what has been a rough season for the Irish left.)
Before the election the Greens were talking up the chances of a no-hope non-Fianna Fail coalition, but that didn’t survive polling day. At least party leader Trevor Sargent will keep his pre-election promise that he would not lead the party into government under the terribly tainted Bertie Ahern: The squeaky-clean Sargent, an unlikely cynic, will step slightly aside by officially relinquishing the leadership but still take a senior position in the government.
Former Member of the European Parliament Patricia McKenna was the party’s only household name to oppose the deal, expressing literal disbelief that her party’s negotiators could have come up with so little to boast about.
Former Irish Army Commandant Ed Horgan, a peace campaigner and Green member, also spoke up against it, predicting that such a thorough abandonment of principle will see the party wiped out in the next six years. The beneficiary, as usual in Irish politics, is likely to be Fianna Fail.
HARRY BROWNE lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and writes for Village magazine.