Ireland’s Greens Will Never Confront the Powerful

Polls for Saturday’s Irish general election show growing support for the Greens. But the party’s record shows that it has little interest in transformative climate action — and no will at all to challenge corporate elites.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, during the seven-way RTE leaders debate at the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG) campus on January 27, 2020 in Galway, Ireland. Niall Carson - Pool / Getty

We don’t need to persuade people that climate change is happening — they know that already. What we need is action. For many climate activists on the Left, the answer lies in changing the power structures in the economy. This would mean forcing change on oil companies and other polluters, imposing emissions limits and taxes on their profits, even if they resist.

But some deny the need for such a confrontation — a reluctance which, perhaps, comes from unexpected quarters. Yet this is precisely the approach of the dominant liberal wing of Ireland’s Green Party. Denouncing “ideological” solutions, they insist we need scientific proposals that make sense to everyone. We need to get the powerful on board, work with them. After all, it’s their planet too.

The Greens aren’t just a fringe group — they’ve been in government before, and their current poll rise (as high as 10 percent) suggests they could be again after the February 8 general election. Doubtless, such a vote will be powered by a sense that climate action is necessary. Yet if we look beyond manifesto pledges and take past performance as an indicator of future behavior, the chance of the Greens leading Ireland to a carbon-neutral future are close to zero.

Past Performance

Many of Europe’s Green Parties were formed in the heat of battle in the late 1970s and early 1980s, through on-the-ground environmental struggles. Ireland’s Green Party lacked such radical origins — it was formed as a result of a letter sent to the Irish Times in 1981 by an English schoolteacher at a private school in south county Dublin.

It would be unfair to say that this guaranteed the party would remain an ineffectual repository of newspaper readers’ concerns, benefitting from voter fears about environmental catastrophe. Yet it certainly prefigured its later development. In fairness to the Greens, in their early years there was very little environmental activism of which to be a part — but what did exist didn’t take up much of their time.

This meant that there were only weak forces to countervail the pull of electoralist realism. A major sister party like the German Greens faced a divide between fundis, the purists who wished to stick by democratic social movements, and the more pragmatic realos willing to compromise and play the electoralist game. Ireland had a merely sham version of this split, for the Irish fundis could not point to any domestic movements which seriously advanced alternatives to a full-blooded electoral orientation. Most of their arguments concerned points of procedure rather than principle — should the party have a leader, should it be called a “party,” and endless discussions about consensus decision-making.

Another feature of the Irish Greens’ early years was a distance from the Left, which regarded them as competitors for new recruits and had little serious engagement with environmental issues. The feeling was mutual.

The Greens nonetheless began winning seats in general and European elections during the 1990s, giving it a small but steady income from a few elected representatives. This ensured it acquired a leadership and a slightly more professional image, as well as an effective abandonment of its more arcane decision-making processes. By the mid-1990s it was already preparing to be accepted into government as a junior coalition partner. The invitation finally came in June 2007, from the center-right Fianna Fáil.

Failing in Government

The problem was, the Greens didn’t make any impact — and Fianna Fáil soon managed to run rings around them. Partly this was because they weren’t really needed — Fianna Fáil could have formed a government even without the Greens and so their bargaining position was poor. But it was also because of the Greens’ conception of their own role. They don’t see themselves as a social movement to confront the powerful over the destruction of the environment — but a voice for the scientific consensus and “sensible” policy.

The Greens don’t appreciate that powerful vested interests are actively working to prevent climate action — and that action will come only when those interests are challenged. The Greens instead think if they just get a seat at the table, they will be able to implement the correct policies and, hey, presto, we’ll be on the road to carbon neutrality. If only change were so simple.

This refusal to confront the powerful also explains why the Greens failed to listen to the movements that had emerged by the time they entered government. In the early-mid 2000s strong environmental and anti-war groups had formed, fighting to ban US military stopovers at Shannon airport, to reroute a motorway away from the historical site around the hill of Tara, and, most importantly, to stop Shell from building a natural gas refinery in Rossport and claiming vast repositories of natural gas for free. Despite pre-election commitments on these issues, the Greens instead backed existing Fianna Fáil policy — and rebuffed campaigners.

The U-turns only continued: the Greens reversed their past opposition to European centralization and militarism by staying neutral on the 2008 referendum on the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty. After the Treaty was voted down by the Irish public — causing the referendum to be run again — they switched to backing it outright, on the dubious grounds that the document would help the European Union reduce emissions and fight climate change. As journalist David Cronin observed at the time, the treaty contained precisely six words on climate change out of its 271 pages.

It would be wrong to say that these betrayals of environmental groups meant that the party was full of hard-headed realos bent on achieving whatever policy change was feasible within the confines of a center-right government. What was noticeable about the Greens in government was not simply the big-issue U-turns, but their ineptitude when it came to the small ones.

One Department of Environment civil servant privately reported his exasperation with Green representatives’ lack of interest in policy formulation, their non-preparation for policy meetings, and their general desire not to “get their hands dirty” with the nitty gritty of government. The Greens were happy to sign Ireland up for ambitious carbon reduction targets, but one would look in vain for any detailed policies of theirs which could actually deliver on those targets. Even in government, they remained the same hand-wringing writers of concerned letters to newspapers.

Their “achievements” amounted to pushing for the European Union to introduce energy efficient light bulbs, a scheme to give tax incentives to people to buy bikes, and another for funding house insulation. On top of this there were housing regulations that were quickly rolled back, and … well, that was it.

Backing the Powerful

It could be said the Greens were unlucky that their time in government coincided with the Great Recession, which hit Ireland especially hard. However, this should not be skipped over so lightly. The Greens were part of a government that guaranteed insolvent banks which, they mistakenly thought, only faced a liquidity problem.

Obvious at the time, this mistake has so far cost the Irish taxpayer well over €40 billion — indeed, it still costs over €3 million a day. Through 2008–10 the Fianna Fáil–Green government however imposed austerity budgets on the population and signed Ireland up to a crippling three-year EU/ECB/IMF bailout program.

This austerity saw real incomes (after housing costs) for the poorest 10 percent of Ireland decline by 27 percent in 2008–2013, and cumulative fiscal adjustments between 2008–2015 of nearly 20 percent — two-thirds in the form of budget cuts. The government did, however, set up the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA) to bail out property developers.

After all this the Greens were deservedly humiliated in the 2011 election, losing all their seats. But they were hardly chastened — Eamon Ryan, who is now party leader, blamed the civil service for the Greens’ own decisions. The party refused to apologize for its failures in government or to build bridges with social justice movements. Instead, it seemed to go out of its way to attack them, being the only opposition party to support a government plan to impose Water Charges — a scheme which inspired one of the largest social movements Ireland has ever seen, eventually forcing the government to back down.

Water Charges would have moved Ireland from the current situation of guaranteed access to water for all, to one where access would depend on your ability to pay. The Greens, however, argued — without evidence — that this pressure on people’s wallets would encourage them to run the tap less and so conserve resources. This disregard for working-class material concerns was allied to moralist puritanism (disguised as anti-populism), and a desperate desire to appear respectable to future center-right coalition partners.

Going “Forward”

The spell in government pitched the Greens into the political wilderness — reduced to three county council seats in 2009 and zero seats in Dáil Eireann (Irish parliament) in 2011. Yet they have gradually returned. Taking two Dáil seats in 2016, they enjoyed a “Green wave” in the May 2019 local and European elections, where they won forty-nine council seats and two seats in the European Parliament. Polls for Saturday’s general election suggest a further breakthrough.

This advance results from growing public concern about the climate emergency. But Greens’ own attitude is bafflingly inadequate. Their approach is so gentle that it is hard to take seriously their claim to be the party of climate action.

Strikingly, the Greens still appear to have no real plan to reduce carbon emissions to sustainable levels. No such strategy appears in any of their campaign literature, beyond a very short policy statement on “Climate Action” and some commitments in their “Towards 2030” election manifesto. These limited promises hang on three strategies.

Firstly, the Greens want the government to reach the emission targets that it has already set for itself. This is all well and good, but hardly much of an ambition. Granted, the Greens point out that we are currently not on track to reach our targets. But they don’t explain concretely what they would do differently, beyond further targets, guidelines, and advisory councils.

The next strategy is to retrofit homes to reduce energy consumption. This sounds perfectly reasonable, yet again hardly differs from existing government plans. Prior to 2017, 350,000 homes in Ireland had undertaken grant-aided energy efficiency upgrades. In 2019, funding was provided to retrofit 28,000 homes per year; the Fine Gael–led government is committed to increasing that number to 45,000 homes. The Greens have set a target of 75,000 homes — good, but hardly a transformative shift.

Last comes decarbonizing energy production by 2040. Yet the Greens fail to explain how this will happen. One of the few things they do say is that they favor “community energy schemes.” This proposal is worth pausing to examine, because it well illustrates the Greens’ political style.

The proposal is one of the main policies the Greens advanced in their last five years in parliament, indeed one that drew attention in national media. They published a bill, and even three videos about it. However, the details of the plan amount to 118 words, less than the length of this paragraph. All it amounts to is a requirement that “the local community” be reserved or allocated 30 percent of the equity in any significant renewable energy development. Yet is unclear what “the local community” would mean legally. Moreover, such a distribution of equity to “the local community” would surely act as a major disincentive for outside investment in renewable energy. In short, this proposal sounds good and attracts attention — but ultimately amounts to almost nothing, both legally meaningless and economically illiterate.

Lacking Content

This is precisely what defines the Greens: pleasant-sounding policy proposals, vague appeals to science, and an overall policy “wonk” aesthetic, but no political content, ambition, or even competence.

This was evident in the Greens’ recent alternative budget proposal. There were some positive ideas, like increasing maternity leave, but little sign of an urge to climate action. They propose devoting 70 percent of the transport budget to public transport, cycling, and walking — but not actually funding increases. Extra money is, however, devoted to a hodge-podge of smaller measures like public transport for students aged over sixteen, an organic farming scheme, increased retrofitting, charging spots for e-cars, solar panels on schools and hospitals, reduced VAT (similar to sales tax) on shoe repairs, on-street municipal compost bin collection, and public water fountains. And that’s about it.

Some of these proposals seem odd, for instance given the Greens’ previous strong backing for the privatization of municipal bin collection. Yet more striking is their small scale. These proposals amount to just €376 million of spending, compared to the current overall expenditure of €80.4 billion. This means the Greens aim to invest less than 0.5 percent of current public spending in their own environmental proposals. And despite this extreme moderation, they still fail to explain how they would pay for it. For example, they propose raising €520 million by abolishing a form of tax relief for the tourism and hospitality sector that the government already abandoned a year ago!

Needless to say, any strategy to address climate change will have to involve a modal shift away from car use. Remarkable in this sense is the Greens’ opposition toward the largest current public-transport construction project, namely a plan to build Dublin’s first metro line. Party leader Eamon Ryan is TD (MP) for Dublin Bay South, Ireland’s second most affluent constituency, and in this dispute, he has put road access for constituents in Ranelagh — one of Dublin’s richest neighborhoods — above any environmental concern. His objections have contributed to the current construction project for Metro South being cancelled, with future plans delayed for possibly over a decade — also disadvantaging less affluent suburbs further south.

Similar attitudes are apparent in the Greens’ housing policy. The Greens went into the May 2019 local elections committed to building cost-rental housing. This means building self-financing, public-owned housing on public land available to mixed-income groups. This proposal, copied from socialist housing activists, is a substantial change from current government policy, where the state only provides “social housing,” i.e., to those on the very lowest incomes. To this end, when the Greens joined the new governing group of Dublin City Council last summer, an agreement was made to “reject any selling off of publicly owned land to private developers within the city boundaries.” Yet in the council’s very first post-election meeting they voted to sell off O’Devaney Gardens — one of the largest plots of publicly owned residential land that is currently up for development.

This again reflected a complete lack of political bearings. Hazel Chu, Chair of the Green Party and a prominent Dublin city councilor, took to Twitter to explain her decision to sell off O’Devaney Gardens to a private developer, but in the process revealed that she did not understand this privatized development would now be privately owned! She further revealed that she did not understand the difference between “social housing” and publicly owned housing — something she continues to fail to understand, despite it underpinning her party’s housing policy.

After Next Weekend

The Green Party are currently polling between 7 and 10 percent: if they form part of the next government, they should, on paper, have more leverage. Yet as we have seen, the Greens have never confronted the powerful. We can thus expect them to persist with an environmentalism so incremental as to be invisible, admixed with support for consumption taxes that punish lower earners.

By this point, the Greens’ efforts to recuperate environmentalism for capitalism are hardly a betrayal — rather, it is who they are. As former leader John Gormley recently wrote, after bemoaning the party’s “unfathomable” unpopularity among farmers, “The party also needs to show that the Greens are good for business. … The party has many small business people in its ranks and their pro-business attitude needs to be effectively communicated.” In fact, its “pro-business attitude” is undeniable — their weakness instead lying in sheer incompetence.

Indeed, the Irish Greens lack either the principles of the fundis or the effectiveness of the realos. Neither a campaigning nor a policy-focused organization, the Greens’ main function is to serve as a barometer for the larger parties on how seriously they should take voters’ environmental concerns, through their harvesting of votes. Yet in effect their role is a deeply damaging one, scooping up the votes of those concerned by the climate crisis while refusing ever to confront the very interests who are destroying our planet. A vote for the Greens is a vote for business-as-usual — anything but the change we need.

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David Landy is assistant professor of sociology at Trinity College, Dublin. He is the author of Jewish Identity and Palestinian Rights: Diaspora Jewish Opposition to Israel, and has written on social movements in Ireland and abroad. He was a member of the Irish Green Party from 1988 to 1995.

Oisín McGarrity is an economist living in Dublin, Ireland. He is a socialist activist who has been involved in various environmentalist, feminist, and workers’ struggles over the last twenty years.

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