From top: Green Party leader Eamon Ryan and deputy leader Catherine Martin; Michael Smith
For Greens to vote for the Programme for Government is an ‘act of environmental surrender almost to the point of cynicism’, argues activist and Village magazine editor Michael Smith.
So I fell to thinking about whether I should put my limited weight behind the leadership of the Green Party.
It is currently struggling to obtain a two-thirds majority from its party members to approve the Programme for Government that its Parliamentary Party has ratified with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
What is the Greens’ record in Government?
In the run-up to the 2007 general election I was centrally involved through an organisation we called HEAT with a campaign to lobby for the political parties to treat climate seriously.
We wrote a number of articles saying what would be required and we helped wreck the Ryanair AGM and a Bord Pleanála hearing on the new runway for Dublin Airport, forced pro-climate helium balloons onto the 9 0’Clock news and trailed the renegade Minister for the Environment, Mr Roche around, with a cockroach.
We privately wanted the Greens to get in, so they would implement a climate agenda. The Greens duly justified their decision to go in to government with dodgy Bertie Ahern on the basis of the climate imperative, and their members ratified it by the necessary majority.
At the time, I went to the effort of going in to print to say they were right to make the risky leap I suggested only they focused, in ways, I specified, on implementation.
In fact they were in power for three and a half years, and despite an imploding economy failed to reach their unambitious target of 3% annual emissions reductions.
They failed to get a Climate Act, publishing a largely toothless bill that was never enacted.
They also achieved little for biodiversity which continued its precipitous decline or on planning where development continued largely as one-off housing and sprawl, especially from Dublin into Leinster.
As to what they call ‘Social Justice’ income equality, measured by the Gini Coefficient, decreased and was disimproved further when the Greens pulled out. The FF-Green government was a blip in the progress made on income equality over most of the last 20 years.
The Greens introduced lots of environmental legislation but in my experience legislation is not for the most part what is required; it is implementation.
There is an existing edifice of planning and biodiversity laws for example – but they are not implemented. Introducing new laws largely results in simply more rules that are not enforced. For the Green Party it has to be about results, not rules.
I had tried the optimism thing, I had tried hoping the Greens would be able to outmanoeuvre an inadequately Green Programme for Government. But that was in 2007. And it didn’t work. Once bitten…
I believe any fair commentator would be struck by the fact the Greens have never acknowledged their implementation failures in that government, or – especially – why they arose.
Indeed I have noticed a pattern on social media when attention is drawn to the sectoral failures of the Party in 2007-2011, and an eminence in the party replies indignantly – but never by a precise outline of the achievements.
Until they acknowledge their tendency to soft-mindedness and acknowledge they need to put in place mechanisms such as the use of indicators and a focus on enforcement, especially through a more intelligent use of the law, I will remain sceptical as to whether Ireland’s Green Party is a force qualified to lead the fight on behalf of its environment.
Optimists and analysts know that the past is not a pointer to the future – unless its lessons remain unlearnt. The Greens seem unreconstructed. At least its leaders and negotiators do.
Once bitten certainly… but more importantly and precisely the dog hasn’t learnt its lesson and we have to decide what we should do about it as it runs around the yard looking for people to pet it.
Is the Programme for Government any good?
There are ways you implement an environmental agenda. You can, for example, establish indicators of policy for everything from income equality to voting rates to water quality and emissions rates to employment and GDP. Those indicators should have targets that can be monitored and assessed so regularly that, if any of what has been agreed is flouted, the Greens should consider pulling the plug on government.
For the Green Party quality of life indicators should have been central. They do make some commitment to them but it is not clear what they intend to do with them. And, extraordinarily, there is no commitment to environmental indicators.
Beyond indicators there must be budgets and timetables for environmental measures.
Agenda-driven enforcement agencies must be instigated, and legislation enacted that is justiciable (so the public or NGOs can litigate breaches), that is tight (rules should read “shall implement” not “shall have regard to”) and mandatory not discretionary (rules should read “shall” not “may”).
An Attorney General must be chosen who isn’t obstructive, and civil servants must embrace, however reluctantly, mandated Green Party policies.
I know about the tedious matters of implementation and enforcement of environmental measures because I bagged myself a law degree years ago and because I’ve taken lots of miserable enforcement actions and legal cases.
I’ve signed over a thousand submissions on the fruits of bad environmental policy over the years and wrote a dozen policy documents for An Taisce around the turn of the millennium.
If you’re a Green and you don’t know how implementation works in Ireland, especially if you thought you could negotiate a second Programme for Government for your party without making an acute study of what went wrong with the first one (2007-2011), you might be better going back to environmentalism school before you promote the merits of the environmental sections of the Programme for Government 2020.
As a relatively sober well-disposed Green-watcher I might be expected to give the Party the benefit of the doubt. However, their agenda is a planetary one and I of course don’t want history to repeat itself as farce so I had to hope this Programme for Government would be better than the last one.
But unfortunately the Programme for Government is every bit as loose as the 2007 one. It’s the same old Greens. More aspirations. A Programme for Government chock full of them.
Of course there are some good policies in the Programme for Government but there would have been some good policies without the Greens, and in 2020 every Church gazette and office newsletter contains Green policies. Mostly the deal is aspirational on the environment.
There are promises on climate that won’t kick in in until the Greens are out of government, perhaps replaced by a backlash anti-environmental government that’ll reverse the changes before they even register.
Green negotiator Neasa Hourigan, whose post-negotiation performance has been measured and impressive, notes of the proposed 7% average annual emissions reductions that:
“It’s very likely that that will be back-loaded for 2026, 2027, ’28, and that there will be some attempt to force the government of the day to adhere to the decisions that were made in 2020”.
Simply put, that’s no good, and would probably not happen anyway.
More specifically, giving the cattle industry a free pass by recognising biogenic methane as ‘different’ is a foolish sop.
The Green leadership, many of whom are immersed in the culture of cosmopolitan Dublin, are unduly concerned not to discommode the fierce agricultural lobby of which they know and like little.
There’s next to nothing on biodiversity, particularly enforcement of our mostly-EU-derived rules. On planning, the Greens – extraordinarily – don’t seem to have concerns about the high-rise permissions now peppering Dublin City centre; or with Eoghan Murphy’s reduction in apartment sizes; or with one-off housing or let’s face it with sprawl. That’s why you never hear from them on these issues, even in the Programme for Government. Silence.
Though Green Party members are concerned about planning, its elected members don’t like to be seen to say No. They’re happy to champion a ‘Town Centre first’ policy but would sooner manage a McDonald’s than oppose one-off housing or even sprawl, lest someone scream ‘God gave me the land’ or ‘Housing Crisis’ at them.
The media and public have entirely failed to register that for the modern Green TD planning is very yesterday.
On the social agenda, the living wage is programmed for the end of the Government, meaning no criticism can be made of failure to honour the commitment right up to the last days of a 5-year government, by which time the policies of the likely incoming new government will be more important.
The social housing proposed is not for new social housing. Co-living will continue. The Land Development Agency will facilitate the sale of most of our public land to private developers.
As to Sláintecare, the consensual plan for the health system, Social Democrats TD Róisín Shortall has noted there would not be any additional money for this year or next, though the Fiscal Advisory Council says it will require an additional €3bn annually. That suggests a serious gap in the health plan, in a pandemic.
There is no commitment to new taxes except the carbon tax, – no windfall tax on property speculation or rezoning, no site-value tax, no increase in CAT or CGT, or Corporation Tax, no increase in income tax or the USC; or any commitment to seek to retrieve the Apple €13bn.
The stuff on transport is subject to maintenance of the existing inflated budgets for “roads maintenance” and, though Greens like Ossian Smyth suggested it had been cancelled it is certain the Limerick-Cork motorway will proceed at a likely cost of €1bn as will the Castlebar-Westport dual carriageway (€250m). There’s €360 million, a sum much counted by the media, for walking and cycling, but nearly €6bn of spending on roads in the next five years.
But surely we can trust the Greens because they’re informed and honest?
Well, as some of this shows, I’ve never found them good on policy. That’s one of the reasons for the environmental disarray the country finds itself.
But let’s look for example at their policy on the extraction of peat from bogs.
A Press Release from Pippa Hackett and the Green press office last week landed in my inbox. I’ve been receiving these press releases for years and never learnt anything from them. They’re mostly half-baked environmental tittle-tattle, shaggy dog stories, a substitute for substantive policy discussion.
Anyway this particular portentous release was headlined: ‘Greens welcome decision by BNM to end peat extraction and begin bog rehabilitation’.
It went on:
“Speaking in response to the decision by Bord na Móna to end peat extraction, and to commence work on its Enhanced Peatland Rehabilitation Scheme (EPRS) on 65,000 hectares of their land, County Offaly-based Senator Pippa Hackett welcomed the announcement: This is an historic moment in our country’s relationship with peat, and this announcement is a welcome start to this decade of change, as we shift away from peat as a source of carbon emissions, to peat as a carbon storage and sequestration. We especially welcome the commitment that all employees will be retained for the vital work of re-wetting and restoring our bogs”.
First of all, only litigation (a means largely eschewed by the too-nice Greens) by NGOs, including Friends of the Irish Environment, stopped Bord na Mona’s industrial bog removal. The Greens dine off such litigation but do not bother to attend its hearings or to understand its judgments.
Moreover, in fact of course Bord na Móna has not given up on peat extraction. It intends to restart making briquettes, has been facilitating illegal domestic peat-mining on its own lands and aims to resume its profligate peat-compost production.
Someone in the office here – I’m editor of Village magazine – whacked out a tweet drawing attention to this. But – for reasons they will have to explain – Pippa and the Greens weren’t interested.
The Press Release stayed up. I complained to the Greens’ Press Officer whose name was at the bottom of the release but he didn’t bother to reply.
So the Greens continue to believe, and apparently want the world to believe, that Bord na Móna has stopped mining peat. The truth is they’re embarrassed.
That’s fine – they’ve a lot to be embarrassed about. But if they don’t remove their tainted Press Release when the delinquency is pointed out that puts them in the same ethical, and competence, bracket as Bertie Ahern’s Fianna Fáil.
It would be very difficult to be excited about them entering government charged with defence of our environment, if they don’t care about either bogs or the truth. If the Greens are the sort of party that thinks that Bord na Móna has stopped extracting peat, or if it doesn’t care, why should I, or anyone, support them?
That’s not all; indeed the problem is pervasive.
Though they mouth antagonism to it, they’re unlikely to stop the LNG Gas Terminal proposed for the Shannon estuary. They may have a policy of terminating it – though most of the heavy lifting again is being done by NGO litigation.
But that’s not what the Programme for Government says. It merely commits to “withdrawing the terminal from the EU Projects of Common Interest list in 2021”.
The Green Party should note, indeed many of its elected representatives already know, that it’s difficult to stop Shannon LNG as WTO rules and EU Energy law, including under Directive 2009/73, will allow the operators to build it and import fracked fuel.
The American owners are reported to be pursuing the plans undeterred. Shannon LNG could be analogous to Dublin’s incinerator which snared former Green Environment Minister John Gormley who wanted to stop the facility that anachronistically went ahead in the teeth of the relevant Minister’s aggressive opposition.
The Greens have been getting a free ride in the press, most of which – like Village – have not been well disposed to Sinn Féin and which nurture half-Green notions – as long as, above all else, they don’t interfere with economic growth: an agenda Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael share.
The Irish Times congratulated the Green Paryty negotiators’ although nobody in that newspaper would know what a realistic Green Programme for Government would look like. It editorialised:
“Many of the green ambitions have to be fleshed out during the government’s lifetime but if FG and FF leaders live up to the goodwill they expressed that should not be a problem”.
The problem is that it was not goodwill on the part of the bigger parties to leave so much fudged and untimetabled. A key comment was from Simon Coveney, Fine Gael’s principal negotiator and a heavyweight force for the status quo, who told his parliamentary party that:
“…the climate emissions that we’re trying to achieve will be mostly happening in the last five years of the decade, and not something that this government has to deal with”.
Could it be that the Irish Times editor is wrong about the significance of expressions of goodwill on climate?
Reflecting this possibly loose thinking, the Irish Times’ political correspondents makes little effort to understand the environmental agenda or its dependence on implementation. All the while serially promoting the coalition government as mature and pragmatic, nevertheless.
Political correspondent Harry Magee famously praised the Green Party’s record 2007-2011 in advancing income equality when in fact they uniquely for governments over the last two decades reduced income equality.
When this was pointed out to him by Tweet, he did not deign to reply, let alone to correct.
A small other example of symbiosis was when the same journalist misreported that Catherine Martin had changed her mind from opposing coalition with Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. She had never opposed coalition, merely suggesting more of the Greens’ questions should have been answered before a decision was taken to enter discussions, When this was pointed out neither Magee, nor Martin who must stay the right side of the pol-corr gang, corrected the mistake.
If you’re looking for the truth you will have to look beyond the old staples in the Irish Times and the Green Party.
Pragmatism means following the evidence. That is precisely what the Programme for Government does not do – on social and environmental matters. It wouldn’t deliver necessary change on climate and biodiversity.
And it doesn’t even factor in the likely disorderly No Deal Brexit we face, which the ESRI and Department of Finance said a year ago would reduce GDP by 5% over ten years .
Counter-intuitively, in fact dissenters of this deal should include more pragmatists than idealists. Indeed they should make common purpose.
It is said that environmental NGOs, apart from Extinction Rebellion, support the deal. I would not rate as democratic the processes by which environmental NGOs have endorsed the Programme for Governnment.
An Taisce’s support went through no democratic process and centred on the climate. There was no input from its biodiversity or planning wings.
Friends of the Earth has a model that centres on being unrealistically positive about nearly all governmental climate initiatives so it can claim its leaders, and its members, are making a difference.
The Business Post reported on June 21 that some NGOs would withdraw support from the Greens if they do not go in to government. That’s nonsense, unlikely and unsupported by evidence. None of these charities should, legally, be engaging in party politics at all.
The only argument for the rotten deal is that there is a possibility the alternative is even worse though the probability is that there would be a new election where the environment would be a bigger issue, and there is a possibility the Greens could veer toward Sinn Féin instead of Fine Gael and hope to negotiate a greener deal, though Sinn Féin’s environmental credentials are scratchy.
Either way, if the Greens say No and take the line that they are out on pragmatic grounds they should lose little, or less.
That the Greens and their new-found false friends in the media have come to this: vote for this deal because the alternative is worse, is depressing for anyone who has the energy left to care.
The focus for discontent must be on the leadership and the negotiators. The Greens should reflect on, and face up to, their role as the electoral wing of the environmental movement.
Only when the Greens negotiate a radical and progressive Programme for Government notable for its rigour will they have been worth voting for. Not this time, certainly.
The democratic process is about making choices. Some may think the likelihood is that if the Green members vote down the Programme for Government there will be a better ultimate outturn both for the country and the party.
If you don’t believe this…Want Green, Vote Green (as their smarmy advice went), vote for the Programme for Government. Assuage the deluded strongarmers. But be aware it cannot reasonably be seen as an act of idealism, of honesty or even of pragmatism.
You are tainting yourself with incompetence and surrender almost to the point of cynicism. You are endorsing people and a platform that do not deserve it.
The real question is what can you do to mitigate the Greens’ mess and ensure they stop systematically compromising all who offer them goodwill.
Michael Smith is editor of Village magazine.