Eat the Greens
The Green Party in government would make a difference. But are they too politically naive to get there? By Vincent Browne
Mary White, the feisty Green Party candidate in Carlow-Kilkenny gave the feistiest address at the Green Party conference over the weekend of 23-24 February in Galway. Early on in her speech, she quoted Spike Milligan: “One day the don't knows will get in and then where will we be?” She added that the “don't knows” are already in.
She recalled that when the party was founded 25 years ago, it was on the fringe of Irish politics. Her message was: the Greens are now on the fringe of power.
It was the theme of the conference. The Greens are ready for office, Ireland is ready for the Greens and it may well be that Election 2007 is the Green Election, the election that sees the Green Party break through to double-digit seats and a place in government.
Trevor Sergent is opposed to cutting a deal with Fianna Fáil, but the rest of the party is willing to do that if the numbers dictate – on any calculation, were the numbers to dictate that a Fianna Fáil-Green coalition was “on”, the numbers would dictate even more resoundingly that a Fianna Fáil-Labour deal was “on”, and Fianna Fáil may prefer Labour. Or maybe not.
The Green Party is defining an identity for itself, as no other party is doing, and that identity is being defined, in the main, by its media-shy and media-awkward spokesperson on finance, Dan Boyle.
In a pre-budget statement last November, he outlined where the Greens stand on the major economic and social issues:
• Environment: Major initiatives on energy conservation, including tax incentives; mandatory bio-fuel targets; incentives for the constructing of eco-friendly houses; the substitution of increased excise duty on petrol for motor tax and VRT.
• On taxation: the review of the tax residency rules (to catch the tax exiles); tax credits and bands linked to inflation; an increase in capital-gains tax from 20 per cent to 25 per cent; reductions in the VAT rates; the introduction of carbon levies and a reduction in PRSI contributions.
• Social welfare: the earmarking of the lowest social welfare payment at 50 per cent of the average household income.
• Pensions: An increase in state pensions from 30 per cent of average income to 60 per cent, phased over the period of three governments; the phasing-out of the tax relief for pensions in favour of an SSIA savings scheme which would be graded progressively; the introduction of an optional retirement scheme.
Sliding the balance
While staying on the safe side of the tax threshold (no increase in the tax “burden”), Dan Boyle's plan seeks to slide the balance of taxation, social welfare and pensions progressively in favour of the less-well-off. The moderated Green initiatives capture the heightened awareness of environmental issues while, again, not frightening the horses.
There is nothing here Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour could not buy with a little persuasion. The Green agenda is becoming mainstream.
But a major breakthrough electorally will be difficult. Indeed the party will struggle to hold on to the six seats it won in the 2002 election.
Trevor Sergent is safe in Dublin North, where he will be the only out-going TD contesting the election. Dan Boyle may be safe also in Cork South Central. But everywhere else there are dangers.
John Gormley won Michael McDowell's seat in Dublin South East in 1997. McDowell recovered the seat in 2002 but at the expense of Fine Gael. If Fine Gael is to make a breakthrough here (and it is going about it badly with weak candidate Lucinda Creighton), it will probably be at the expense of McDowell or Gormley.
Eamon Ryan, the most charismatic of the Greens and the likely leader should Trevor Sergent step aside, is in trouble in Dublin South. His seat and Liz O'Donnell's seat are in jeopardy here to both Fine Gael and Labour. Ciaran Cuffe has a similar difficulty in Dun Laoghaire, where Fine Gael seems certain to get a seat this time, probably at the expense of the Progressive Democrats but possibly at his expense.
Paul Gogarty in Dublin Mid West is helped by the addition of a seat to the constituency (from three to four seats) but he is still not a certainty. Such hazards are faced by all new TDs and new parties.
But the polls are suggesting a surge in the Green vote to around eight per cent, from its base of 3.8 per cent in 2002. If that surge is fortuitously targeted then the Greens should hold onto their existing seats and gain a few more. The likely gains are with Mary White in Carlow-Kilkenny, Deirdre de Burca in Wicklow and Niall Ó Brolchain in Galway West.
The main problem with the party may transpire to be its political naiveté. For instance it seems they made a major mistake in 2004 in not contesting the presidential election. Fine Gael had stated it was not going to contest, the Labour party gave every indication of leaving the field open as well, and had the Greens contested, it could have established a presence in the Irish political psyche that could have transformed its prospects.
But it balked, or rather Trevor Sergent and John Gormley balked, perhaps in part because of apprehension that the candidature of the person who was offering to run, Eamon Ryan, might cause leadership difficulties later on.
Private polls undertaken on behalf of Mary McAleese around the time there was speculation of Eamon Ryan's candidature suggested he would have got over 30 per cent of the vote (this is recorded in Noel Whelan's book, Showtime or Substance: a Voters Guide to the 2007 election. For more from the book, see Page 28), which would have propelled the Green Party into national prominence.
There was another opportunity to make a major impact. This occurred in early-2007 when Pat Rabbitte floundered on the issue of coalition with Fianna Fáil. The left-leaning electorate was aghast at the prospect of Labour again going into government with Fianna Fáil. The Greens could have capitalised on that unease with slogans such as ‘Vote Labour and the chances are you will get Fianna Fáil; vote Green and we promise you won't'.
The problem with that tactic was that the Greens may not have meant it. While Trevor Sergent is against a deal with Fianna Fáil, the others are eager now for office, even with Fianna Fáil.
The commentariat view is that Fianna Fáil would opt for Labour ahead of the Greens were the numbers to demand either/or. But the reality may be different.
Fianna Fáil would have to forsake fewer cabinet positions to the Greens than it would to Labour, and that is always a factor for the party-of-government.
The Greens in government would make a difference. Policies would be more environmentally friendly and more socially progressive. The party has a more distinct identity on the left of politics than does Labour. That could be a factor in the election, if Greens have the chutzpah to make it so.