The Taming of the Greens

The taming of the Greens, replacing principle with maturity, has been supported by the media. By Chekov Feeney.

The Greens have traditionally been placed somewhere on a spectrum between a dangerous subversive threat and a harmless joke by the media.


They are frequently caricatured as “eco-warriors” and “treehuggers” and presumed to be a vital component in the various anti-war and environmentalist protest movements that sometimes make it into the media.  Ex-Minister McDowell neatly summed up their status as mildly comical subversives in the aftermath of the Dublin riot in February 2006. He claimed that those who had trashed the headquarters of the PDs had been “Deputy Gormley's type of people”, yet when challenged to substantiate this, he merely remarked that, “there was muesli in the air and open-toe sandals witnessed”. 

The reality is that the Greens long ago ceased to resemble this media caricature. Although they emerged from the environmental and pacifist protest movements of the 1970s, for the last two decades they have concentrated on attempting to achieve reforms within the system, principally by competing in and winning elections.  In order to compete on the electoral terrain, they have had to transform the party into a modern professional machine, focused much more on winning favourable media attention than on involvement in campaigns.  This pragmatic line has been based on the principle that opposition from the outside achieves nothing and that it is better to be in a position to implement change in government, even if that requires some compromises. 

The difficult thing about this general principle is, however, that the compromises have to start long before the prospect of entering government becomes a reality.  In order to be presented as a credible and respectable political force, and to dispel the stereotypes, the Greens have had to tailor their policies and pronouncements to the prejudices of the media. Thus, their policies have been in constant flux as they have sought to identify political positions which will be seen as respectable. A good example of this occurred in early 2003, during the build up to the Iraq war. 

On 28 January, Mary Kelly, a peace activist, entered Shannon Airport and damaged a US military plane with a hatchet. The following day, Trevor Sargent released a statement in support of her action, declaring that “in relation to the US war effort intent on killing innocent civilians in Iraq, there is a legal excuse for non-violent direct action”. Media uproar and demands for the Greens to uphold the rule of law predictably followed, including lurid front-page headlines about “the sinister face of peace activists”. Just five days later, when four Pitstop Ploughshares protestors repeated the deed, Sargent called the action “regrettable” and “a distraction from the main issues in the campaign against the build-up to war”.  On the economic front too, the Greens have been struggling to cast off the caricatured media view of them as having business-unfriendly policies. Accordingly, they have de-emphasised environmental solutions that rely upon regulation or taxation of producers, opting instead for “innovative” solutions largely consisting of consumer-based taxation and investment incentive policies, which are quite acceptable to the neo-liberal economic orthodoxy, while opportunistically adopting policies such as stamp duty reform which are likely to win them media approval. On 17 June 2007, the Sunday Tribune asked a selection of business leaders “should a Green government be feared?” and received a resoundingly negative response, with positive welcomes from figures such as Michael O'Leary and John Dunne, CEO of Chambers Ireland.

Thus, by the time the Greens entered government with Fianna Fáil, they had already undergone a long and thorough process of shaping themselves into a respectable and electable media agenda. Ironically, it was the persistence of the inaccurate media caricature that was responsible for the Green party membership so readily accepting the Fianna Fail programme for government. It is also responsible for the media's failure to predict such an outcome – pundits universally predicted that the “realos” in the party would have great difficulty persuading the “fundis” of the need to compromise. 

The Green's decision to enter government was cheerfully greeted by the media as a sign of their “maturity” and “credibility” as a political party.

However, these congratulations were offered in spite of the substance of the deal the party had negotiated, a package “strong on aspiration but short on specifics”, according to an Irish Times editorial. The Greens are also destined to remain under close media scrutiny lest any signs of their radical past might manifest themselves. Within a week of the party taking office, Brendan O'Connor had launched his first assault on Eamon Ryan on the front page of the Sunday Independent, calling him a “hot-air merchant” and “half-mad”. Meanwhile, the compromises that the Greens had made on Tara, Rossport and hospital co-location were highlighted in front page stories, approvingly illustrating their trading of principle for maturity. We can expect to see many more such stories in the lifetime of the next government as the media continues to demand demonstrations of maturity by the Greens, many of which will be seen as an abandonment of principles by their supporters, while Bertie grins in the background.