Sunday, 19 October 2008

Ireland’s Greens win power through controversial deal

Origially published in Green Horizons, July 2007.

In its first quarter-century Ireland’s Green Party, Comhaontas Glas, grew slowly but steadily, while maintaining a fierce independence. All that changed this summer, however, when they made a controversial deal to form a coalition government with the country’s largest and most conservative party. Many Greens have cheered their party into power, while others fear the compromises they will have to make.

Many Greens hoped this would be a breakthrough year, but few were expecting this outcome a year ago. Most talked only of only continuing their growth in the Dail (national legislature, rhymes with toil) and some general government shake-up. For one thing, this was the first election since issues like climate change and peak oil, long mocked as fringe concerns, have percolated into front-page headlines in Europe.

This was also to be only the second election of the Celtic Tiger, which in ten years has transformed Ireland’s landscape and population. For hundreds of years until the 1990s, the nation was considered on the fringe of the European economy, known for its picturesque villages and slow pace. The Information Age changed all that, as the nation’s educated, English-speaking workforce and corporate-friendly tax codes drew computer industry giants, making Ireland – with a population a third that of New York City -- the world’s largest exporter of software.

The boom made Ireland the fastest-growing economy in Europe, raising the growth rate from almost zero to eight percent a year and bringing Ireland’s GDP per capita from one of Europe’s lowest to among its highest. In addition, the country has had to adjust to a mass influx of immigrants – mostly from Eastern Europe – for the first time in its history.

The Greens had been able to build a presence in Ireland’s government for two reasons. First, the party started organizing campaigns in neighborhoods and towns, slowly building a base and working upward. Second, third parties thrive in Ireland and most European countries because of electoral systems that make every vote count and consider multiple choices, while Americans remain weakened by a system in which presidents are elected by only a small margin of voters in a few states. While most Irish vote, most Americans do not, perhaps because we understand that most of our votes don’t make a difference.

The Irish have strengthened their voting freedoms in two ways. First, Irish voters rank their top two choices for office, and if no candidate has enough votes, second choices are taken into account. This is similar to the system Greens in America have worked for under the name “instant runoff voting,” and it allows third parties to run without being accused of “spoiling” elections.

Secondly, more than one candidate wins in each area – if a county sends three representatives to the Dail, it sends the candidates who received the first-, second- and third-most votes. This ensures that, say, 49 percent of the voters are not shut out of government, as can happen in the United States. The country’s two major and four minor parties, however, must form coalition governments to have a majority of the Dail, sometimes making strange bedfellows.

To the surprise of many Greens, the election results seemed to change little. The dominant party, Fianna Fail (rhymes with tall), retained their 45 percent of seats. Greens lost as many as they gained, holding onto less than four percent.

The big change, however, was that Fianna Fail’s old coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats, lost three-quarters of their seats, and Fianna Fail needed an additional ally to control a majority of the Dail. In the days after the election, armchair politicos put minor parties together like jigsaw pieces to come up with majorities, but in the end Fianna Fail reached out to the growing Greens. The parties’ leaders met for days of tough negotiations, and on June 13 an emergency meeting of Greens approved the alliance.

One reason Fianna Fail selected the Greens as partners may have been the growing public alarm over climate change, said Colm Ocaomhanaigh, Comhaontas Glas General Secretary.

“It was awareness that it’s a big problem, and a lack of awareness about what to do about the problem,” he said. Ireland’s emissions have risen 25 percent since the Kyoto Accords, but he hoped that Green-backed reforms will turn the tide. “We are committed to a reduction of three percent per year, and while it might take us a year or two to meet that, it will happen,” he said.

Compromise advances some GP ideals

The Greens fought for and got several important reforms out of the deal. Under the agreement, Ireland will expand its plans for solar and wind power, and Greens hope to have a third of all the nation’s energy come from clean sources by 2020. The Greens also plan to re-open old railway lines to expand Ireland’s public transportation; forge a carbon tax; and aggressively pursue lower levels of poison in the air and water.

Two longtime Green activists were named ministers (like U.S. Cabinet members): John Gormley was named minister of Environment, while Eamon Ryan will head the department of Energy, Communications and Natural Resources. Former party head Trevor Sargent also became a junior minister of Food.

Most Greens praised the alliance and their new power. “I never thought I would see a document with Fianna Fail’s name on it that would make real commitments on climate change,” Green lawmaker Ciaran Cuffe told the Associated Press.

The deal, however, conceded several issues on which the party had always stood tough. For years the Greens had fought to prevent a highway from bulldozing through the hill of Tara, an ancient seat of Irish kings, yet the plan is still going ahead. Nor is the government expected to ban corporate money in politics, as the Greens had hoped.

Many Greens were especially angered when the party conceded on the issue of “rendition,” the U.S. federal government’s abducting civilians and transporting them to dictatorships to be tortured. Amnesty International reports that some of those “rendered” have included teenagers and women, that many may be innocent of any crime, and that some of those abducted have been electrocuted or had their fingernails ripped out of their bodies. Some such flights pass through Shannon Airport in western Ireland, and Greens had mobilized intense pressure to ban U.S. federal flights from the site. Now, the flights will continue, and the Greens will stand down.

Green-sympathetic Irish offered mixed reactions to the alliance, mostly a ratio of optimism and caution. Some pundits argued that, as the world faces crises like peak oil and climate change, Greens should be less neighborly and play more hardball.

“There is little in this deal that the Greens could not have achieved by standing back and offering Fianna Fail their support in the Dail on an issue-by-issue basis,” wrote Mick Hall in the Irish magazine The Blanket. “…With this act (Fianna Fail) has silenced a major section of the progressive opposition …”

The Irish Independent, meanwhile, wryly noted that many of the Greens’ victories had been “recycled” from earlier proposals.

“The Greens brought a shopping trolley to the Fianna Fail hypermarket,” the editorial said. “A small reusable plastic bag would have been adequate to hold the tiny basket of recycled Fianna Fail goodies they got in exchange for getting two jobs there.”

Green Isle going greener

Greens spent the months since the election navigating the delicate minutiae of government regulation, while being assailed as sell-outs by activist groups and as naïve utopians by political veterans.

“It’s been tough,” said Ocaomhanaigh, “but we’ve been able to pass some reforms that people have been wanting for a long time.”

He cited new building codes that Gormley passed in September, which promise to require 40 percent more energy efficiency in homes and 40 percent less carbon dioxide emissions in building by next year. The new regulations are expected to increase to 60–percent required efficiency two years from now, with “zero-carbon” the stated long-term goal.

“People have been trying to improve building standards for 15 years, for example, and we’ve done that in only a few months,” Ocaomhanaigh said.

Greens are also pushing for the European Union to ban fishing over a thousand square miles off the country’s Atlantic coast, over endangered coral reefs that are being crushed by deep-water trawlers. Gormley believes that the proposed ban – the first of its kind in Europe – will be in place by the end of the year.

Ocaomhanaigh named other reforms – increased taxes on oil and gas exploration, increased university representation in government – but also acknowledged the things Greens will not change.

“The biggest problem was our inability to change the decisions that had already been made when we came into power,” he said, citing the highway through Tara and the rendition flights through Shannon. “We don’t have the leverage to change all these things.”

In between the purists and the insiders, however, the public response to the Greens has been generally positive. After voting themselves a hefty pay raise, Fianna Fail’s approval numbers have sunk rapidly, a drop that Ireland’s Sunday Business Post called “unusual,” while Greens, who “avoided any of the political fallout,” saw rising numbers, and they have had a surge in new members.

One longtime supporter described the Greens’ recent decisions with satisfaction: “It takes no courage to stand around and complain. It takes courage to wrestle things into being a little bit better. Good for them.”

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