Irish Greens Enter Coalition Government For The First Time
Historic Accord Provides Chance To Show They Can Govern
by Mike Feinstein, Advisor, International Committee of the Green Party of the United States

What do you do if you’ve been around for 25 years and you’ve been ahead of the political curve on issues like the environment, but your country’s political system has been behind the times in recognizing it? Then all of a sudden you get a chance for real power, but it’s not at all like you thought it would be?

Instead of being swept into office riding a large Green wave of ecological consciousness, you get roughly the same number of seats as you did the last time. But unlike last time, you have a chance to go into coalition government and possibly exercise real power – except that it would be a coalition with a party that many see as your ideological opposite, including many of your own party members.

That’s exactly the choice the Green Party/ Comhaontas Glas has just faced in Ireland. Here is the story of how they answered it.

The History

The Irish Green Party began in 1981 as the Ecology Party of Ireland (EPI). In November 1982, the EPI participated in its first General Election and then changed its name to the Green Alliance/Comhaontas Glas in 1983. By 1985 they won their first race, when Marcus Counihan was elected to the Killarney Urban District Council.

1987 brought about another name change, this time to the Green Party/Comhaontas Glas signaling a growing electoral focus of the Irish grassroots Green movement. Then came the breakthrough of 1989, when Dublin’s Roger Garland became the Party’s first member of Irish Parliament (Dáil Éireann) or TD (Teachta Dála, Gaelic for “assembly delegate). Building upon this success, 13 Greens were elected to city and town councils in 1991. In 1994, the party won its first seats in the European Parliament, electing Patricia McKenna (Dublin) and Nuala Ahern (Leinster). But they didn’t stop there, as months later the Dublin City Council elected John Gormley to be the city’s first Green mayor, giving the party an increasingly high profile in the nation’s capital.

May 1997 saw the party double its number of TDs, as Gormley and Trevor Sargent were elected to the Dáil, and two years later, McKenna and Ahern successfully defended their European Parliament seats. After 10 years, the party had seemingly secured a solid place in Irish politics and looked forward to stepping up to the next level.

At its 2001 Annual Convention, the Green Party/Comhaontas Glas took steps to make it a more successful electoral force, including establishing the position of Party Leader and electing Sargent to fill that role. These steps paid off, as in the 2002 General Election the Party added four seats, bringing to the Dáil Eamon Ryan in Dublin South, Paul Gogarty in Dublin West, Ciarán Cuffe in Dún Laoghaire and Dan Boyle in Cork South Central.

In 2004, while McKenna lost a close re-election bid and the party’s second seat fell victim to the reduction in the number of Ireland’s seats in the European Parliament following enlargement of the EU, the Greens performed very well in local elections, expanding their number of town and county Green councilors to 26. Among this group was Niall Ó Brolcháin, elected in Galway, Ireland’s third largest city, who then was named Mayor. Branching out to win in many parts of the country, this also represented a breakout from the party’s perceived traditional Dublin base.

All of this pointed to a potential breakthrough in the Dáil for the Greens in 2007, especially with the increasing focus on Green issues like global warming.

The 2007 Campaign

Coming into the May 24th General Elections, the party targeted 15 TD constituencies with the aim of winning at least seven, and hopefully having enough seats to enter government for the first time.

Signaling the party’s hope for such an outcome, its election manifesto was titled: “The Green Party in Government … it’s time,” focused on climate change, public transit, clean politics, a green economy and tax policy, and community-based planning/sustainable development.

The Greens also criticized the sitting government led by Fianna Fáil (FF) -Ireland’s center-right party of the pro-business establishment – on a variety of fronts: automobile-dependent, haphazard development sprawl, a deterioration in the quality of public infrastructure and services, and the undue influence of corporate donations on public policy.

However, despite the fact that the Green candidates intimated that their preferred government partners would be the other parties in opposition – Labor and the centrist party Fine Gael (FG) – the Green Party did not rule out a coalition with FF. In fact, as early as 2005, delegates at the Green Party’s national convention actually voted overwhelmingly not to enter a pre-election pact with FG and Labor. Their reasoning for this was that participation in such an alliance could drown out the Green voice as well as deprive them of vital vote transfers from other left-wing parties, most notably Sinn Féin (SF).

In 2006, the party voted on a position that precluded the leadership from making pre-election pacts with any party. For better or worse, the party stuck to this line through the campaign. This meant that a coalition with FF was never excluded. Nor was one with SF. It also meant that the Greens were officially outside the FG/ Labor “rainbow alliance.”

Throughout the 2007 election campaign, the party maintained a strict discipline in refusing to outline and set ‘preconditions’ for participation in government. Doing so, it argued, would restrict negotiating options and tie the party’s hands. However, in the absence of declared ‘red lines’, green interest groups, media commentators and opposition politicians took it upon themselves to set preconditions on behalf of the Green Party.

Those preconditions included the use of Shannon Airport in the south west of Ireland by American troops, something the Greens have long opposed. So, too, is the construction of a new motorway near the “Hill of Tara” – Ireland’s ancient seat of pagan ritual and tribal kings and an area central to the cultural heritage of the country. Other issues the Party had previously taken positions against – the construction of the ‘Corrib’ gas pipeline in the North West of the country, and the encouragement through tax breaks and other financial incentives of private healthcare services (called “co-location” as the new facilities would be built on existing public hospital sites) – were less central to the party’s core policy agenda, but nonetheless were closely identified with it, especially in the campaigns in late June.

As the election campaign concluded, and before talks had started, the Party did outline three “dealmakers” – areas in which progress would have to be made before the Greens would be interested in participating. These were climate change, education and political reform.

Election Results

Despite a vigorous campaign that saw the party’s share of national first preference votes increase by 22 percent from 3.84 percent in 2002 to 4.69 percent in 2007, the Greens were “squeezed” by the polarization of the vote between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. While Mary White won a seat for the first time in Carlow-Kilkenny, becoming the party’s first TD in a rural area, Boyle lost his seat, leaving the party with six TDs, the same number as before.

What changed however, was electoral support for the parties of the government. FF went from 81 to 78 seats, while its junior coalition partner, the Progressive Democrats (PD), fell from eight seats to two. Instead of having a solid majority in the 166-member Dáil, FF two-term Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Bertie Ahern now needed new coalition partners.

In contrast, FG was the major winner, gaining 20 seats to bring its total to 51, while Labor lost one seat, going into the 30th Dáil with 20. This left FG and Labor – which dubbed themselves the”‘Alliance for Change” with a joint policy platform during the election campaign – with 71 seats, too few to form a government.

At the same time, SF also lost one of its five seats – and, in any event, both FF and FG had ruled out going into government with SF before the election. As a result, barring an extremely unlikely “grand coalition” between FF and FG, the prospects led to either a coalition government including the Greens, the PD and FF, or perhaps an unstable minority government between FF and PD.

The Negotiations

As part of its pre-election preparations, the Greens established a committee in 2006 that would already be in place, and had worked at formulating positions and strategies for talks to enter government, should the opportunity arise. Called the Hamilton Committee in honor of the party’s late general secretary Dermot Hamilton, this allowed the party to quickly enter meaningful negotiations with FF soon after the general election concluded.

The committee consisted of Gormley, Boyle and party’s current general secretary Dónall Geoghegan, and was designed to represent a crosscurrent of internal party tendencies, so that if it reached an agreement, it would likely be representative of the party as a whole.

Six days of intensive talks led to much progress. However during this time, it became clear that FF would budge neither on the controversial motorway near the Hill of Tara nor on the issue of US troops through Shannon. They were also firmly wedded to co-location. Repeated attempts for substantive additional prioritization of public transport were stonewalled.

Greens Walk Away From Potential Deal

On June 9, Sargent released the following statement:

“I wish to announce that negotiations on the formation of a government with Fianna Fáil have now concluded without agreement. At the beginning of this process we set the objective of forming a stable government and securing a sustainable future for this country. While many areas of common ground were identified, it was not possible at this time to construct a program for government that met with the minimum policy objectives of both parties.

“The decision to end the talks was taken after a series of cordial and constructive meetings between both teams of negotiators. These detailed discussions were entered into with good faith and every avenue was explored in order to come up with a workable document. However, despite clear areas of agreement, it was not possible to identify common ground on a number of core policy issues of importance to the Party. These areas include:
• Measures to tackle climate change, including forward-thinking transport and congestion solutions
• Funding to bring the education system into the 21st century
• The transformation of local government, including action to modernize the decision-making and planning processes
• Reform of the health care system
“In each of these areas substantial blockages still remain. Because of this, the Party does not believe it could enter government and stand over the policy proposals.

“I would like to thank our team of negotiators and backroom staff for their professionalism and dedication. I would also like to praise our membership and our elected representatives for the continued discipline shown during the past week. We remain committed to forming a government and will continue to explore all avenues with this in mind. However the current deal on offer is not sufficient and will not best serve the interests of our country.”

As a result of Sargent’s announcement, the Green Party cancelled a special convention scheduled to consider approving the deal, which was required under party bylaws. But with a deadline of June 15 to form a government, this only accelerated the negotiation process.

On June 11, Ahern contacted Sargent directly to see whether the two leaders could bring the process to a successful conclusion. Ahern also created a positive spin in the Sunday morning papers, talking favorably about the negotiations thus far. At the same time, he stated that he would seek to form a government by June 15 with or without the Greens. However, while Ahern could have formed a government with the PD and four independents, it would not have been as stable as one with the Greens. With three parties coming together, supported by the independents, they would have a combined strength of 86 seats, providing a comfortable 12-seat majority.

The Talks Reconvene

Apparently the message that the Greens were not prepared to do a deal at any cost hit home. Ahern and Sargent met privately on the night of Sunday, June 11 and, after an intensive exchange, the two party leaders announced that talks would reopen the next day.

At the end of 10 arduous days of talks, the Green Party’s refusal to specify “deal breakers” or draw “red lines” allowed the negotiating team and the Party Leader to return with a government program and a package of government positions that they believed represented the best deal available. This included a commitment by Ahern to appoint two Green Cabinet Ministers, a commitment brokered by Sargent as part of the agreement to come back to the table.

A “reference group” made up of the parliamentary party and representatives from the different decision-making groups in the Party were also in daily contact with the negotiators. They charted progress and offered tactical and strategic input. Ultimately they signed off on the deal, late on June 13.

The Convention

As required by Green Party’s bylaws, a special convention was convened the following day, with a 2/3 vote required to approve the deal. Without it, the Greens could not join the government.

The convention was held in Dublin at the historic Mansion House on Dawson Street, official residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin since 1715. Despite the short notice, more than 500 of the approximately 1,000 party members eligible to vote were in attendance.

The draft program for government was made available to party members at 1 p.m., and the official convention convened at 3 p.m., starting with a presentation and a questions-and-answers session. Debate began at 6 p.m., lasting until approximately 8:30 p.m., after which the vote was taken.

Sargent spoke for 15 minutes, passionately favoring the party’s entry to government, and he received a standing ovation. However the joy was tinged with sadness as he immediately resigned his post as party leader, which he had held since 2001, saying that “integrity was a principle that should not be compromised because during the campaign he had given a pledge to the Irish people that if the Greens were going into government with FF, he would resign as leader.”

Ultimately, the party’s rank and file gave the landmark deal the go-ahead by 441 votes to 67 votes (86.8 percent), easily passing the needed 2/3 threshold for approval.

Despite the disappointment expressed by a number of speakers over many details of the program the party had negotiated, the two full ministerial positions Sargent secured in tough last-minute talks with Ahern helped sway the vote.

Even Cuffe, who had earlier written on his blog that “a deal with FF would be a deal with the devil”, voted Yes. “Having two Green ministers at the Cabinet table is an unprecedented opportunity to have huge influence over the direction of Ireland over the next five years. It is a major step forward. It will be a roller coaster but a good roller coaster.”

Other long-time members like McKenna however did not support the deal. “There is nothing in there on the continuing use of Shannon by the US military. I’m very disappointed on that. I have to vote with my conscience and my conscience says no to this.” Garland agreed, saying he felt “betrayed” by the party leadership and that many party members were disgusted by the prospect of sustaining, rather than overthrowing Ahern.

Why Take the Deal?

There is no question that both the process of negotiating for government and the resulting policy program necessitated major compromises. The experience was a very new one for the party, which had only known 25 years of opposition politics and, as a result, a strength of conviction and moral purity relatively unique in Irish politics. Most public representatives and party members come from backgrounds with NGOs and community groups The negotiation process they experienced radically shifted them from their comfort zones.

On policy, the party’s willingness to walk away from the negotiating table, however, did achieve several important initiatives. On climate change and energy, they negotiated for a carbon tax, an annual greenhouse gas emission reduction target of 3 percent and the establishment of national green building standards. On education, they achieved significant class size reduction through the hiring of more teachers. On agriculture, they set the nation’s first target to convert a minimum 5 percent of acreage to organic farmland by 2012 and took steps towards declaring all of Ireland a genetically-modified organism Free Zone. On political reform, they established an independent Electoral Commission to take responsibility for electoral administration and oversight. And on transportation and land use planning, they got a major commitment to public transport and transparent local government.

(A document summarizing key Green achievements in the deal as well as the full program for government is available at: http://www.greenparty.ie)

But perhaps the most important part of the deal were the ministerial and other appointed positions the Greens achieved – Gormley as Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and Ryan as Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. In addition, Sargent was named the Junior Minister for Agriculture and Food and there is a commitment for the Greens to gain a second junior ministry half-way through the parliamentary term.

There will also be two Green Party Senators either appointed or elected through voting agreements in July. Appointments to the Senate are also key to the medium term future of the party because they offer a much improved platform from which top candidates could launch campaigns for the next general election, due before 2012. One of these two positions is expected to go to Boyle, who was the party’s former finance spokesperson and only lost his seat by a handful of votes. As author of the party’s economics and tax policies he is considered a hugely important asset, and his holding of a Senate seat would be an important way he could remain visibly involved in the party.

Finally, the Party stands to gain somewhere between six and eight new staff posts as a result of its role in government.

According to the Party’s press officer, Damian Connon, who offered the pros and cons of the government victory: “The factors that – in my opinion – convinced the party’s leadership and in the end, a very large majority of party members, that the deal was worth supporting were, a) an acceptance that agreed programs for coalition governments have historically been closer to mission statements than blueprints, and, b) a belief that, with the right ministries, the Greens could achieve significant policy progress that would not happen without their involvement in government, and that this would justify the significant risks involved in making some of the compromises.”

“By contrast,” Connon added “the option of rejecting the possibility to enter government, while desirable in terms of policy purity and the occupation of the higher moral ground, would have involved its own strategic risks.”

After several years of the Irish public’s widespread exposure to key green issues including climate change and environmental protection, and having enjoyed its highest media profile ever in the six months ahead of the elections, the Green Party failed to increase vote share significantly in targeted constituencies this year. The 10 percent polls that they enjoyed as recently as March became 4.7 percent on Election Day. At least three of their TDs endured uncomfortably close counts before they were elected and the four main hopefuls for electoral breakthrough polled at levels much lower than anticipated. Boyle’s loss in Cork, Ireland’s second largest city, may also reinforce the perception of the Greens as a Dublin-based party, despite the success around the country of elected Greens on local councils.

The reasons behind these disappointing results will surely be debated. But it is clear that insufficient resources (both financial and human) compared to FF and FG, and a perceived lack of credibility as a party of government certainly played a part. It is also possible that by failing to align themselves with the opposition FG/Labor alliance, those Irish voters who wanted FF out of government could not be guaranteed to achieve this by voting for the Greens.

Therefore, in an environment where polarization of Irish politics took precedence over voting Green, and skepticism over whether Greens can govern helped limit the Green vote, the Irish Greens had to make a choice. Do they remain in opposition for another five years and hope the breakthrough they expected this time happens then, while perhaps even risking backsliding during that time? Or do they decide to become part of the government now, risking sharing power with a party they’ve considered antithetical to Green policies in the past, in exchange for the opportunity to make significant policy gains, and to demonstrate that Greens can exercise power effectively? Based upon the Mansion House convention’s overwhelming 441-67 vote, it appears the party’s grassroots was willing to take the chance.

As Sargent said of the party’s decision to enter government, “This is a great day, a historic occasion and a wonderful achievement for the Green Party. After 25 years of struggle, the possibility is there to see our policies implemented in government. It’s the day when courage won out, and when a hunger for change prevailed over the status quo.”