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And then there were none: can Greens rise from ashes?

Harry McGee - Irish Times

ANALYSIS: Party members meet this weekend to discuss its direction, but with no TDs will it remain a political force?

TREVOR SARGENT likens the Green Party going into government in 2007 to the plot of Saving Private Ryan. 

“Except that our mission was to save the children of the country. We had to go in. We could not wait any longer. Future generations needed their interest put first.”

Admirable sentiments, but four years later none would consider it a mission accomplished. Indeed, it arguably failed even to save itself and became an even bigger political victim than the Progressive Democrats in 2007, losing all its six Dáil seats in the general election. To compound that drubbing, its percentage of the national vote dipped to below 2 per cent, depriving it of State funding.

Put bluntly, the party is broke, its leading personalities hold no elected office and after 30 years in existence, it faces an uncertain future. The party’s membership comes together in a Dublin hotel tomorrow to pick over the entrails, to analyse its experience of government and to discuss where the party goes from here. The party has about 1,600 members (it was once as high as 3,000) and 300 are expected to attend tomorrow.

Ahead of the meeting, leader John Gormley has told members he will be stepping down. His explanation of what happened is also colourful: “One. We were in government. Two. We were in government with Fianna Fáil. Three. We were in government with Fianna Fáil during the worst recession in the State. It made our challenge insurmountable.”

The last massive setback suffered by the Greens was in 1992, when it managed to return only one TD to the Dáil.

“We had done very well in the local elections in 1991. We went in with very high hopes. We were washed away by the spring tide,” says Gormley.

Then Sargent was the only survivor. Now there are none. Gormley says setbacks like that are an inevitable fact of life for his party. “It’s always going to be volatile when you are a cutting-edge party like the Green Party. We are seen by the electorate as dispensable on occasion.”

The problems now are of a greater magnitude. Then the party could fall back on a large number of councillors. But the 2009 local elections also took their toll. It lost all but three of its 16 full council seats. Both Gormley and Sargent say the leadership will listen to what members say tomorrow. The membership will determine the direction of the party, says Gormley, but he is convinced the future is strong.

“Are Labour more radical or progressive than the Greens? Is Fine Gael ethically superior? I do not think so. This election was about people wanting change. The Greens were blamed wrongly for so many things, like for the price of petrol going up.”

Sargent is also phlegmatic: “The German Greens were nearly wiped out in the last election, but are now up to 20 per cent in the polls,” he points out.

Still, he says, there are few priorities that need urgent attention.

“We need new members. We need to work on financing quickly and to get good young Greens.”

He said that when the party bombed in 1992, he was 32 and full of energy. “I’m over 50 now. It’s not the same. There is a natural renewal. It’s a predominantly young party. We need a healthy mix between experience and younger people. We need hurlers, political street fighters.”

Without money, it will become voluntary. He recalls his own mother and John Gormley in the late 1980s taking time out to regularly cross O’Connell Bridge wearing gas masks to highlight Dublin’s smog problems.

Since its foundation in 1981, it has been a broad church of activists with different views. There was a dichotomy between the “fundies” (no compromise fundamentalists) and “realos” (political realists). More recently that has been reflected in two strands: radical older members and more compliant younger recruits. Many radicals left in 2007 over the Shell, Tara/M3 and Shannon stopover issues.

So what do the members and interested parties think it needs to do? Already there’s a debate about whether it should continue as a political party or become a grassroots campaigning movement, positioned between a political party and an NGO.

For Oisín Coghlan of Friends of the Earth, it became very clear politically, that after the banking crisis the Greens sensed talking about climate change became counterproductive.

“But if the Greens kept fighting the climate change debate, unlike all the other issues, it was something you were not on the back foot about all the time,” he argues.

He and his colleague Molly Walsh still believe there’s a need for a party with a bottom line on the climate. “There’s a lot of talk about going back to grassroots campaigning,” says Walsh. “But people who have drifted away won’t come back. They feel the Greens sold out over the M3 through Tara, the Shannon stopover and Shell.”

A former member in the west says he left because he realised the party had no bottom line. “When the extent of the bank crisis became known last October, it was clear they were going to stay in power no matter what.

“They had some success; civil partnership and the Planning Act. But they did not understand they were contributing to the problem and not solving it.”

The party’s former press officer Steve Rawson said its political and communications strategy failed. “The need to show they were strong and responsible and would not run when tough decisions needed to be made.

“The tactic backfired. They were wrongfooted and were seen to be following the Fianna Fáil line on over-70s medical cards and Bertie Ahern’s , leaving it to others to criticise them.”

He argued that the spate of rushed legislation at the end on climate change and corporate donations highlighted what had not been achieved.

“It will be a long time before the Greens will be trusted again. I know that sounds harsh. It is very difficult for me to say that. Their policies are excellent. Certainly they had worthy successes in government, but they were too few.”

Dublin-based Paul O’Brien, a member since 1986, argues for a return to a more radical stance. He says the party is badly damaged and the leadership “needs to start listening to its grass roots, rather than getting into consensus with coalition partners”.

Prominent younger members, like 28-year old Roderic O’Gorman from west Dublin , says the party needs to maintain a strong political focus rather than becoming a campaigning movement.

“For NGOs and activists, leaving the political side to other parties is not good.”

That said, he is not without criticism. “We need a frank look at how we operated in government, how we communicated, internally and externally. There were major flaws. We have to be honest. The Green Party needs to return to bringing a green message. I see that as absolutely vital.”

If the Greens remain a political party, its priority will have to be reclaiming political representation in the local and European elections in 2014. “We need to find the right candidates, the strongest candidates to put us back on the right track,” says Gormley.

Despite the election calamity, the party has a strong future, he says: “We are 30 years in existence. We know that a recovery is possible. That process will begin at the meeting on Saturday.”

Posted Date: 
25 March 2011