20 January 2008

Green Party divided over Europe

Ireland's Green Party, for seven months now the junior partner in the new government, is divided over the future of the European Union. Party delegates met yesterday in Dublin and voted in favour of supporting the Lisbon Treaty in the forthcoming referendum, but fell just short of the required two thirds majority. Of the 318 delegates eligible to vote at the conference, 195 (63%) supported the Treaty, while 117 (27%) opposed it.

This means that the party itself will not take a clear position on the matter, and that individual members will be free to support whichever side they wish. Even though leading party members try to play down the division, it appears that the Green Party is now split into two factions.

Party leader and Environment Minister John Gormley, himself strongly in favour of the Lisbon Treaty, accepted the result and congratulated all those who had spoken on both sides.
But former MEP Patricia McKenna, a leading opponent of the Treaty, said she was "over the moon", as she had feared the party leadership might secure a two thirds majority. The result of the vote, she stated, meant that the party membership would not be "pushed around", and claimed that it would strengthen the hands of the two Green Party ministers in government as it showed that "there were some things the members would not stand for".

These are optimistic words, but I doubt that they have much weight in the forthcoming debate. Despite her role as one of the pioneers of the Green Party and the environmental movement in Ireland, Patricia McKenna has lost a lot of her once strong political clout and influence since she lost her seat in the European Parliament in 2004. She failed to win a seat in the 2007 general elections and was side-lined in the party's leadership contest that followed soon after. By now she represents little more than her own personal position and opinion.

The current decision makers in the party are the three men who brought the Greens into the coalition with the main government party Fianna Fail (and were handsomely rewarded for doing so). They are John Gormley, the new Green Party leader and Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government (left), Eamon Ryan, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources (right) and former party leader Trevor Sargent, now junior minister in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (below right).

By joining Fianna Fail, the party they fought most vehemently in opposition, the Greens have not only crossed a big political rift, but nailed their colours firmly to the mast of the coalition.
For many Irish people, including Green Party members, this was a betrayal of traditional Green values and positions.
I tend to share this view myself and will not support the Greens in future. For me they have abandoned their principals and gone over to the other side, without need or being forced to do so. After nearly 25 years of clean, moral and progressive policies in opposition the change to a supporter and junior partner of the most corrupt force in Irish politics is simply too much to bear. But what I personally will never forget and forgive the Greens is that by joining Fianna Fail in the current coalition they kept the defeated and decimated remnants of the right-wing ultra-capitalist Progressive Democrats in power as well, and - most tragically - their leader Mary Harney in her position as Minister for Health. More than anything else this is doing enormous damage to our health service, and thousands of sick and elderly people are suffering as a consequence.

For me it is therefore not very important if the Green Party supports the Lisbon Treaty or not. Being the only of the 27 EU countries whose constitution requires a referendum on any new EU treaty, it will be the Irish people who decide the matter, and not political parties.
Since the government will be pressing for a "yes" vote, the Green ministers will have no choice but to do the same, unless they wish to resign from their only recently acquired positions. This is most unlikely. Among the ordinary party members and supporters around the country there is already a clear division of minds, and not only over the Lisbon Treaty.
The referendum debate only shows more clearly that the Green leaders left many long-standing supporters behind when they joined Fianna Fail in government. It does not help that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern is coming under ever more pressure to reveal and clarify his muddled financial affairs, and it will be more important and of more interest to voters what position the Greens take in this matter. It was no secret that Mr. Ahern has serious question to answer when the Green Party decided to support him as Taoiseach. They could have supported a "rainbow" coalition with Fine Gael and the Labour Party, which would not only have been much closer to their own political principles, but also given Ireland a new political start, much needed after more than ten years of Fianna Fail dominated governments.

Having sold their political soul to Bertie Ahern, the Green Party will now have to live with the consequences. Observers predict that the division over the Lisbon Treaty is only the beginning of their problems, and that the cracks in the once fairly united environmental movement are widening.
Green ministers in government might well bring us more restrictions and bureaucracy, higher taxes and an already unpopular ban of traditional light bulbs. But they will not change the structure and direction of Fianna Fail and might well have to pay the price for their decision in the next elections, in the same way as Labour Party and Progressive Democrats did after being in coalition with Fianna Fail.

The Emerald Islander

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