29 October 2008

he is a Whiz of a Wiz if ever a Wiz there was

As I made a delicious bean casserole last night, the Very Understanding Girlfriend and I paused as the giant head of John Gormley floated on the wall beside us (courtesy of our projector and RTE News) to say, Great and Powerful Oz-like, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

This seemingly unconditional support of the budget has infuriated many Green supporters no end, who have been vocally calling for Gormley to do the right thing, and pull out of Government in protest over the budget, but unfortunately at this stage this is the one thing that the Greens cannot do.

When the Greens fought the last election, many of the issues central to their campaign (objection to the Tara bypass and the Shell Corrib pipeline and the halting of the Shannon refuelling stop for US military planes) brought them in many voters beyond the die-hard environmentalists. The lack of a differentiation factor between the policies of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael also brought many new voters to the Greens, who were prepared to vote with their conscience for a party whose positions were clearly identifiable. Although the swing to the left was not as substantial as had been predicted, the Greens were returned to the Dail in a deal-making position and thus after a heated convention the majority of party members voted to enter into government. A vocal minority continued to oppose this, as did significant numbers of non-members who voted for the Greens with the desire for a change in government.

if all of this sounds familiar its because this is exactly what happened in 1992 for Labour under Dick Spring. In the general election Labour won over 19% of first preference votes, double the highest result they had ever achieved before. Rather than accept the vote as a mandate for change from the electorate, they chose to enter government with Fianna Fail, who had been in power since 1987. In the next election, 1997, Labour were punished dramatically for this and to this day have yet to recover. Labour's time had indeed come, but with that one decision perhaps destroyed the left in Ireland for generations to come.

John Gormley remembers the 1997 election, as it saw him first elected to the Dail after a marathon recount lasting many days in which he defeated Michael McDowell by only 27 votes. Perhaps it was this head-to-head battle that distracted him from what was happening to Labour throughout the country, for it seems that he did not learn from history and is thus surely doomed to repeat it.

With no significant results to show from their time in office thus far (the introduction of the carbon budget last year had been a positive move, but in the light of the wider budget changes this year it will appear to the electorate as nothing more than greenwashing), and with the abandonment of many of the platforms on which they campaigned, the public perception of the Greens is possibly at an all time low. To pull out of Government now and attempt to recapture the high moral ground would be viewed by the electorate as too little, too late, and the party would suffer the same devastation in a general election as they are about to in the local elections.

While there are those in the party who would support a period in the wilderness as a chance to regroup, reaffirm what the part stands for and recapture some of the idealism that has been lost, if the Labour experience is anything to go by it would take upwards of ten years before the party is in any shape to once again have an impact. However given the mainstreaming of ecological issues and the adoption of a green platform by all of the major parties, in ten years time there might not be the need for a specialised ecological party as green issues are accepted by, and fought over, all mainstream parties, much in the way health, education and the economy are the province of no single party today. Potentially Greens are a movement of the moment, and this is why they seized the opportunity to go into Government now, for it was now, or never.

Gormley's only hope is to ride this crises out and hope the Greens can make a significant positive impact in the public arena next year once the fury over the budget has died down. However even if this works, history suggests that one day he may be remembered as the only person ever to lead the Greens in government in this country.

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