18 June 2009

Of our elaborate plans, the end

Got an email this week from the Green Party central office:
"The Green Party National Executive Committee on Saturday decided to call a Members' Conference for mid to late July in order to consult members about the review of the Programme for Government. We will notify members as soon as a date and venue have been decided. In the meantime, members of the Parliamentary Party have offered to attend Constituency Group meetings around the country as we are notified of them."
Short and sweet, very much a "we know there's a problem, let's all take a deep breath and come back in a while to deal with it" message.

In hindsight the government was never in any danger of collapsing in the wake of the election. A number of RTE reports and newspaper articles have all highlighted the fact that if an election were to happen anytime soon almost all the Green TDs would lose their seats. The party now needs to focus on wringing more concessions from Fianna Fail as it renegotiates the program for Government in the hope that when an election finally does happen it can go to the country with a string of high profile and visible wins that can be attributed directly to their actions in government, and not just to their implementation of legislation already agreed at a European level. This will not be easy, given the failure of the "50% of new jobs are green jobs" message during the local and EU campaigns.

The election was very disappointing for the Greens, but the real disappointment is not at the national level, but at the local level with the loss of almost every single Green city and county councilor. The international green message has always been one of "think global and act local", and it has been at a local level that the Greens have historically been most effective, able to tap into the strong feeling of community activism that has steadily been on the rise in this country over the last twenty years. It has been on the basis of this strong local community profile that national election success occurred - all current Green TDs had extensive careers as local councilors before entering national politics, most of them topping the polls at their last local election before entering national politics.
Dan Boyle
Cork City Council 1991 - 2002, TD 2002 - 2007, Senator 2007 to present
Ciaran Cuffe
Dublin City Council 1991 - 2002, TD 2002 to present
Deirdre De Burca
Wicklow County Council 1999 - 2007, Senator 2007 to present
Paul Gogharty
South Dublin County Council 1999 - 2002, TD 2002 to present
John Gormley
Dublin City Council 1991 - 1997, TD 1997 to present
Eamon Ryan
Dublin City Council 1998 - 2002, TD 2002 to present
Trevor Sargent
Fingal County Council 1991 - 1992, TD 1992 to present
Mary White
Carlow County Council 1999 - 2007, TD 2007 to present
While some like Sergent had a high profile before the County Council, and served only a relatively short apprenticeship at local level, the average time spent at local level for the current Green front bench is six and a half years, or at least two local election cycles, before their local support base was strong enough to help them make the leap to a national level.

This local support base is now gone.

Local elections are held every five years, meaning that barring co-option onto a given council there will be only three local Green politicians until 2014. Given that five of the current six Green TDs served their apprenticeship on Dublin city or county councils, the lack of any Green representation at local level in Dublin has even graver consequences than the national picture.

If a national election were to be held within the next twelve months and, as predicted, the Greens lost all their current seats, they would in all likelihood also loose their two Seanead seats. With no local elections until 2014 the entire current front bench would have no opportunity to stay within the political sphere as elected representatives. If an election did occur early next year then the average time between elections since 1981 would be about 3.6 years, with Rainbow Coalitions lasting a shorter amount of time than Fianna Fail-lead ones. Three and a half years is a long time for the current Green front bench to try and stay in the public eye as unelected figures with no public mandate.

Beyond the fate of the current leaders, what of the party itself? Given the average length of Governments since the 80's, in the scenario above a subsequent national election would most likely happen before the 2014 local elections, so not only do the Greens stand to be eliminated in any immediate national election, they also do not have enough time to build up a local base of support to return to form in a subsequent national election, with only three current Green councilors nationally. If the Greens do manage to rebuild their local support by the next local elections, history suggests that it will be 2020 before any of the candidates newly elected at local level in 2014 are able to convert that support into a large enough local base to be elected to the Dail.

And by 2020 will there be in the public's mind any need for a separate Green Party, given the adoption and mainstreaming of traditional green platforms by the larger political parties?

The only hope for the long-term future of the party is to refocus its attention on involvement in and partnering with local and community level issues and groups. Its abandonment of support for community campaigns such as Shell to Sea, the Tara bypass and the Ringsend incinerator cost it local support that could have helped to overcome the public apathy towards the Greens' record at a national level in Government, and enabled the many hardworking local councilors to retain their positions, thus nurturing the seeds of the next generation of Green representatives at a national and international level.

In the immediate aftermath of his reelection in 2007, Ciaran Cuffe wrote "Let's be clear. A deal with Fianna Fáil would be a deal with the devil. We would be spat out after 5 years, and decimated as a Party".

It is more than a little sad to see how prescient he was.

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