Possibly the first ‘viral’ moment in the Dáil (Irish Parliament) was provided by the Green TD for Dublin Mid-West, Paul Gogarty. It’s certainly eye (and ear) catching:
After nearly 20 years of building support the Irish Greens/Comhontas Glas entered Government as junior coalition partners to Fianna Fáil in mid-2007. The 2007 election had been a success. Greens held their own in a squeeze.
Having entered a Fianna Fáil led government Greens hold two cabinet positions, and have a junior minister.
The coalition has proved difficult for the Irish Greens. Electorally it has been a disaster and is very likely to result in a Green wipe out in the next election. In the 2009 European elections Greens should have won at least 2 MEPs. Instead, in Dublin, they finished behind Patricia McKenna, a former Green MEP running as an independent, who left the party in protest at the behaviour of Greens in coalition. Their combined votes would have won them a seat but in the event neither was elected.
The massive decline in Green popularity is down to two principal causes. The first is the catastrophic decline in the Irish economy. From being the fastest growing economy in Europe, Ireland has become (with Spain and Greece) one of the most spectacular economic failures in the world. The move from an export led economy to an economy based on a property bubble (property prices in Dublin matched those in London) in the early years of the century was always going to end badly.
While Fianna Fáil has been held responsible for the collapse, Greens have shared the blame for the solutions. The economic austerity package has involved cuts in benefits to the poorest, sizeable pay cuts for public servants and a freeze on infrastructure investment.
The more the government cuts spending, the deeper the recession becomes. The deeper the recession the lower tax take becomes. This means more cuts. Of course, this is why it is essential that government maintains its spending in a recession. The Irish Greens have participated in this economically illiterate strategy. It is a strategy compounded by the retention of Europe’s lowest corporation tax rates.
Many Green voters in Ireland, as the rest of Europe believe that when they vote Green they are voting for a party of social and environmental justice. It’s here that the Irish Greens have got it catastrophically wrong. Instead of resisting the neo-liberal shock doctrine of Fianna Fáil, they have gone along with it in return for a range of environmental measures.
The Green gains in Ireland have included the proposed carbon tax, a cycle to work scheme, better standards for insulation in housing and promotion of local and community food growing. These are all good things. They seem, however, meaningless to an electorate left reeling by Fianna Fáil’s cynical use of the recession to launch an attack on the poor. People no longer understand what the Greens stand for. They are very unlikely to vote for them in the next 10 years.
What’s more, even the gains made by Greens are likely to be lost once they are out of government.
If Scottish Greens build on their best-ever result in the 2009 European elections they may well regain the 5 seats lost in 2007. This means there is a real prospect of participating in a coalition. So what can Greens in Scotland learn from the sorry Irish tale?
The Irish example is particularly relevant because of the similarity between Ireland’s two mass parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil; and Scotland’s, Labour and the SNP.
One key lesson is that Greens have to be very cautious about who they enter coalitions with. It is also vital that when they enter coalitions the policies they pursue have a broader appeal. This means that worthy schemes to promote growing vegetables must be paired with assurances that social justice and poverty elimination will not be forgotten.
In Scotland Greens must be absolutely clear about what a Labour led coalition would mean. Greens would find Labour’s position on justice very difficult to justify. It is hard to see Greens retaining support in their electorate for more and longer jail sentences.. There would be real problems with Labour’s position on private finance for public services.
An SNP led administration would be difficult for Greens who are anxious about the focus on neo-liberal growth (currently the top priority of the SNP Scottish Government). The inspiration drawn by the SNP from Fianna Fáil’s management of the Irish economy suggests that, given Calman powers on the economy they may make similar decisions to Fianna Fáil . The SNP may respond after the 2011 election to any ongoing or new crisis in Scotland’s economic performance with the shock doctrine that Fianna Fáil have taken to the Irish economy. Most importantly the SNP appear obsessed with spending public money on big ticket road and bridge projects, not on promoting equality and environmental justice.
The Green vote is a coalition of environmentalists, feminists, and people concerned about social justice. Ignoring the interests and values of any of these groups makes it difficult for the electorate to understand what Greens stand for, it makes Greens difficult to trust. And people don’t vote for parties that they don’t trust.