So we’ve got a new government. Kind of. In truth it looks suspiciously like the old one. Like someone you know who suddenly looks different, and it takes you a few moments to realise they’ve got a new pair of glasses.
Bertie’s still in charge. Fianna Fáil are still the party of power. And the Progressive Democrats are still ruining the health service. Did I say “ruining”? I’m sorry; I meant “running” of course.
So no change there then.
But that’s not the whole story. There’s the new pair of glasses… Bertie invited The Greens to the cabinet table and after a week of negotiations (which seems like a long time to insert the words “and Green Party” into the Fianna Fáil manifesto) they accepted. However, despite having voted Green myself (at the very least implying I wanted them to be part of a governing coalition), I’m fairly worried about this development. My own analysis of the election result is that the electorate essentially voted with its wallet. It voted for the continuation of the economic boom of the past decade (I know, I know, don’t get me started). Fianna Fáil were returned to power because people didn’t want to upset the economic applecart. And what frustrations they did have with the government; they took out on the coalition partners — the PDs — who were given a serious kicking.
If the Greens aren’t careful, they’ll end up as little more than Fianna Fáil’s new scapegoat. And that has the potential not only to discredit them as a political party, but to do serious damage to the wider environmental movement in Ireland. Careful now.
The first word that sprung to mind when the counts started to come in was “unimaginative”. Fianna Fáil’s share of the vote remained almost steady, losing only 4 seats; remarkable for a party that’s held power for the past ten years. Meanwhile the other large centre-right party — Fine Gael — recovered from its disastrous showing last time and gained 20 seats. A significant comeback that not only secures Enda Kenny as party leader for the foreseeable future, but also demolished the smaller parties. Labour, meanwhile, were down one seat against all media predictions which had suggested they’d pick up seats as part of Fine Gael’s Alliance For Change. In the event, their static performance probably means it will be Pat Rabbitte’s last election as party leader. Look for them to change leadership within a year.
In the run up to the election it had been the smaller parties who had been predicted to do well. I believe that this expectation ended up driving support away from them. The people got freaked out by the possibility that they might actually change something… challenge the established system… and they voted safe instead. So the genuinely popular leader of the Irish Socialist Party lost his seat in one of the shocks of the election, leaving the Dáil without any traditional hammer’n'anvil old-style Socialist TDs. This will be to the detriment of Irish political life in my view.
Sinn Féin had been predicted to make serious inroads, to become a real force in Irish politics. Instead they lost one of their five seats. People have been asking whether it was their politics or their history that put the voters off. I don’t think it was either. I just think they suffered, along with every other alternative to the Big Two, in the headlong rush to the centre-right.
The PDs though. That was an odd one. From 8 seats down to 2, and party leader and Minister for Justice Michael McDowell losing his. That was the closest we came this election to a “Portillo moment”… McDowell resigning from public life and buggering off home leaving the PDs leaderless on what was already a dire night for them. Oh how I grinned. Though I suspect my grin wasn’t half as wide as the one on the face of Gerry Adams. His party may not have been doing so well, but he could at least console himself with the knowledge that his bitterest political rival south of the border was doing so much worse.
The trouble is, of course, that just like the original Portillo moment, the demise of the PDs isn’t about The Fall of The Right. Sadly it’s merely the result of someone else successfully occupying that territory. Back in the 80s when the PDs emerged, they were all about pushing Ireland away from thoughts of socialism and towards the beckoning Celtic Tiger. They like to take credit for that, but that’s because they misunderstand the complexities of social and cultural evolution. The PDs were merely a symptom of a global change. Teenage spots, or menopausal hot-flushes. And now that the change has occurred, they’re pretty much cleared up. Sorry, irrelevant.
But, as Mary Harney reminds us, even adults get the occasional pimple once in a while.
Despite the resurgence of Fine Gael, the decimation of the PDs and the loss of four Fianna Fáil seats wasn’t enough to push Bertie’s Team out (thanks in no small part to the underwhelming performance by Labour). He was only six short of an overall majority. The two PDs could be counted on, which left him only needing four. Of the five remaining independents (down from 13), four of them were either ex-Fianna Fáil or known to be broadly in support of the party. So he had his government, and he let everyone know it. He didn’t need another coalition partner, but because it was such a slender majority, he acknowledged that another partner would certainly make the government more stable.
Enter: The Greens
The Green Party had — like Sinn Féin — been expected to gain a bunch of seats. They had 6 seats and conservative predictions saw them picking up at least four more. Some even suggested they could end up with as many as 14 or 15 TDs in the new Dáil. In the end they stayed steady; lost a couple of seats, but picked up a couple elsewhere (it was a Green who pushed McDowell out in Dublin South-East). All the same, despite the (against predictions) poor showing, they had enough seats to turn Bertie’s slender majority into a workable one.
For Fianna Fáil it meant they didn’t have to contemplate getting into bed with Sinn Féin — for Bertie to invite Sinn Féin to form part of the Irish government would be an incredibly controversial, and very risky, move. He’s happy to leave that particular nettle to be grasped by some future leader of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. And talking to The Greens also meant that Fianna Fáil didn’t need to engage with Labour. Pat Rabbitte’s 20 TDs would have demanded far more influence at the cabinet table than the 6 Greens could realistically expect.
And so the negotiations began. A friend of mine insisted that “Shannon will be the sticking point”. By this she meant that the Greens couldn’t possibly be part of a government that allowed the US military to use Shannon airport. Then the newspapers revealed that they’d caved on Shannon. They were prepared to be part of a government that actively supported the US military. My friend was disgusted. “That’s the last time they get my vote. What was the fucking point of their manifesto anyway?” Elsewhere… “Tara will be the sticking point”. In other words, the Greens couldn’t possibly be part of a government that drove a motorway through the Tara Valley. That would be just silly, right?
Well… it turns out the final act of the outgoing Fianna Fáil Environment and Heritage Minister, Dick Roche, was to sign the go-ahead for the M3. I guess at least it lifts the burden of responsibility from the incoming Green Environment and Heritage Minister, John Gormley. He’ll merely have to oversee this “act of cultural and historic vandalism” (Green Party Environment spokesperson, Ciarán Cuffe TD, 31st March 2005) rather than approve it. Just imagine if the Greens are not part of the next government. Just imagine if this turns out to be their one shot at power for a generation. What a legacy, eh?
TV Quiz Show Host, 2019: When The Green Party enjoyed their one period in office during the troubled government of 2007-10, what is acknowledged to have been their primary achievement?
Contestant: Was it supervising the destruction of Ireland’s most important Heritage Site, the Tara Valley, Alan?
TV Quiz Show Host (Alan): Yes it was Joan! And that brings your total up to… a staggering… 14.75 litres of fuel oil!!!
Contestant (Joan): Thankyou.
Also, when the Green Party asked the question (as they did), with respect to the M3, “How much of Ireland’s history is this Government prepared to sacrifice on the altar of economic growth?” I wonder did they imagine they’d be in a position to answer it too?
The party I voted for has been given two seats at the new cabinet table. John Gormley (expected to be the new party leader after Trevor Sargent stepped down post-election in order to keep his promise of not leading them into government with Fianna Fáil) gets Environment and Heritage, while Eamon Ryan was given the Ministry of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. These are clearly key departments from the perspective of implementing more sustainable national policies. So why am I so unhappy?
Well, because I didn’t actually vote for the people. I voted for their damn policies. I voted for a party that pledged to end US military flights in and out of Shannon. I voted for a party that called the routing of the M3 an “act of cultural and historic vandalism”. I voted for a manifesto that pledged to stop that vandalism. Instead we have Greens in government and US military aircraft still fly in and out. And I can’t even say “Well, at least I wouldn’t vote for a party that would allow such a thing.” Wrong! Turns out the people I voted for are happy to allow it — in my name, no less — in return for the chance to influence policy at some unspecified point in the future. And who knows when that point will be? After all, those two ministers are going to have their hands full implementing Bertie’s vision for the next while.
I don’t know… I do hear the arguments… yes Bertie would still have been Taoiseach if the Greens hadn’t jumped on board. Maybe he’d have done a deal with Labour. Maybe he’d have tried to go it alone with the PDs and independents. But by staying out of government, The Greens would not have been preventing Bush refuelling his planes here or stopping the M3 from being built. And that’s a fact. These things would happen with or without Green involvement, and maybe — just maybe — they’ll have a chance to influence things for the better from the inside.
The trouble is, I just don’t believe it. I’d have preferred they stuck to the policies they campaigned on, even if that meant opposing from without rather than influencing from within. Because when all’s said and done, you have to take responsibility for what you do and not what you promised to do. Right now the Greens are helping to govern this country, so every time a CIA plane lands in Shannon it is doing so with Green Party approval… and thanks to representative democracy… with my approval. There’s a line in the TV show Angel… Fred insists “we’re not evil, we’re changing the system from within”. Gunn replies wearily, “y’know, it sounds really naive when you actually say it out loud”.