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Ireland’s Greens have betrayed their voters and the planet

In February, Ireland voted Left. So why have the Greens put the establishment back in power?

Eoghan Gilmartin Tommy Greene
1 July 2020, 4.08pm
Irish Green Party leader Eamon Ryan
Green Party of Ireland

Ireland’s parliament elected a new three-party coalition government last Saturday which has been dubbed the country’s “greenest administration ever”. The programme for government hammered out between the two historic governing parties of the centre-right, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and the Irish Green Party has been lauded by everyone from the co-president of the European Greens Philippe Lamberts to Hollywood star Mark Ruffalo. Yet if the document contains a number of important initiatives, such as bans on gas fracking and fracked imports, it is ultimately a continuity agenda – in line with the previous decade of austerity.

Indeed as the Green Party’s own finance spokesperson Neasa Hourigan warned her colleagues: "Having negotiated the details of the document and sat in rooms for hours and hours, I really believe that this might be the most fiscally conservative government in a generation." February’s election saw the party winning a record 12 seats and 7.1 percent of the vote as it surged on the back of the climate strike movement. Yet having slowly rebuilt the party in the wake of its last disastrous coalition with Fianna Fáil at the height of the 2008 financial crisis, leader Eamon Ryan has once again chosen to align his party’s fate with Ireland’s right-wing establishment.

Ireland “cannot borrow cheaply forever”

The new power-sharing arrangement between the civil war rivals Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is something new in Irish politics. The two right-wing parties have alternated in government since the state’s foundation in 1922, and as recently as 2007 their combined vote reached 69 percent. Yet in February’s election this was reduced to 43 percent – with the old rivals subsequently choosing to close ranks before Sinn Féin’s left populist surge. 

The resulting agreement includes equal cabinet representation for the two major coalition partners and specifies a rotating Taoiseach (prime minister). Fianna Fáil’s Michael Martin will lead the government during its first two years before outgoing Taoiseach Leo Varadkar returns for the second half of the administration’s term. This novel arrangement, however, can only delay the loss of their monopoly on governmental power.

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Irish society has undergone profound social, economic and demographic changes over recent decades, which has created a stark generational divide in voting patterns. In February, Sinn Féin topped the polls by articulating the defining material demands of millennials and generation Z around housing costs, low-wage growth and failing public services. It won more votes than both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael combined with voters under 35. The Greens also performed strongly among younger voters as it promised a socially-just ecological transition – with an election manifesto that included a universal basic income, free public transport for students and a wealth tax on assets over €10 million.

None of these feature in the programme for government that the Greens signed up to. Instead the warnings from Varadkar and Ffinance Mminister Paschal Donohoe that Ireland “cannot borrow cheaply forever” looks likely to set the tone for the government’s five-year term as questions such as public investment or tackling the housing crisis take a back seat. While the programme contains a commitment for an initial post-Covid stimulus plan (the figures of which still remain unspecified), it also pledges to “reduce the deficit and return to a broadly balanced budget” in the medium term.  

To achieve this end, however, it rules out increasing income or corporation tax while also refusing to supportan EU- wide ‘Google tax’ on digital giants secured in part by the Greens’ partners in the European parliament. Instead, the bulk of the adjustment will come through public spending cuts – along with indirect taxes, such an increase in the state’s carbon tax and new levies on sugar and plastic. In short, the document charts a roadmap for a post-Covid recovery based on a continuation of Ireland’s low corporate tax model, which has seen a boom in the I.T and financial sectors but left the country with one of the highest levels of market income inequality in the OECD.

“Vote left, they said”

Faced with such a blueprint, there had been some doubt as to whether the Greens would succeed in mustering the ⅔ support threshold from its membership necessary for the government deal to gain approval. After a week of arm-twisting, on the back of a several-month-long negotiating stalemate, a comfortable 76% voted for the package.

Less than 10 years after the vicious austerity programme it helped Fianna Fáil implement between 2007 and 2011 had brought the party to the point of decimation, Eamon Ryan has signed up his grouping once again to an agenda of severe fiscal restraints and tax breaks for corporations, in exchange for a series of modest environmental proposals and three government ministries. This brand of ‘eco-austerity’ is sure to deepen neoliberalism’s grip on policy, while doing little in real terms to combat climate change.

The programme has been marketed and hailed as a ‘Green New Deal’ for Ireland by party representatives and sympathetic media commentators alike. However, climate scientist Professor John Sweeney has pointed out that one of the Greens’ key concessions – the much-vaunted commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 7% annually – is, in fact, a ‘legacy’ rather than a cast-iron guarantee – being back-loaded to the second half of the decade after the coalition leaves office. 

Indeed, the package’s green credentials are arguably defined more by what the deal does not cover than what it does. Ireland’s key tech and finance sectors, as well as its toxic agriculture model, will be untouched by the coalition’s plans. Large multinationals like Ryanair – which last year became the first company without a coal-fired plant to be named in Europe’s top 10 carbon emitters list – also emerge scot free.

Big-tech data centres are projected to account for 29 percent of Ireland’s electricity by 2028, with Amazon’s new data centre in Dublin set to use up as much electricity as the city of Galway as well as quantities of water equivalent to the needs of some of the largest towns on the island. It is telling of the nature of the Greens’ concessions that its programme contains no plans to curb or mitigate this activity. 

At a time when the exchequers of right-wing administrations, like UK chancellor, Rishi Sunak, are talking up ‘green jobs’ and lifting the language of Corbynism’s ‘Green Industrial Revolution’, this government’s plans for Ireland’s infrastructure appear arguably even less ambitious than those of its centre-right counterparts in other parts of Europe. One of the major concessions the Greens achieved was in relation to securing €360 million per year for pedestrian and cycling projects but  there are no plans to overhaul Ireland’s outdated rail network or to link up parts of the island through new green transport corridors. Similarly, there are no commitments on fare reductions, even though Dublin has among the highest public transport costs in Europe.

An instructive episode last summer – which saw the progress of a bill to block offshore oil and gas explorations in Irish waters halted after passing two Oireachtas (legislative) votes – also points to the challenges progressive Greens will face from the power of Ireland’s corporate lobby in implementing any of its more ambitious proposals, such as those around fracking.

Moreover, one of the defining issues of the February election is almost entirely neglected by the programme for government. Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty recently lambasted its ‘affordable housing’ plans on Irish TV – ridiculing both the scope of the programme (which falls short of even Fine Gael’s election pledge of 60,000 units) and its vague definition of what constitutes affordable housing, which could see prices set at more than €300,000 – well beyond the reach of most first-time buyers or lower income groups. There also no plans to introduce rent controls, despite Dublin having the third-highest rents of any city in Europe.

The hollowness of this government’s green agenda has effects that are arguably further-reaching than the coming four years. As academic Patrick Bresnihan put it last week, the rapid switch from a discourse foregrounding the urgency of radical action – of the climate emergency and a need for transformative, systemic change – to one of faux pragmatism, a ‘there-is-no-alternative’ approach characteristic of Eamon Ryan’s Third-Way-ism, not only sets back years of work by climate movements in Ireland, but also risks dealing a serious blow to the demands of tens of thousands of disillusioned citizens who had opted for the Greens as part of a ‘vote left’ informal pact (under Ireland’s Single Transferable Vote system, where preferences are ranked) – which was a clear collective move to reject Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael at the ballot box.

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