Eight years after the scalding of a general election that saw the Green Party wiped out with the loss of all six of its Dáil seats, it seems as if the scars have healed. That first foray into coalition government had proved a costly exercise as the Fianna Fáil-led administration of Brian Cowen collapsed in chaos. For the Greens, it was a salutary lesson in the reality of politics.
But the Green Party conference of last weekend reveals an entity that is older and wiser. By a huge majority, the members again voted in favour of going into coalition after the next election, provided the conditions are right. The decision taken was one where practicality got the better of sentiment, a realisation that in order to have any chance of getting one’s policies implemented, the first requirement is to be in government.
It is a tactic loaded with risk, as the Green Party leader, Eamon Ryan – himself one of the ministers in that ill fated coalition of 2011 – is well aware. A junior coalition partner has to fight hard to push its policies, while at the same time sharing the blame for every unpopular decision made collectively. And when the roof falls in, the smaller party is left standing in the rubble, equally culpable in the eyes of the electorate as the senior partner.
Not all of the party were happy with the coalition strategy, and there were many dissenting voices. Saoirse McHugh of Achill, the shining star of the European election and tipped to fill a vacant Seanad seat on behalf of the Greens, was one such voice. She advocated strongly for the party to lay out its stall as a progressive, left-wing party, arguing that there was no point in going into government for a few ministerial seats.
In the end, the pragmatists won the day, voting by a five to one majority against the purists who had called for a rejection of coalition with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. It was a sign that, in spite of the bitter memories of the winter of 2011, being in government was still a long way better than espousing Green values from opposition benches to unhearing ears. If compromise and risk are the price of a hand on the levers of power, the thinking seemed to be, it is a price worth paying.
But deciding to be open to coalition offers is still a long way from doing a deal with a potential partner. The Green Party is well aware that the big guns are, at best, late converts to the cause of climate change and global survival. For them, the merits of any particular policy has as much to do with voter popularity and acceptance as it has to do with ideology.
The Greens will also be more than aware that, over the years, there has always been a disconnect between success in European elections and real progress at national level. It is as if voting Green in Europe is a luxury we can indulge in, but electing a Green government to Dáil Eireann is quite a different matter.
The hard part will come when the full implications of Green Party policies have to be spelled out to the electorate. Policies to tackle climate change will involve cost, inconvenience, lifestyle changes and environmental adjustments that may not be all that easy to sell to the electorate. And it may be equally difficult to convince a cautious, hard-nosed, potential coalition partner to adopt a Green vision.