In part 3 of Rebel’s election analysis, Eoghan O Ceannabhain looks at the ‘Green Wave’ and how the left can lead on tackling the Climate Emergency.
With the last few MEP seats in the Ireland South constituency now decided, the dust has more or less settled in the wake of Ireland’s so-called ‘Green Wave’ election. The commentary about the election has been skewed by exit polls which suggested a much more dramatic increase in votes for the Green Party than actually turned out to be the case. Nevertheless, it is clear that there was a notable shift towards the Greens, who took votes from all other parties and significantly increased their vote share nationally.
Initial reaction to the ‘Green Wave’ among some sections of the Left was one of dismay and disappointment. This is understandable for anyone who remembers the Green Party’s last stint in government with Fianna Fáil, where they rammed through vicious austerity measures, sold out the Shell to Sea campaign, cut hundreds of bus services, and more. However, if we look at this election as a gauge of the public mood rather than how many Left seats were won on local councils, the picture is not so bleak.
A vote against Climate Change
A sharp debate over how best to tackle climate change has yet to develop in mainstream discourse in a significant way. People like George Monbiot are only just beginning to get a hearing when they argue for major system change over the incrementalism and individual action that has been pushed by the establishment for so long. It is an accepted wisdom in Ireland and all over Europe that if you care about the environment, you vote Green.
For anybody who is genuinely worried about the Climate Emergency, therefore, the positive in these results should be recognised. Along with the Climate School Strikes and Extinction Rebellion, and the election results combined, the issue of Climate Change has been forced onto the political agenda in an unprecedented manner in Ireland.
The Green’s past record should remind us, however, that the new political landscape around climate change cannot be a playground for a neoliberal Green agenda. There is a serious opportunity now to put forward the argument that in order to get to the root of this matter, we require major system change. It was striking in the pre-election debates to see the radical left calling for free public transport, as it exists in Luxemburg and Estonia, and Ciarán Cuffe of the Green Party responding that he was in favour of it for children on Saturdays. These contrasts and divisions will be sharpened as we go on.
And there are divisions within the Green Party itself. Take Saoirse McHugh, who calls herself a democratic socialist, who tweets that we can’t tackle climate change in a system wedded to perpetual growth, who says that tackling climate change gives us an opportunity to redistribute wealth and power from rich to poor, who says that renewable energy projects should be community owned and used for the benefit of communities. She represents a world of difference from Ciaran ‘free transport for kids on Saturdays’ Cuffe, who accidentally inherited oil money before divesting and making millions elsewhere, says low and middle income earners need to pay carbon tax to “play their part”, and calls for low corporation tax. The divisions were most apparent when McHugh said she would leave the Green Party if they were to enter into coalition with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, with Cuffe responding somewhat patronisingly to this by saying she “spoke from the heart”, and refusing to be drawn on the same question.
Green duplicity from the Right
Those who oppose coalition with the right know it would be a huge blow for the climate movement, and they have been handed concrete reasons to support that view in the days since the election. Leo Varadkar claimed to have heard the message from the election and said his party would climate change seriously, but his government granted a licence to the China National Offshore Company, in partnership with Exxon Mobil, to drill for oil off the coast of Kerry within days. A day later came the news that the government were seeking a money message for People Before Profit’s Climate Emergency Measures (CEM) Bill – a piece of parliamentary trickery which the department responsible has said is completely unnecessary, but which could mean that the bill, which would ban further fossil fuel exploration altogether, would not even be debated in the Dáil as planned – a totally undemocratic move whichwould undermine the majority vote in the Dáil that has approved the bill so far.
The idea that a coalition with Fine Gael or their Dáil prop Fianna Fáil could produce any climate change tackling results is looking increasingly ridiculous. Yet newly elected Green Party Councillors have already fallen into old ways in all four Dublin county councils this week, doing deals with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to appoint right wing mayors. While the likes of McHugh and some other grass roots activists in the Green Party appear to be more radical in their approach, it is clear that their leadership and many of their elected representatives still buy into a neoliberal agenda that cannot deliver decisive action on climate change.
Opportunity for the Left
Nevertheless, the new space for climate change on the political agenda has opened up a space for the Left to put forward their ideas in a way that was not possible before. The decision to seek a money message in order to kill the CEM Bill prompted a lunchtime protest last Thursday that brought together several hundred people at short notice. Several thousand emails were sent to Government Ministers Bruton and Canney over the manoeuvre. There is now widespread outrage that the government is not only seeking to stop the bill, but that it is denying the Dáil an opportunity even to debate it. Another protest is planned. Fine Gael hypocrisy on climate change has been laid bare by their recent actions, and people who voted for change aren’t happy.
The incrementalism of the likes of the Green Party’s Éamonn Ryan and Ciarán Cuffe is also increasingly being exposed. Their continued refusal to rule out coalition with the parties that have been most responsible for the destruction of our environment poses questions over how serious they are in addressing the Climate Emergency, particularly given their last experience with Fianna Fáil in government, as well as the more recent memory of the Labour Party’s sell-out and subsequent electoral wipe-out.
Indeed, it is worth looking at Ciarán Cuffe’s own words after the 2007 election, before they entered government with Fianna Fáil. His blog post on 28 May 2007 opened with:
“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. But, would it be worth it? Power is a many faceted thing.”
Cuffe proceeded to ramble on for the rest of the blog post without answering the question of whether he thought it would be worth it or not. Looking back at the carnage inflicted by the same government, it begs the question: What could possibly have made it worth it?
Piecemeal reforms not an option
Cuffe’s inability to find any kind of decisive direction on this, both then and now, is symptomatic of the deep flaws in the Green Party leadership’s strategy. They seek to get as many representatives as possible elected but without any meaningful connection to any kind of social movement. Once an election is over, it’s a horse-trading exercise with the Right, where they attempt to game the system and win as much incremental change as possible. The cruelty inflicted on poor and working class people in the process is just a price that has to be paid to get a few more cycle lanes and perhaps a slight increase on the retro-fit grant. Whether this is worth it or not becomes an irrelevant question – mitigation, piecemeal reforms and “changing things from the inside”, is the only vision the Green Party leadership have.
The strategy is a proven failure. Coalition with Fianna Fáil made no significant impact on our carbon emissions, resulted in electoral wipe-out for the Greens as Cuffe predicted, and left the environmental movement totally demoralised. The only way it could be seen to be “worth it” might have been for the few Green Party TDs who made off with ministerial salaries and pensions.
Eight years later and we are in a much different position. The school climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion and the environmental movement generally are making a global impact and are growing rapidly. This is the wave that the Green Party rode in the election – a wave that was based more on an ideological inclination than concrete support of their policies or method. And whereas the Green Party needs the support of the environmental movement to survive, the environmental movement does not need to rely on the Green Party. The IPCC report that concluded that we now have 11 years to take drastic action to reduce emissions puts paid to the idea of incremental change, and many in the environmental movement have realised this. The failure of the establishment to deal with climate change over the last 30 years means more and more people are coming to the realisation that we must build our own power to take them on.
This, therefore, is the real hope from the Green Wave election. There is a wide open space now where we can make concrete demands to deal with the Climate Emergency: Leave fossil fuels in the ground, massive investment in renewable energies, free public transport, mass retro-fitting of homes, a just transition from beef and dairy to more sustainable farming methods, afforestation using indigenous and broadleaf trees, and so on.
These demands must be used as a rallying point to build the movements that can challenge the status quo and drive through these changes. The recent campaign for Repeal of the 8th amendment points some of the way for this: colourful and energetic, but crucially, building huge numbers of people willing to take action beyond the ballot box – be it in the protest movement on the streets, through direct actions, or through organising in local communities. Rather than making deals with the establishment, it is by building our own power that we can hope to win.