Business & Politics
Greenwashing Austerity: What Do Young Greens Feel About the New Government?
8th August 2020
The General Election of February 2020 feels like a world away now. Not only do the pre-social distancing days seem like a weird alternative universe, but also the hopes for radical change which many, particularly young, people dared to hold as they headed to the ballot box are starting to seem like a crazy dream. As the coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party settle into the Dáil, the political landscape of the next five years is beginning to come into focus.
Many who hoped for a shift to the status quo are worried that this coalition of the old guard is setting us up for more of the same. The younger generation in Ireland, governed by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael for as long as they can remember; not only have experienced increasing obstacles to third-level education and affordable housing, but have also been involved in two radical campaigns to change to the Irish constitution in the last five years. With Leo Varadkar only achieving the quota for re-election on the fifth count in his Dublin West constituency in the last election, Micheál Martin only on the sixth count in Cork South-Central, and Eamon Ryan very narrowly retaining his position as leader of the Green Party with 994 votes against Catherine Ryan’s 946; perhaps it is already clear that these three men may not be setting out on the most popular coalition in history.
The ‘Vote Left, Transfer Left’ drive in the lead up to the election in February was propelled by the idea that another five years of the same government who has overseen increased homelessness, widespread emigration and the Direct Provision system, may not also be the people to fix these issues. The hope was for a more left-leaning coalition who could tackle issues of housing, health, immigration and climate action with a more human rights-focussed, less profit-driven approach.
It appeared that Sinn Féin were the party that people pinned these hopes on for this radical change, gaining 24.5% of the vote compared to Fianna Fáil’s 22% and Fine Gael’s 21%. The country’s impatience with the status quo resulted in Sinn Féin’s greatest ever result, while Fine Gael suffered their worst election since 1948. In the 18-24 age group these results were even more stark, with Sinn Féin garnering 31.8% of the vote and the Greens coming in ahead of Fianna Fáil with 14.4%. Overall the Greens enjoyed their best ever result; as the fourth largest party with 12 TDs, their entry into a coalition seemed inevitable, but how do some of the youngest members of the party feel about entering into this current government?
STAND News talked to some members of the Young Greens across the country to find out what their attitude to the new coalition is. As the ‘green surge’ at February’s election came largely from younger members of the population, does this coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael represent the desires of these Green voters? Young voters, particularly first-time voters, have seen radical change to the constitution throughout the lifetime of the last government as well as massive youth-led climate strikes, and are less likely to associate the Green Party of 2020 with their previous stint in government. The last surge of support for the Greens was in the 2007 general election where they had their biggest result to date and gained 6 seats in the Dáil. Despite reservations from many in the party, the Greens entered into the already unpopular coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats.
It is often said that smaller parties in a coalition will bear the brunt of any unpopularity which the government generates, particularly parties with a lot of first-time voters such as the Greens, whose loyalties are easier to shift. The fallout from this coalition was huge, with the Greens losing all 6 of their seats at the 2011 election. Despite an unprecedented opportunity for the Greens to influence the government, they ended up compromising on several of their key issues such as the Shell to Sea campaign and the US military usage of Shannon Airport; not to mention overseeing the post-2008 economic downturn. Despite a two-fold increase in seats and therefore influence in this new coalition compared with 2007, it is difficult to imagine that we will not see a repeat of history for the Greens.
As Conall, PRO for UCD Young Greens told us, it’s hard “not to pre-emptively see our own blood in the water”. The key for any junior partner ensuring delivery of promises within a coalition is commitments to timelines and funding, and despite accepting Eamonn Ryan’s redline of 7% average decrease in emissions, the proposed Programme for Government is incredibly lacking when it comes to specifics. As a member of the UCC Young Greens pointed out, “It’s a fluffy document, with too much wiggle room for [Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael] to get out of things if they prove to be unpopular”.
“While the party voted in favour of the Programme for Government, the Young Greens nationally voted against it, 65% to 35% in favour”
With Fine Gael’s popularity waning significantly in recent years, particularly among younger voters, many are understandably concerned about the survival of the Green Party during and after this government. Not only have the Greens already been wounded before in coalition with Fianna Fáil, but the legacy of Labour’s 2011 coalition with Fine Gael is still keenly felt among those on the left. Conall stated that he “saw the demolition of Labour as a clear sign not to go anywhere near Fine Gael”, as Labour have still yet to rebuild their ground following their loss of 30 seats in the 2016 general election. The unpopularity of this coalition can already be seen among younger Green members.
While the party voted in favour of the Programme for Government, the Young Greens nationally voted against it, 65% to 35% in favour. It is clear that the relationship that many young people in Ireland have with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil is more distrustful than that of their parents; and with many politically active young people coming up through the Marriage Equality and Repeal the 8th campaigns, the need to compromise in order to push for change appears less and less necessary. As a member of UCC Greens pointed out, many young Irish people are beginning to feel that “direct action can be more effective than small incremental steps in exchange for self-sacrifice”. Perhaps for smaller, particularly left-leaning parties, there is a freedom to be found outside of government.
Of course, the urgency of the climate crisis cannot be played down, and the necessity for environmentalist policies to be implemented over the course of the next five years is incredibly important. The Young Greens who I spoke to highlighted the encouraging aspects of the Programme for Government; namely the termination of the Direct Provision system, the removal of the Shannon LNG from public funding, and the increased funding for public transport and cycling infrastructure. On the surface, many elements of the Programme for Government are appealing to anyone passionate about combating the global climate disaster. For many members of the Green Party this was clearly seen as a compromise worth making in order to achieve these goals. However, many young members of the Green Party cannot divorce their passion for climate justice from social justice and worry that the Greens may end up being seen as a single-issue party who are detached from other important issues. Julie, Chairperson of Trinity Young Greens, highlights that “the climate action [the PfG] promises comes at the cost of fuel poverty, homelessness and inadequate healthcare”.
As the Programme for Government is always aspirational, and only a fraction of the policies ever get implemented, the lack of costing and timelines leads many Young Greens to worry that the Green priorities will be easily sidestepped when push comes to shove. Already the cracks within the party are beginning to show, as the young Green campaigner Saoirse McHugh announced her exit from the party on Twitter at the end of July. She cited her concerns surrounding the Programme for Government as an important part of her decision, believing that it will serve to link environmentalism with “socially regressive policies”. Separately, a Green-left affiliate organisation, the Just Transition Greens, has been set up by members of the party who are committed to upholding issues of social justice inside and outside of the parliamentary party.
Thread on leaving the greens:— Saoirse McHugh (@saoirse_mchugh) July 23, 2020
I have left the Green Party. I doubt that’s a surprise to most people.
The reasons I have left are obvious, I joined the greens with the hope of furthering the cause of climate justice..1/
Obviously young people in Ireland are not a homogenous group, and even the Young Greens aren’t unanimous on any issue, but when looking at the issues which are important to young people, Conall states that “from [his] own experience it would be social justice, housing, and… climate action”. As the Greens have experienced before, even if their climate action policies are all implemented, it is likely that they will likely be blamed for any failures by the government to effectively address social issues such as housing.
Their gains at the general election may have provided them with an opportunity to enact urgent climate action policies, but if it comes at the same cost as the 2007 coalition, there may be no one left in the Dáil to see these policies through in the years to follow. For many Young Greens, immediate gains for climate justice are worth little if they come at the cost of long-term social justice. As Julie explains, “any environmental action that isn’t led by and for the people will fail in the long run”.
Issues such as Direct Provision, public housing, a well regulated rental market, affordable education, healthcare, public transportation, reduction in fossil fuel emissions, homelessness, addiction services, affordable childcare, gender equality, protection for minorities, LGBTQ+ rights, (to name but a few), are all interconnected issues. It is difficult to solve one without the others. As a UCC member pointed out, many worry that any gains for the Greens will be merely superficial, and hope that their presence in the coalition is “not only to greenwash austerity”.
While the Green Party may have the opportunity to make some very real and important changes over the next five years, it is difficult to know the level of power they will have over the two more senior parties in the coalition. Any unpopular policies introduced by Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, overseen by the Green Party, could see them lose their support just as rapidly as it was gained. Will the Greens be able to leverage the divides between the other two parties to their advantage, or have they once again done a ‘deal with the devil’ and will soon pay the price?
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