The Greens – where did it all go wrong?

Greens announce they are to leave Government as TD plays with 18 month old baby

And then there were none…….

Introduction

At the end of the Green Party convention in 2005 at the Silver Springs Hotel in Cork, party leader, Trevor Sargent, announced, not to the annual members convention, but after the event, in a one-on-one pre-recorded interview with TV 3 political reporter, Ursula Halligan, that as party leader, he would not enter government with Fianna Fáil.

It was an extraordinary statement.

Not for the principled position the party leader had taken, nor for the political strategy that he had so publicly announced to just one media outlet, but for the fact that it was, to all intents and purposes, a ‘solo run’ with absolutely no widespread consultation with party members that weekend, nor consultation with his Parliamentary Party, nor in consultation with the organisation’s communications team.

In contrast, Sargent’s subsequent announcement in 2007 at the Green’s Membership Convention at the Mansion House, which had just voted to enter Government with Fianna Fáil, that it was ‘the proudest day of his life’ was once again,  an equally extraordinary statement’.

Three and a half years later, in March 2011, the Greens would find themselves, not only voted out of office, having suffered a wipe-out at the mid-term June 2009 Local and European election, but with absolutely no seats at all in the 31st Dáil.  Fatally, the organisation had also failed to reach the 2% first preference vote threshold for party funding, having received a mere 1.8% nationally.

The  Greens, a small party, which had spent 20 years building, nurturing and constructing a dynamic policy platform that included enlightened economic, ecological, equality and social justice policies,  with admirable successes at local, European and national level, found itself completely wiped out of any representation at all three political levels.

How did it come to this?  The answer lies at the very heart of Sargent’s 2005 statement.

Political Strategy…….and the first mistake?

Following Fianna Fáil’s 2007 general election success, surprisingly for many, the Greens, who had defied the odds by winning 6 Dáil seats in that election, found themselves invited into coalition talks at the behest of third time general election-winning Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, to discuss talks regarding the possibility of forming a coalition government.

The negotiating team, quickly put together and led by party chairman John Gormley, who had feverishly campaigned to position the Greens as a party ready for government, was joined by the General Secretary and former Green TD for Cork South Central, Dan Boyle.   This team were successful in negotiating two Cabinet positions for Gormley and Ryan, a junior position for Trevor Sargent and two Senatorships, one for Boyle and the other for the unsuccessful Wicklow candidate, Deirdre de Burca.  They were less successful where it mattered most – in the Programme for Government.  Political correspondents were unanimous in proclaiming the Programme a decidedly weak one.

The decision to enter Government with Fianna Fáil was the party’s first major mistake.   The party had received no mandate from the electorate to enter coalition with Fianna Fáil.  Why?   Green electoral victories owed their mandate to the large number of second,  third and fourth preference voters that pulled Green candidates over the line.  While the party won 4.8% of first preferences nationally,   it was preference votes which ensured election.  The first preference votes, whilst key to securing a foundation for all successful candidates, still relied on the mandate bestowed on it by preference voters.  The stark reality is that these preference votes came from across the political spectrum, from Fine Gael, from Labour and from more radical left wing voters who were attracted to the Green’s sound environmental, human rights, equality and social justice policies.  The preference votes certainly did not come from Fianna Fáil voters  An obvious assumption here is that the preference voters, while supporting Green policies and the organisation’s rallying general election call, ‘Its Time’ expected the party to form a rainbow government with Fine Gael and Labour, and certainly not with Fianna Fáil.

In truth, the Greens were not needed to form a Government and this was only too well reflected in the weak programme they negotiated.

Furthermore, having sidelined Fine Gael and Labour preference voters they then marginalised their more radical left wing support with their failure to successfully negotiate any deal on incineration, on Shannon rendition, on Corrib and on the Tara M3 motorway.  Many viewed this as a betrayal primarily because the Greens had been so vocal in their support and had gained valuable publicity on the back of these campaigners.

Communications Strategy

Small parties entering coalition with a bigger partner, particularly one as experienced in the trappings and exercise of power as Fianna Fáil were, need a decidedly robust personality to survive.  This required, not just a well-planned, deft and forceful communications strategy but one based on retaining the essence, the values, the uniqueness and overall cultural ethos of the Green Party.  The actual strategy adopted was the exact  opposite.  The Green’s had, what could be described as a simple three-phase approach:

  1. Be strong reliable partners in government for the first two years and send a message to our senior Fianna Fáil partners but also to Fine Gael and Labour that the Greens could be relied upon to stand the pace.
  2. Embark on a process of differentiation, highlighting the Greens unique but enlightened policies on energy, planning, waste, political reform and climate change.
  3. Walk.  Find a suitable time and an acceptable reason to walk from Government.

The tactic of being strong reliable partners backfired spectacularly with the Greens quickly finding themselves wrong-footed and defending poor decisions which portrayed them as following rather than leading.  The Gráinne Carruth story was a classic example. The then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s former constituency secretary broke down and changed her story at the Mahon Tribunal admitting that she did make sterling bank lodgements on behalf of the Taoiseach.  It was a very public humiliation for Ahern and Carruth.  Yet when the media looked to the Greens for a response, they turned the other cheek.  It was Mary Harney who called on Ahern to ‘clear the air’ and clarify Carruth’s statement.  The Greens were badly wrong-footed.

Gormley displaying solidarity for former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern

Within five days Ahern announced, on the steps of the Department of the Taoiseach in a lengthy speech, that he was leaving office.  Viewers looked on astonished, as John Gormley, the once withering detractor and author of the Planet Bertie jibes, now stood shoulder to shoulder with the disgraced Ahern in a show of solidarity.

It appeared to many that the Greens had gone native and it transpired that Gormley only backed Harney’s initial call for clarification following heated representations from his own green councilors.  Gormley’s presence in support of the tarnished Fianna Fáil leader was surely the very least a ‘reliable partner’ could do for its senior cousins.

This trend of following rather than leading became a feature of their communications strategy where it appeared that they had no clear plan for dealing with internal Government mechanisms and for coping with unpopular Cabinet decisions.  The medical card fiasco in October 2008 being a perfect example.

The communications tended to flip flop, that is, they were either ‘too small to make a difference’ when pressurized on bad news stories or they were ‘punching above their weight’ on good news stories.  They eventually retreated to a position where they concentrated on the two ministries claiming that, as long as green policy was being adopted, they would stay in government.  This was a clear attempt to hide behind the stream of poor decisions, mainly emanating from Fianna Fáil ministers,that the Greens supported and voted through.   De Burca and Boyle, who effectively had their political careers revitalized as the Taoiseach’s nominees to the Senate, became the party leadership’s ‘defenders of the faith’ and, more importantly, acted as ‘attack dogs’ to quell dissent when high profile members walked.

Re-Positioning

The Greens have always claimed that they were neither left nor right but it was obvious that their social justice policies clearly positioned them as a left of centre party. However, in Government the party’s support for the bank guarantee and NAMA, effectively supporting a policy of socializing the losses and loading an enormous financial burden on the backs of taxpayers to sort out the grossly irresponsible behaviour of private bankers,  was a clear re-positioning and a move away from original Green thinking and policy.

Furthermore the support for cuts to minimum wage, social welfare, carers and blind pension including support for blasphemy legislation clearly positioned the party as a centre right organisation.  It seemed extraordinary that the leadership could contemplate such a drastic change in policy direction. To attempt to re-position a political party while in Government is an extremely high risk strategy but in this case made no sense – it appeared illogical to attempt to change the brand of what was a small but influential party, moving it to the centre right when it was obvious that Fine Gael, on a clear upward trajectory, were hoovering up that constituency.  The party lost many of its original members and supporters as a result of this strategy.

There were, of course, other key moments that alarmed the electorate – Trevor Sargent’s resignation for interfering with the course of justice was considered both unethical and unlawful, the unseemly row over an alleged promise of a high-salaried position in Europe saw the once uber-loyal Deirde de Burca depart but the final nail in the coffin for many was the revelation of a ‘rotation deal’ where the spoils of war ensured there was a job for ‘everyone in the audience’. The Greens at first denied the very existence of such a deal but eventually capitulated stating that job rotation was common practice among green parties across Europe.  It was common practice indeed but always announced openly, transparently and with the full knowledge of all involved.  In the Greens case, not even the party’s governing National Executive were informed of the deal.  It was a serious blow for a party that had lived on the thin air of the moral high ground for so many years.

The constant orchestrated and clichéd hand-wringing was repeated ad nauseum – ‘I don’t like this decision but I will vote for it anyway’‘we’re being punished for making the right decisions’, ‘we have experience of making tough decisions’ .  By the summer of 2010 the electorate had lost all faith and patience in the Greens.

Even the manner in which the party announced it was  leaving Government was bungled.  On one of the most important announcements for the State, the falling of a Government, their Dublin Mid-West representative was allowed play at the top table with his l8 month old daughter.

Shortly after this momentous announcement the Greens started back-peddling, stating that they were going, but not just yet, as there was serious legislation to be negotiated – political reform, corporate donations, a Dublin Lord Mayor and a Climate Change Bill.  Once again this communications strategy backfired as their stance acted as a final roll-call for everything that the Greens had failed to achieve during their disastrous period in office.

Ultimately the Greens became a party of contradiction, a party of ‘flip flop’, the seeds of which were sown by Sargent back at the Silver Springs Hotel in 2005. He would not lead the party into a Fianna Fáil-led Government but he’d accept a job in it and proclaim that the Greens going into coalition with Fianna Fáil was the ‘happiest day of his life’.   The contradictions became legendary.  Gormley very publicly taking the ferry to Holyhead only to be collected by a chauffeur-driven limo that had driven 300 miles from London to collect him.  There were many more.

Not surprisingly the Greens continue to spin that they have been punished for taking the tough decisions and that their complete wipe-out is just a temporary demise.

The truth is the Greens supported incompetent decision-making and a bumbling and poor Taoiseach and positioned itself right of centre.  Probably their ultimate downfall was their collusion in denying the electorate its democratic voice by refusing to hold the three by-elections.

It will be a long, long time before a Green Party will be trusted again.


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2 Responses to “The Greens – where did it all go wrong?”


  1. 1 Mark Cullinane March 28, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    Interesting analysis Steve. I’m a party member and agree with most of what you have to say here. Some people talk of the need to move forward rather than engage in recriminations about the past, but I think that if you don’t learn from mistakes you’re fated to repeat them. Your post is a good contribution to the debate.

  2. 2 David Grey March 25, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Excellent Steve- Right on the money!


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