Thursday, June 14, 2007


It's going to be an amazing day. A new Dail. A new Government. The protocol and procedures. Ciaran Cuffe's interview on Morning Ireland this morning with his admission that there will be constant tension set the tone. We will have interesting times ahead. The Greens will have to perform strongly as Ministers though to make up for the Green shortfall in a programme for government that is indistinguishable (almost) from the FF manifesto.

Last night's overwhelming yea to Government by the Greens last night was equally amazing. It was highly emotional; a coming-of-age for a political party. The 87% backing for the leadership was extraordinary.

And Trevor Sargent's decision to resign showed a rare display of honour amongst the band of thieves that is the political class and the hacks that write and talk about them. That he was not only stepping down but also forfeiting a ministerial seat spoke volumes about the moral strength of the man. He didn't have to do it. He could have been persuaded to change his mind. Sure, he would have shipped some flak. But he would have survived them, as Bertie Ahern has.

So now for an exciting day. A new Ceann Comhairle. A trip to the Park. The ushering in by Bertie of the selected 15 to tell them they are members of the new Cabinet. The dramatic unveiling of the new Ministers, to the Dail and at Aras an Uachtarain where they will receive their seals of office.

Who will the new ministers be in the 30th Dail. Well, will John O'Donoghue move on? And allow Brian Lenihan in? Who will be the Green Party TDs in Government. John Gormley? Certainly. And the other? Eamon Ryan or Ciaran Cuffe? It's hard to say. Who will get the Justice portfolio? Will Lenihan (of whom they say Ahern isn't very fond) get promoted straight into justice? Will it be Dermot Ahern or even Willie O'Dea?

For now it's all second-guessery. Having second-guessed Ahern so badly in the past, I'm not going to plump for anybody.

Here's the piece I wrote for this morning's Irish Examiner, which I finished a couple of hours before the event.

After ten straight days of sultry sunshine, the skies finally broke over Dublin. And when the rain arrived in Dublin, it sheeted down from heavens for hour and hours, unrelentingly.

It was a timely reminder that for all the talk of heat and global warming Ireland still means rain, and lots of it.

And when the joint programme for government was finally produced yesterday, that was a timely remind that for all the talk of green tides and new dispensations, Ireland still means Fianna Fail, and lots of it.

Yesterday was always going to be the pivotal day for the Greens. There is no party as ideological in Ireland these days; no party as truly democratic. And to get into government the ‘realos’ (or realists) of its political leadership would have to sell the document to its membership, a sizeable minority of whom remain ‘fundies’ (or fundamentalists) – those who remain immovable on core issues like incineration or motorways or the war in Iraq.

And what’s more, not only did the leadership have to get a majority, it had to get a stonking two thirds majority – and that would be a hard ask for even the more conventional parties if they were embarking on a major change of direction.

As one member of the senior leadership described how the day would pan out: “We are a horribly open and democratic party. People will say their piece. We don’t know who is going to show up. We don’t know what proportion of members will back our opinion. We have a huge job of persuasion to do.”

And the huge job was not made any easier by the bad start the Greens had to the day. Somebody (presumably from the Fianna Fail side) leaked details of the joint programme for government to the media. And some party members began to choke on their muesli when they read that the party had ceded on Shannon; on the M3 Motorway at Tara; and on hospital co-location.

And soon after the doubters were ventilating their concerns, based on a newspaper report that wasn’t entirely accurate or complete. Former TD Roger Garland described it as a betrayal. Former MEP Patricia McKenna was expressing serious reservations about Shannon. The majority of those who were vox popped on radio seemed to be members of the party’s awkward squad, opposed to the programme on various grounds, ranging from Shannon to antipathy to Fianna Fail.

It took the morning for the pro-government forces to get off the back foot and rally back. For a couple of hours, the negatives were in circulation with a virtual monkish silence on the positives. The party began a round of intensive briefings with the media, pushing the fact that they had got a 3% reduction on emissions, a carbon levy, some concessions on extraordinary rendition, E350 million per annum for education plus (in defiance of expectations) two senior ministries and two junior ministries.

But on a cursory look, the draft programme had a kind of familiar look to it. Where had we seen that before? we all asked. Well, yes indeed, it was the Fianna Fail manifesto in the main, with some Green initiatives attached. But they were not as significant, as far-reaching, as potentially sea-changing as you might have expected.

If that was all the Greens had achieved late on Tuesday night, how slim had their gains been when they abandoned ship last Friday?

Transport 21 - and all its motorways - remains intact. All the co-location clinics will go ahead (the Greens could never really have hoped to budge FF on that one). No halt to current incineration projects either. There is not a syllable about the US military passing through Shannon – a surefire sign that FF weren’t going to budge on that either.

Sure, there was a line on extraordinary rendition but was it strong enough to ensure the regular inspection of plane traffic through Shannon.

Senior insiders said that it meant, that from Ireland’s perspective, the circus that arose in Iraq will not be repeated.

But one candidly admitted. “We tried for the strongest possible wordking but didn’t achieve in getting it. We will try to not allow the circumstances of 2002 and 2003 to re-occur. We have received a stronger wording on extraordinary rendition.”

The Green strategy to sell the document was three-fold. The first ingredient used by all its leading members yesterday was a refreshing and disarming honesty. They all agreed that they were disappointed with some aspects, that they didn’t achieve everything they wanted.

Dan Boyle was the person who fielded most of the questions from delegates at the Mansion House in central Dublin yesterday. This quote from him was emblematic of that approach.

“It is not a great document. It may not even be a good document but it does contain good elements and those elements come from us.”

Yes, predominantly Fianna Fail, but the Green Party leadership went in for a sustained hard sell on those ‘good elements’, stressing the influence its presence would bring to bear on government policy.

They stressed in particular that the Greens had won two senior ministries and two junior ministries and that those ministries would be in the areas – environment, energy, and transport – where the heart of the Green philosophy lay. If you had a minister in charge of that area, they argued, you were already half way there.

They also made the point – and you couldn’t argue with this – that the party has six deputies compared to FF’s 78. On top of that, the bigger party didn’t ultimately need them. Moreover, they argued, the thrust of the party’s direction over the past five years was to be in Government, to implement green policies before it was too late.

Sure, Fianna Fail wasn’t its first-choice bed-fellow. And in another instance of that honesty, of his public wrestling of conscience, Trevor Sargent made good on his promise and offered himself as a sacrificial lamb, saying the future of the country was more important that his own. We will not know for sure if he will make good on his offer to resign, or if his party will persuade him to stay on.

Two thirds was a big ask for the Greens. And they based all the negotiations on policy, insisting that if they could win enough tangible Green policies, then the membership could be persuaded.

Paradoxically, it might be mood rather than hard-nosed calculation on ‘have we go enough?’ that will swing it.

I spoke to a fair few delegates going into the meeting. Some were opposed. But others, while disappointed with some aspects, spoke of a mood for change, a sense that it was time, or of excitement that the Greens could enter government and transform the country, much as the country changed after Mary Robinson’s victory in 1990.

Two thirds was a big ask. But it was also a big question. And you sensed that finally the Greens were finally ready to answer it with a decisive ‘yes’.

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