The most amazing thing ever for me about the Irish Green Party was that it survived for two decades without having a leader. When it was starting out in the early 1980s it followed the example of other green and ecological movements in Europe which eschewed traditional party structures in favour of collectivism when it came to decision-making.
However, a decade later, most of the others had abandoned the experiment for the simple reason that, ehm, it didn’t work. When you had no leader and made all decisions, it led to only two outcomes – a lack of personality and sclerosis. Consensus meant that decisions often took many months to be made and, when they were made, they were watered down. In politics, ideas and ideology can never be fully decoupled from personality. And very late in the day – after a couple of bad electoral set-backs – the party realised that they would need to follow the lead of other Green parties in Europe and elect its very own leader.
But you always sensed that the party was uncomfortable embracing leadership. When Trevor Sargent was elected, it came by way of a ‘preferendum’. Who else would come up with such a system? And you always sensed that Sargent himself was a slightly reluctant leader. And when the arch presidential-style moment presented itself earlier this year – when his leadership address was carried live on TV for the first time – he flunked it with a poor address. But at the same time Sargent carried huge moral authority within the party. And his follow-through on his promise to quit the leadership if the party entered coalition with Fianna Fail was symptomatic of his outlook – that the party and its ideas was always bigger than the individual.
An argument that the Greens have made over the past decade is that others have moved towards them, rather than the party mainstreaming itself. However, as it has prepared to become involved in government in the past two years, the party has itself made a fair few compromises, has become less anti-establishment, and mainstreamed itself in the important vote-enticing areas. By entering government, the Greens are having to come to terms with another reality and that is, that they are now de facto THE establishment. That will mean many more painful concessions over the next few years. And the most severe and bitter criticism of those compromises and capitulations will come from within the party itself.
Sure those who voted against the party entering government amounted to only 13% - but the political leadership will quickly find that this most ideological of parties will have the most vocal and active of awkward squads – and on some key issues it will be much bigger than a small disgruntled rump of the disaffected.
The challenge facing John Gormley is immense. He will be the personification of the success or failure of the Greens in government. He is its most senior minister. In addition, as the party matures, the party needs a more conventional party leader – a figure who can be the personification and who can provide the intellectual and communication ballast.
Soon the honeymoon period will wear off. At the moment there is a huge novelty factor to the Greens in government, and to the fact that they have ministers. But already the two green ministers have been given a taste of the political castor oil that must be swallowed over the next five years. The M3, Rossport, the Ringsend incinerator… they are only the first of many issues for which the party’s leadership will be accused of selling out.
The Greens got very little out of Fianna Fail when it came to the programme for government. They argued – and there was a merit to what they said – that the train had left the station for many of the controversial issues…like the roads programme; Rossport; the use of Shannon by the US military.
All their eggs went into one basket. And it was this. That they had wrung two ministries out of FF and both were highly influential ones when it came to implementing the party’s agenda – environment; and communications, energy and natural resources.
And so Gormley as leader will have to deliver qua leader and as Minister for the Environment, as will the other minister Eamon Ryan. It was good to see Patricia McKenna running as a candidate. Even though she was in the minority that opposed coalition, she has accepted the decision. She is a radical who brings energy and conviction to her politics and it would be good to see her return to elected office. But realistically, in a period when the party was entering government, a defeat in the leadership contest for Gormley would have seriously undermined his authority and created the first serious crisis in government.
The message from other Green parties in Europe is that they can survive government. But Bertie Ahern has in the past pointed out to the Greens getting destroyed in elections after being in office.
The challenge facing Gormley is that he will have to prove as leader and as minister that the Greens can make a difference, that their presence in government has genuinely tilted the balance, has swayed influence, and has resulted in reverses of policy or a tangible change in direction.
Anything less and the fate that awaits the party will be a mini version of what happened to the PDs this time around. The Greens did not do well in the election. It gained no seats overall. To be sure, the party’s overall percentage increased but only marginally. That was accounted by the fact that it ran extra candidates and that many of its candidates – like Neil O Brolchain and Deirdre de Burca - had built up higher profiles.
If truth be told, it was a flatline performance, verging on a reverse. When the time came, the electorate went for the parties that got there fastest with the mostest. Health and the environment and climate change and crime and value for money all played second fiddle to the Stradivarius of elections – the economy.
But Gormley, like Sargent, embodies the progressive wing of the party, which brought it from a well-meaning but ineffective amateur organisation to a modern and professional party that was capable of sustained electoral success, and of entering government.
He is able, combative, intelligent, pragmatic, politically astute, and has a shortish fuse. All of those have served him well in his various roles with the party down through the years. Leadership qualities are difficult to quantify. It will take time to see how he grows into the role, and whether he is capable of bringing sustainability to the top of the agenda – the sustainability of the economy and, as importantly, the sustainability of his own party.