As the results of recent local and European elections seem to herald a new 'green wave', Professor of Modern Irish History at UCD, Diarmaid Ferriter, joined Seán O’Rourke to discuss the origins of the Green Party in Ireland from activists to kingmakers.
Most versions of the Green Party story in Ireland begin in the 1980s, tracing their evolution from a group of like-minded activists to the Ecology Party in 1981, then the Green Alliance and finally the Green Party in 1988. Long before that though, there were groups concerned with what might now be termed 'the green agenda'. Diarmaid recently found a notice from 1969, advertising a meeting of a group called 'The Irish Association for Natural Health'. Further investigation confirmed that this was an environmental action group focused on issues relating to food, food safety, etc.
"There were many people involved in community activism… the green agenda or environmental issues could be part, for some activists, of a much wider menu of campaigns."
By the early 1980s there was an appetite to consolidate campaigns and community work into a movement focused on politics. Advances by European counterparts served to encourage the cause at home.
"The German Greens arrived in the Bundestag in 1982, so the idea of the greens in parliament was not preposterous."
There was something of a breakthrough in 1985 when the Green Party had one local councillor elected. His name was Marcus Counihan and he was elected to Killarney Urban District Council. Then in the General Election of 1989 Roger Garland was elected as the party's first TD. Not long afterwards, in a European election, Trevor Sargent polled almost 30,000 votes, out-performing Mary Harney of the PDs. There was a sense that the Green Party had arrived.
European election success continued throughout the 1990s but didn't always translate to increased votes in general elections at home. The party's policies became more refined during this time. By the start of the 21st century, their main objective was to achieve 4% of the vote. Diarmaid explained why this was the magic number:
"…because that would give them 6 or 7 TDs and then they would be players… and that's what they got in 2007… but given what that government ended up dealing with in terms of the crash they got very, very badly burned."
Despite the significant damage that period in government caused the Greens, Seán referenced recent comments by current party leader Eamon Ryan that indicate he would be open to coalition after the next election. After all, if there's just 10 years left to take serious measures to address climate change, then there isn't time to focus on building the party up before a return to government. Diarmaid reflected that this refusal to allow electoral cycles dictate policy, is core to the identity of the Green Party.
"If you take the argument that you've got to put the planet before politics, then you have to take the long-term view… in that sense they certainly do have a strong moral and philosophical case, which is exactly the point they were making thirty or forty years ago, that his wasn't just a question of tax and economics and power, it was a question about the planet and its long term viability."
You can listen to Seán and Diarmaid's conversation in full on Today with Seán O'Rourke here.