We in the Republic of Ireland have two prospects when it comes to the colour of the next government (and indeed the one after that), I would suggest. Those prospects have little to do with Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. They are all about the policies being offered by the Green Party and Sinn Fein, and both are, in their strikingly different ways, revolutionary. And both are, in their strikingly different ways, green.¹
In an excellent long article on 16th May the Irish Times environment editor Kevin O’Sullivan explained in 20 ways how Greens in government would radically change Irish life and society. The Green Party wants a 7% cut in annual carbon emissions averaged over the next decade. This is in line with the global requirement laid down by the 2015 Paris Agreement, which Ireland and 196 other countries signed up to. If Ireland under the joint stewardship of the Greens were to reach this 7% target, we would move from being the second worst carbon reduction offender in Europe (after coal-producing Poland) to the top table of Sweden, Portugal and France.
The Green Party’s 17 demands, which the party published prior to entering inter-party talks, would require a real revolution in how we in Ireland live our lives (whether Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, the big farmers, the fossil fuel industries and other powerful corporate interests will allow that to happen is another issue!). Here are some of them:
- The government would make an unambiguous declaration that Ireland was getting out of fossil fuels (with the possible exception of natural gas) and focusing almost entirely on renewable gases, biofuels, hydrogen, sustainable biomass and carbon capture and storage to power heating and transport.
- The carbon tax on on fossil fuels (currently €26 per tonne) would rise to €80 per tonne.
- Most new road-building schemes would be scrapped in favour of funding public transport, cycling and walking in urban areas in order to move away from choked-up car commuting routes.
- Farmers would be offered incentives to move away from beef and dairy towards cereals, family farm supports and environmental actions aligned to CAP reform (how the bigger farmers and food co-ops will react will be key here). Policy makers will remember the head of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform Robert Watt’s suggestion that a 5% reduction in herd numbers would deliver more greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade than delivery of the entire energy efficiency component of the government’s 2019 climate plan.
- That energy efficiency plan under the Greens would be far more ambitious, involving the deep retrofitting of 700,000 houses that are poorly heated and rely on fossil fuels at a cost of around €2 billion a year over the next decade.
- There would be a massive programme of building public housing on public land, along with innovations like Austrian-style cost-rental housing, with tenants paying rent at a level which covers the cost of constructing and maintaining the properties. These last two policies together would provide employment for large numbers of construction, electrical and plumbing workers and help the country emerge from the post-Covid-19 economic recession.
Compare this far-reaching and society-changing programme (apart from housing) with the climate action offering in the Sinn Fein election manifesto. Of course they had to include more than the tiny, derisory mention of climate change in their 2016 manifesto. They wouldn’t be a populist party desperate to get into power if they hadn’t.
However, the most striking absence is still the refusal to support a decent carbon tax, internationally recognised as the way to make carbon too costly to exploit and a key means of making people understand that they have to pay more taxes if they want to save the planet (and much of the humanity that lives on it). The manifesto says bluntly: “The carbon tax will make people poorer, but it will not make the state greener or cleaner. It is a regressive tax, the sole purpose of which is to raise funds.”
The other Sinn Fein manifesto commitments are vague, standard left-of-centre stuff. After describing climate justice as “synonymous with justice for workers and working class enclaves”, it goes on to list binding emissions targets for “specific industries” (none specified); defending workers’ rights during the ‘just transition’ to a green workforce; divestment from the fossil fuel sector; the ESB and Bord na Mona to take the lead in developing renewable energies; expansion of the state-owned offshore wind network; more (unspecified) retro-fitting of houses, and so on.
I would suggest that Sinn Fein are simply not very interested in serious climate action (except to the extent that it doesn’t affect ordinary people’s pockets). Who has ever heard of Brian Stanley, the party’s spokesperson on climate action and the environment? When was the last time he made a significant intervention on climate change? The last time I can find is January 2013, when Sinn Fein introduced a climate change bill in the Dail, which disappeared soon afterwards when the Fine Gael-led government introduced its own extremely weak legislation.
What Sinn Fein is really interested in is not the environmental greening of the planet, but the political ‘greening’ of the island through Irish unity. That is overwhelmingly their fundamental core value: they are Irish republicans from the physical force tradition now using politics as the main plank in their strategy to gain that 100-year-old goal. If and when they get into government, that is what they will expend their energy on – pressuring the British government into an early Border Poll – rather than anything to do with the catastrophic threat to the planet (and the island of Ireland as part of it).
This is important because I believe they will probably get into government no later than 2025. Indeed, Sinn Fein are now well-placed to lead the government after next, in five years time, if not sooner. The next government – most likely a rickety coalition of Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Greens – is going to have to take some appallingly difficult decisions as Ireland and the world goes into deep recession, or even depression, after the Corona virus pandemic. None of these are going to be popular with the Irish electorate, and particularly those younger and poorer sections who voted strongly for Sinn Fein in February. As Una Mullally said rather cruelly in the Irish Times last week: it is “looking like one of the most unpopular governments in memory before it’s even formed.”² My belief is that Sinn Fein will happily snipe from the Opposition benches for several years in preparation for moving into power as the largest party after the next election.
They will then, in their relentless way, focus on getting a Border Poll ASAP in order to gain the narrowest of narrow majorities for unity. If they do not win in the first such poll, they will be relying on demographic change in the North to ensure victory in the second or third poll seven or 14 years later. Then the old Irish republican drive for victory over the ancient British and unionist enemy will be complete. And the 900,000 unionists who will remain bitterly opposed to this outcome? Well, they will soon be the ‘national minority’ on the island (as they have always been in republican eyes), so they’ll just have to suck it up – a case of tháinig ár lá or “now, after nine centuries of oppression, the boot is on the other foot”. I believe that will be ‘revolutionary’ in the worst possible way, because it will re-ignite the age-old conflict that is never far from the surface in the North.
2025 will also be five years away from 2030, which the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned will be the tipping point beyond which global warming (if it is allowed to go above 1.5C) will lead to greatly increased droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people worldwide . Will we as a nation want to spend that five year period driving on to what I believe will be a deeply destabilising form of Irish ‘unity’? Or will we want to concentrate on doing our best, through a combination of decarbonisation, renewable energies and mass retrofitting, both to kick-start a ‘Green New Deal’ economy and to do our bit to help save the planet?
¹ I must declare an interest here – I recently became a Green Party member.
² ‘Young people will rebuild Ireland from ashes – again’, Irish Times, 25 May