Wednesday 19 June 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Greens deserve moment in sun - but what will they do with their elections bounce?'

Warning: David Attenborough in his ‘Planet Earth’ series – his message has boosted the Green vote. Photo: Tom Hugh Jones
Warning: David Attenborough in his ‘Planet Earth’ series – his message has boosted the Green vote. Photo: Tom Hugh Jones
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

That noise you vaguely hear in the distance? That's the sound of Greta Thunberg laughing.

It's true that the young Swedish climate campaigner may not have been the single biggest factor in the Greens' remarkable turnaround in their fortunes at this year's local elections. But her highly visible and hugely popular attempts to get young people, and their parents, to take a more forceful and proactive role in combating climate change cannot be underestimated.

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As Eamon Ryan surfs his green wave into shore for a result which must have surprised even their most optimistic members, there are a number of fascinating reasons why a party which was itself nearing extinction only a few years ago has performed so well.

As the results began to swing noticeably in their favour on Saturday, Ryan placed much of the success down to the likes of Thunberg and the proliferation of school strikes, the Extinction Rebellion climate movement and, almost inevitably, TV documentaries.

As he pointed out: "The green wave has been building up almost for the last year...They were heartened by young people who were going out on climate strike - they wanted a secure future.

"Older people reacted to that. They watched David Attenborough on television saying nature is in peril, which it is."

Factor: Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg. Photo: Reuters
Factor: Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg. Photo: Reuters

It's easy to have 20/20 vision in hindsight, but having David Attenborough effectively direct your party political broadcasts is never going to hurt your chances.

So it proved with Friday's local and European elections. At the time of writing and before the final council seats have all been filled and the Euro winners announced, the Greens are on course to win a record number of council seats and could potentially get three MEPs over the line as well.

This was always going to be a pretty poor showing for Fine Gael, for the historical reason that the sitting Government often fares poorly in the locals.

But more than that, there is an almost unprecedented level of electoral animosity towards Fine Gael at the moment.

Housing and health are the rocks which may ultimately scupper the good ship Leo, yet compared with the shellacking the party could have received, it will try to accentuate the positive by pointing to some gains in rural Ireland, while Fianna Fáil has also been quick to trumpet its own minor successes in Dublin.

The great fear that both main parties had was the dread prospect of Sinn Féin repeating its success from five years ago. In 2014, it picked up an extra 105 seats, which translated as an 8pc increase in its share.

Those halcyon days must look like the dim and distant past to the increasingly embattled Mary Lou McDonald, who has been a surprisingly weak leader.

Sinn Féin candidates, like their fellow travellers on the hard left, always do better when there is a large protest vote and they can pick up the crumbs left behind by the main parties.

On this occasion, however, they were left trailing in the dust by the Greens, and the Shinners even face the prospect of losing all their councillors in places like Cavan.

What caused the collapse of the Sinn Féin vote at a time when the Confidence and Supply Arrangement has left Fine Gael in such a perilous position?

While McDonald was desperate to put daylight between the 'old' IRA and the sickening killing of Lyra McKee, that murder also reminded people of the dark days of violence to which Sinn Féin will always be inextricably linked.

While that may have been a factor, it's far more likely that in an election where the dominant 'green' has changed from the Republican variety to a more global shade, the party's refusal to sign up to the carbon tax pledge won't have won them many floating voters.

And there can be no doubt that the voters floated on Friday.

So while it would be too cynical to dismiss the Greens' performance as just another protest vote of the kind we see in most local elections, it would also be too naive to assume that this marks a truly profound change in Irish electoral habits.

The great gift enjoyed by this Government is that the Opposition has been too fragmented to land any eye-watering punches. Where once the likes of Sinn Féin, People Before Profit and the various far-left candidates would have been expected to share the spoils of disgruntlement, this time saw those votes almost entirely going to the Greens, prompting Richard Boyd Barrett to ruefully admit that this was a "bad day for the left".

You could argue that this was a virtue vote as opposed to the more traditional protest vote.

Where once the Greens could be dismissed as a largely middle-class concern, external influences such as Thunberg and Attenborough, and a growing mood of genuine engagement amongst young people, ensured that they would hoover up any spares.

Indeed, one of the most common refrains at the polls was from punters who were determined to punish the Government but didn't want to vote for anyone who would leave a nasty taste in their mouth. So, at a time when the planet itself is an issue which is both fashionable and important, there was almost a sense of inevitability about their strong performance.

The big question now is what do they do with it?

Fine Gael has already said that it will plug forward with more green policies and, speaking to the 'Sunday Independent' yesterday, Varadkar acknowledged that: "The public have sent us a message which is that they want us to accelerate action on climate change. It will require changes at individual, community and national level. It won't be easy and won't always be popular but the public support is there for it now."

Translation? They're going to introduce more taxes.

That will be the biggest problem that faces Eamon Ryan's party - it's all very well scooping up votes because that nice man Attenborough made punters more aware of the planet, but all politics is local.

That's why there is such a big difference between declaring your concern at the council election and then experiencing the reality of having to pay more taxes.

Further proving the eccentricity of this election, many of the areas in Dublin which voted so strongly for the Greens are also the very places where strong campaigns against the hugely controversial BusConnects Core Bus Corridor, which will remove many people's front gardens, have been launched.

A controversial policy which, of course, is loudly supported by the Greens.

Flush from their victory this weekend, they will be eyeing up all sorts of potential power-broking and king-making roles in any new government following the next general election and they undoubtedly deserve their moment in the sun.

As the Bus Corridor furore reminds us, Irish voters may like to make a point at local elections - but when push comes to shove it's not so much a case of not in my back yard, as not in my front garden.

Irish Independent

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