The clash between the party’s pragmatists and radicals has been reopened by Hazel Chu’s solo run for the Seanad, writes John Downing
Suddenly the Greens — long caricatured as the party of bikes, bogs and bunnies — are a family at war. The deeply personalised conflicts are being played out in full public glare and efforts to broker peace appear doomed.
On one side, there is party leader Eamon Ryan, who over the past decade led his party from the brink of oblivion, with just three local councillors in 2011, to a record strength of 12 TDs and four senators and an influential presence in government once again.
On the other side, there is party national chairwoman and Dublin Lord Mayor Hazel Chu, uncomfortable with the compromises of coalition and arguing for a more radical social agenda. In the background there is the enigmatic presence of the “Martin Greens”, who include deputy leader and minister Catherine Martin, her husband Francis Noel Duffy, also a TD, and her brother, Senator Vincent Martin.
It is a rerun of conflicts that surfaced this time 12 months ago. These struggles were parallel to the ultimately successful efforts to put together a three-party coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party.
In those struggles, Ryan got where he wanted to go. The Dublin Bay South TD handsomely cleared the two-thirds party membership support threshold for coalition participation. And he held on to the party leadership, albeit rather narrowly, in a contest with Catherine Martin.
It did not follow, however, that a significant bloc in the party were going to reconcile themselves with coalition. It definitely did not mean that a bigger group of internal critics were suddenly supporters of his leadership.
So, this latest internal barney is a continuation of other public spats. But a row over something as banal as a Seanad by-election is still something of a surprise.
It is hard to find Green Party members who will remain dispassionate about this struggle. But some stalwarts are trying hard to see both sides and have shared their views with this writer on assurance of not being named at this sensitive juncture.
At the base of the Greens’ divisions are two sincerely held views. Ryan argues that agreeing to Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil sharing the two Seanad seats is beneficial for pragmatic reasons. It shows goodwill and extends the party’s political leverage for future favours. This by-election is, in all events, practically unwinnable, while there is the promise of a Seanad seat if there is another vacancy during this partliamentary cycle.
Martin, the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, argues instead that this is an opportunity to promote a woman, and one from a minority background. The Dublin Rathdown TD argues that Chu, born to immigrants from Hong Kong, is entitled to run as an independent for the Seanad as an example of the Green Party as a “broad church” that promotes equality and inclusivity.
For others, that view at least harks back to the early days of the Greens when practices such as not having a central leadership and trying to get unanimity for all decisions held back the organisation’s political progress. Others, more protective of Ryan, see it as another way to undermine him.
Such clashes of personality and ambition are common to most human endeavours and are the stuff of politics.
It is arguable that such a big bust-up in the Greens is another sign of their coming of age. In November they mark 40 years in existence, a small-party record in a country that has seen many minority parties, from Clann na Poblachta to the Progressive Democrats, burn brightly but briefly.
There is a strong personal rivalry at play here. Ryan had been a TD for five-seat Dublin South, a Green Party natural habitat that elected the party’s first deputy, Roger Garland, back in June 1989. But after Ryan lost his seat in the Greens’ post-coalition meltdown of 2011, he successfully moved in 2016 to the more promising Dublin Bay South constituency. But Martin pulled off a major surprise win in 2016 in his old bailiwick, which had been reduced from five seats to three and renamed Dublin Rathdown.
Meanwhile, Patrick Costello, who is now Chu’s partner, won a council seat in 2014 in Ryan’s new political home. Costello was disappointed he did not get the party nod for the 2016 Dáil election due to Ryan’s relocation, but he managed to move himself to Dublin South Central and win a Dáil seat in February last year.
When Chu handsomely won a council seat in the Pembroke ward in Dublin Bay South in 2019, she unsuccessfully argued that she be added as a second candidate in the constituency alongside Ryan in the 2020 Dáil election. Her supporters argue that too much has been done to accommodate the party leader’s needs. The counter-argument is that Chu has become Lord Mayor of Dublin and is in only her second year on the city council.
There is visceral opposition to Chu running in this Seanad by-election — and even more opposition to her remaining on as party national chairwoman while she does so. Total war beckoned two weeks ago when three Green Party senators — Pauline O’Reilly, Róisín Garvey and Pippa Hackett — tabled a motion of no-confidence in Chu as chairwoman, in effect seeking her sacking.
The situation was defused somewhat at a parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday evening with a compromise motion calling for her to step aside temporarily from the chair during the election campaign. That motion was carried by 11 votes to five.
But Chu had already rebuffed the temporary move, insisting the parliamentary party had no role here, because the role is entirely a matter for the party’s steering executive committee. The issue has been sent back to the executive committee and nobody expects any change to come from that.
Chu will stand for the upper house of parliament as an independent, in an election she publicly concedes she has no chance of winning. The bar is set higher for the party in the court of public opinion and this very row is extremely damaging.
The Green Party’s latest dispute centres on one of the two by-elections to the 60-seat Seanad caused by two senators’ resignations last year. For such by-elections, voting is restricted to the 160 TDs and the remaining 58 senators.
The leadership of the three coalition parties had agreed that, on this occasion, Fine Gael would regain the seat they previously held, while Fianna Fáil would gain a seat at the expense of Sinn Féin. The Green Party would support both candidates on the promise of gaining a future Seanad seat should a vacancy occur during this parliamentary term.
With a combined total of 125 TDs and senators across the three government parties, the outcome should not be in doubt. The new senators were expected to be Gerry Horkan of Fianna Fáil and Maria Byrne of Fine Gael.
But enter Chu, chairwoman of the Green Party and Lord Mayor of Dublin, who got a nomination as an independent candidate with support from nine TDs and senators. Her nominators include one senator and four Green TDs, notably the party’s deputy leader, Catherine Martin.
The bitter internal row turns on key questions. Those against Chu’s candidacy ask: how can the national party chairwoman stand in a parliamentary election flying colours other than the Greens’? Why risk party unity and degrade political leverage inside government in a contest most unlikely to yield a win?
Those in favour of Chu’s candidature ask: why pass an opportunity to promote the candidacy of a woman candidate from an ethnic minority, which are aims central to the party? Why yield party identity so easily to the bigger two coalition partners?
These and other questions are corroding political and personal relationships inside the Green Party.
John Downing, a political correspondent with the ‘Irish Independent’, was press adviser to the Green Party in government 2007-2011