The Greens’ suspension of Neasa Hourigan last week was not her first run-in with the leadership
Events over the past six months have helped put last Wednesday in perspective for Neasa Hourigan.
Her husband, Colin, had been “quite ill” in hospital for most of that time and only returned home in recent days.
“There’s a lot of running from the Dáil to pick up children from school because I have three kids under 10, so it’s been a stressful time,” the Dublin Central TD said on Friday while sitting in her plant-decorated office in Leinster House. “Sometimes life doesn’t schedule itself in a very helpful way.”
Her daughter, the eldest of the three, has been blind since birth and needs, in Hourigan’s words, “a lot of support”.
All of this puts her decision to vote against the Government last week — earning a six-month suspension from the Green Party in the process — a distant second to other priorities in life.
Last Wednesday in the Dáil, she and Green Party colleague Patrick Costello supported a Sinn Féin motion calling for the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) to be built on land owned by the State.
Having signed off on controversial plans to move the NMH to a site at St Vincent’s Hospital that will be leased for 299 years, the coalition abstained on the vote in a bid to see off a backbench rebellion. It was not enough for Hourigan and Costello.
Within 90 minutes of the vote, Hourigan learned from an opposition TD she was speaking to in the Dáil bar (she declines to name them) that it was on Twitter that the party had decided to suspend her and Costello for six months.
She checked her phone and, sure enough, there was a missed call from Green whip Marc Ó Cathasaigh and a text confirming the news.
“I think that in most situations where you’re going to be sanctioned, you would have an opportunity to make your case, and I’m surprised that that wasn’t afforded to us,” she said.
She has not spoken with Green Party leader Eamon Ryan at all, either before or after the vote. “He’s a busy man,” Hourigan said. By contrast, deputy leader Catherine Martin “checked in to see if I was OK, which I appreciate”.
Hourigan is not surprised at the severity of her punishment and accepts it given it was the second time in two years she had voted against the whip, but she was surprised Costello was hit with the same sanction, considering it was his first ‘offence’. “It’s like any political party, we’re all equal, but some are more equal than others,” she said. “That’s all I’m going to say about that.”
She and Costello have long been perceived as being members of the Greens’ awkward squad. Costello is suing the State over the EU’s free trade deal with Canada, while Hourigan spent several weeks negotiating the Programme for Government in 2020 and then campaigned against the deal.
The NMH motion passed through the Dáíl on Wednesday, but it is non-binding and effectively meaningless.
Hourigan, however, argued: “This is a deal for 299 years and I want it to be on the record for 299 years that I think this was a very bad idea.”
Her concerns are less about religious influence — a point roundly dismissed by those involved in the project — and more about the procurement process.
How, she wonders, does building a public hospital on land not owned by the State align with Sláintecare, the cross-party plan to remove private care from publicly-funded hospitals?
“This locks in public-private contracts for generations to come,” she said.
She foresees Public Accounts Committee hearings on the hospital project in years to come and believes there is “deep concern” about the issue among party members.
The politics of Hourigan, the daughter of former Fine Gael Limerick mayor Michael Hourigan, are to the left of her party, but, she argues, “very closely aligned” with the membership.
Intriguingly, she believes that had a “different cohort” of TDs been elected two years ago, her experience in the party might have been different.
She finds it difficult, for example, that there are only two female Green TDs in a Dáil cohort of 12. But there are three female senators, including party chair Pauline O’Reilly, Róisín Garvey and Pippa Hackett, who is a minister at cabinet.
Although she describes some of their work in the Seanad as “excellent”, it is clear relations between them are not good.
“I respect them as colleagues,” she said after remarking that it was a difficult question. “I wouldn’t have any particular personal… That would be true of lots of people in politics, nothing’s personal.”
She believes there is a feeling among some in the party of “having to police people like me, which I think makes it difficult to move on”.
Last year, O’Reilly, Garvey and Hackett led efforts to oust then Dublin Lord Mayor Hazel Chu as party chair after she decided to run in the Seanad by-election as an Independent. Hackett, an ally of Ryan’s, accused Chu of being “deeply divisive” and undermining the Government.
It was a bitter dispute, resolved only when the motion was withdrawn at the urging of Martin. Hourigan describes what happened as “really unfortunate” before bluntly remarking: “I think that McCarthyism is not great in any political party and it’s really malign… I think that was a shame.”
What’s more, she argues her experience as a TD is different from being a senator, who “doesn’t really have constituents” and doesn’t have the “same level of interaction and immediate relationship with the people who put them in their elected space”.
“They don’t have an immediate responsibility to people. I have an immediate responsibility and I live in a terraced house. I’m not behind some big wall. I meet people every single day and they tell me quite honestly that they’re not happy,” she said.
While her comments would indicate deep underlying tensions, Hourigan has no intention of leaving the Green Party.
She envisages voting with the Government in the coming months and plans to rejoin the party in November when her suspension is up — although the latter, she said, is contingent on staff in her office not being isolated from internal Green Party discussion forums on what is happening in Government.
“I expect and I am planning on voting with the Government, even through motions of confidence,” she said.
Several times during the interview, Hourigan spoke about her “vision” for the Greens, which might lead one to speculate she has designs on the leadership.
That question prompted a rambling answer about green politics and the view of some that it is an addition to normal politics.
She recalled a recent Ibec conference where she was hearing that the climate emergency must be balanced with the needs of business.
“There is no business on a dead planet,” she said. “You have to shift your focus.”
And on leadership? “It’s not really on my agenda. It’s not my modus operandi, it’s not a focus for me, I am not particularly motivated by leadership,” she said, while notably not ruling it out.
She hopes to run as a Green Party candidate in the next general election, but there are rumours she could go Independent or even join constituency colleague Mary Lou McDonald on the Sinn Féin ticket.
At first she responded “No” to the idea, before remarking that “anything could happen in the future”.
Hourigan suspects McDonald has no shortage of excellent candidates to be her running mate. But could she be one of them?
“I don’t envisage it.”