I HAVE to admit I was looking forward to reading Without Power or Glory: the Greens in Government by Dan Boyle. It offers the kind of insight that can prove invaluable in understanding politics. In time to come there will be many books dealing with the crisis stricken Cowen government but this is the first from someone so close to the action.
It is very easy to dismiss a government you don’t support, blame their failings on incompetence or lack of ability. To truly learn the lessons though, one should never be as condescending, or arrogant, as to believe that they are all just corrupt or inept. Politics is so many shades of grey and understanding where everyone is coming from and their reasoning is the key to better decisions.
The book itself gets off to a slow start. There is a lot of name checking of various people in the Green Party that most people will never have heard of, but this can be put down to the politicians desire to show gratitude to the team. Boyle starts the book by saying ‘We went into this with our eyes wide open’. That line alone will cause some controversy. Boyle discusses how the Greens approached getting ready for government, he admits that they knew certain positions like that taken on the EU and Shannon would not be tenable in government. However despite the numerous committees the Greens established to look at the issues they made no public progress to prepare their membership or voters for the fact that many positions would have to change in government.. The desire to increase seats outweighed the necessity of admitting that some policies simply could not be sustained. This calls into question their real preparedness for government and whether they truly understood what it involved.
The first really interesting segment covers how the Greens approached government with Fianna Fail. Boyle tells us that a majority of members would not definitively rule out government with Fianna Fail it that proved necessary. This is a conundrum. If it’s true then it seriously calls into question the leadership abilities of Trevor Sargent, who seemed so unable to bring these members with him, that he felt he had to rule out working with Fianna Fail and it later cost him the leadership of his party. If members had no issue then why did Sargent feel so compelled? The fact is its more like opposition was greater before the election when Fianna Fail was the bad guy, after FF began to recover in the polls the Greens found themselves offside and attacking FF did not contain as much popularity as once hoped.
DAN Boyle writes in a very accessible and honest style. The book gives a very good grounding on Green thinking and how they settled into government. The narrative does have one major weakness, however. Throughout the book Boyle fails to explore the reasons behind other people’s thinking. Each anecdote or set of events is described purely from the Green perspective; there is little sign of any ability to understand either coalition partners or opponents. Boyle rails against a ‘middle class green stereotype’ and a ‘media narrative’ about the Greens. He didn’t like the pigeon holing or mythology that he says was perpetuated about the party. Yet, when discussing Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, Labour, Sinn Fein or People Before Profit, Boyle often lapses into quoting media narrative about each of these parties and indulges in sweeping generalisations that anyone involved in those political organisations would dismiss out of hand.
Very honestly, Boyle points to some differences of opinion between himself and Eamonn Ryan and, to a lesser degree, John Gormley. Books from either of these would now make interesting reading to see if they had a different view of the people they engaged with. On the surface of this book, FF, the Attorney General, the civil servants and opposition were all combined in blocking the good policy of the Greens. The lack of any attempt to state how opponents saw things or to be fair to them is disappointing. One gets the impression that the Greens walked into rooms and when they met any kind of opposition to their policy, they gave a bemused look, shrugged their shoulders and put it down to corruption, laziness or personal enmity. Understanding that another side might have a point or a genuine concern never seems to enter the reasoning. Given the length the Greens hung on in government I’m not convinced that this is a true depiction of how everyone saw things.
The book provides a fascinating insight however into how the greens were trying to keep their own party together as things kept getting tougher. There was obviously immense pressure from all sides. Any student of politics should read this book, if only to read the section on the bank guarantee. Here, Boyle excels. His account is fair and dispassionate. He lays out the timeline and circumstances and the thoughts behind the fateful guarantee. He argues its merits and its failings that give us a first genuine sight of why the government moved on the policy. Politicians today who might fear facing similar calamities would do well to read this section and take it at its word. If you do so you begin to forget the easy arguments about being fools, or corrupt and realise that implications come with all decisions and sometimes even a decision that makes perfect sense can be proven later to have contained serious errors.
Equally interesting is the account of the arrival of the IMF. The book very vividly captures a sense of foreboding and a dark presence looming from the first mention of Ollie Rehn. His duplicitous words with the Green party on day one and the approach the EU took to Ireland is not something that should be forgotten in a hurry. Boyle bears out the story that Ireland was badly treated and bounced about by an EU wishing to move them off the stage. The EU was certainly not Ireland’s friend during this period. The IMF discussions began and Boyle accurately depicts the confusion within government. Politicians clearly did not believe these were negotiations, the EU needed them to be and the EU won. Patrick Honohan himself admitted to Vincent Browne that Brian Lenihan believed the talks would last some months. Most likely he believed he and the Taoiseach would step in to do the real negotiation towards the end with other EU leaders in the loop, like any other EU agreement.
Of course, Honohan announcing that he himself was now talking to the EU finished all hope of that. It is astounding that the history books will record that when Ireland negotiated the bailout deal and put its sovereignty on the table, there was not one politician at the negotiating table. Instead officials from the Department of Finance and the Central bank did a deal (that now looks an increasingly bad one), while none of them would ever have to face the public on the back of it. If ever a country needed an election it was at this point, where a new government with a mandate could negotiate and bring political pressure to bear. To paraphrase an article by economist Morgan Kelly, however, the government had been cut off and the knees and now seemed to have been sidelined.
This book conveys the turmoil that the Greens found themselves in. The EU was pressuring the government to stay in place and ‘do the right thing’ by the country by passing a budget. This was of course to suit the EU and its ends. Boyle shows us that the Greens firmly believed that passing the finance bill was a sacrifice for the country. Many in FF felt the same. If ever tribal party politics might have been better this was arguably the moment. The fear of letting the people decide was all consuming. Yet hindsight shows us that the incoming government of Fine Gael and Labour were not exactly going to be irresponsible. The Greens themselves struggled with this and efforts to achieve some final policy objectives.
The relationship with Cowen seems fraught. Clearly Cowen never let the Greens in, in the way that Ahern did with Harney. The communications were poor and inconsistent. Sometimes Cowen confided he had no-one to turn to, and then he was in combatative mood hours later. Boyle clearly feels that the Greens made their position clear on the cabinet reshuffle and it’s hard to argue with him on the basis of his account. An episode where Dermot Ahern rings John Gormley to complain about a suggestion that he might not be able to continue as a Minister underlines again that not all the FF resignations really intended to step down from posts. Boyles account seems to confirm that these Ministers were leaned upon to step down, while Cowen suggested at the time that they had come to him and he had no choice.
Other anecdotes also provide fascinating insight. Such as when a Green party delegation met Finance Minister Brian Lenihan to agree elements of that last budget. Lenihan was accompanied by officials, not by anyone else from Fianna Fail. Clearly the Department of Finance had assumed absolute control over political events and negotiations and the party side of things was swept away. Interestingly Boyle indicates that there were more grounds for agreement between Lenihan personally and the Greens than between the Officials and the Greens.
As one would expect the book fairly storms to its conclusion with one crisis after another. It is a book I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to understand politics. Boyle has done his party some service with it and has given us our first considered insight into what really was going on in that government. It will take much more before we can finally decide the rights and wrongs but this is a good place to start. Dan Boyle suggests the Greens will not completely disappear. I am inclined to agree; they are a movement rather than a party, a way of life rather than just a political ideology, so someone somewhere will always cling to it for longer than they would a simple political motive.
While not everyone will agree with Boyle’s version of events, even within the Greens, he has given his opinion in the forthright manner we have come to expect from him. He has never shied from engagement and argument and in this day and age that is to be much admired.
Johnny Fallon is a political consultant