Wednesday 21 August 2019

Niamh Horan: 'Greens are upset by accusations of elitism, says MEP Cuffe '

Forget the old cartoon image - this Green MEP eats meat, travels by airplane and doesn't drive an electric car

NEW MAN: Green Party MEP Ciaran Cuffe. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
NEW MAN: Green Party MEP Ciaran Cuffe. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

Ciaran Cuffe isn't your typical Green. Or the "cartoon image" he feels people have about members of that party.

When I ask him to paint a picture of this cartoon image, he won't bite, insisting I do so instead. So I guess he means they're seen as lentil-eating, sandal-wearing cyclists.

But not Ciaran. For starters, he had a big, juicy hamburger last night. And enjoys meat twice a week, seeing it as "a luxury".

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As for transport? He drives a car when needs must - that is non-electric. He also admits that he will be "flying a lot" in the coming months, thanks to his newly won MEP seat.

But, in a way, this could all work in his favour.

His less-hardline approach to the Green lifestyle might just have more appeal and be a bit more relatable for Middle Ireland, while still leaving him room to do his best to save the planet.

Take where he is while we chat for example. He is returning from Belgium - without flying - to save on his carbon footprint.

"I left Brussels at 8am this morning and I will be home this evening at 7pm."

A multi-country 11-hour journey seems like a heavy price to pay for your principles. And - as someone pointed out to me afterwards - ''the plane would be leaving anyway, with or without him on board''. But Cuffe wants to lead by example and says it actually makes his day more productive.

When travelling overland to and from Europe, he says: "you can get quite a bit of work done", but adds "it does take time and I won't be able to do it every week. If it reduces my potential carbon footprint from flying by 25pc, then great."

When at home, he cycles most days and mainly sees the city "over the handlebars" but also through the windscreen in a car and when he takes the bus and Luas. Which leaves him in prime position as a politician to take everyone's views into account when outlining his dream for the future of Dublin.

So what would his vision look like? First to transport. He wants to "free up money to roll out the entire Dublin bike scheme" and implement the full 15 phases that were promised rather than the mere two that have so far been completed. He also wants more buses for commuters "so people aren't crammed in like sardines" and is in favour of a gradual roll-out of a fleet that operates solely on electricity. He is in favour, too, of the Metrolink, but stresses "we need to get the route right".

As for pedestrians, he wants to repair footpaths, "a no-brainer", and widen them where necessary, taking the space from car lanes. He is also keen that some areas of the city become car-free zones.

"I don't think we need 'the big bang' of taking cars out between the canals but certainly we need to make Parnell Square, St Stephen's Green and places around the city centre like Kevin Street and Pearse Street [more pedestrian friendly] - they are just clogged with cars and buses so we need to give more space back." He also wants to take cars out of Capel Street and South Great George's Street. "None of this is easy," he says, "but we need to sit down with businesses and experts and work out what we can do."

Next, to urban sprawl.

"Many of our towns have become glorified car parks," he says "we need to reclaim some of that space by focusing on regenerating our villages and towns" - for which he envisions local councils playing a key role.

As for city centre living, far from telling millennials to pack up and ship out to homes along the commuter belt, he is adamant that there is an abundance of space for 15,000 more homes in the city centre.

For starters, he wants to move the bus stations and car parks in Summerhill, on the Conyngham Road and in Ringsend, out to areas near the M50 in order to make the most of "these perfect sites for quality homes". He points to cities such as Copenhagen and Vienna which have reclaimed important sites "to build affordable and public housing".

As for greater densities, he is a staunch advocate and stresses that this should be the main focus in solving Dublin's housing crisis.

While, without wanting to "massage developers' egos", he says, he is also in favour of height in the right locations.

"There is space in the city for high buildings, particularly close to places well served by public transport," he says.

He points to the Dublin City development plan which he believes "is very clear on this", and gives the examples of areas around "Connolly station, Heuston station and Dublin's docklands" as prime areas to go skyward.

But he adds: "The most important issue for Dublin at the moment is homes and quality public housing. We are building very little of it. We need to build and we need to build now."

Elsewhere, his vision includes cheap energy. He points to the large volume of water that the Dublin incinerator uses to cool the plant. He says this water is just put back into Dublin Bay, "while other cities use that energy to provide cheap heat for people's homes".

Another 'no brainer' he advocates for is "a sparkling Dublin Bay... that is clean enough to swim in - along with our rivers and canals".

On our capital's air quality, he says: "Dubliners are dying from poor quality air. We know from academic evidence that people in Ireland die prematurely from this and we need clear data for Dublin - to know exactly what is causing the problem."

He also wants to see more fresh fruit and veg markets in the city centre and "more parks, tree planting and wilderness areas" to make the city a good place for children.

If you think all this sounds too good to be true then you're not alone. Many Green cynics write off their dream for the future by asking who exactly is going to fund it?

"There is no magic pot of gold," Ciaran admits. "But there are funds like the European investment bank at a European level that helped us fund the Luas cross-city project and it can do more to help us with housing."

He adds: "There is a lot of money floating around that could be put to really good use, in providing quality housing in Dublin and in upgrading homes, in investing in walking and cycling, and I would love to see that happen."

So what does he make of people who say that a person has to be wealthy to follow a greener way of living? To those who say that it is all well and good for people like Cuffe, who inherited an estimated €1.3m from his mother, to advocate for solar panels and electric cars, while the average Joe struggles to get by.

He points out that, although wealthy, both his parents refused to exist in a privileged bubble, campaigning for everything from social justice to Traveller education. And now he says he wants to do the same: "I was very fortunate and I have been very fortunate in my life and by virtue of that it's important that I try and do my best to help others. I think it's important to give something back if you can and that's what I am trying to do by being in public life."

There is also the fact that in 2003 the inheritance his mother left him was found to have been invested in shares at several oil exploration companies. At the time he had to step down as the Green Party's environment spokesperson, even though he had no knowledge of what the shares were invested in. He was re-elected at the 2007 general election.

Looking back, he says: "I think I learned to be clear and transparent in my dealings with the public and if you are criticised that you take it on the chin and listen carefully to what people are saying and you make changes where you can."

As for the image of Greens as wealthy and removed, he says: "I would encourage anyone to look at our crop of new councillors and ask themselves is this the cartoon image they have of Greens or do the range and calibre of our new elected representatives perhaps measure up more closely to what Greens are?" He says: "Some of my colleagues are really upset at this accusation of elitism."

He explains: "The Greens have changed from something associated with 1968 [the hippie era] to something else. I sat in a room in Brussels yesterday with 70 Green MEPs from all around Europe and they were young, old, black, white, they were campaigners, academics and ordinary Joe Soaps - a bit of everything."

Now it's just a matter of getting the party they go into power with to help implement their dream.

He believes it is doable and points to Vienna, which is "one of the world's most liveable cities". The only difference? It's simple, he says: "They are putting their money where their mouth is."

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