Last October, Irish Green Party members reaffirmed their commitment to staying in power with the centre right Fianna Fáil party, by voting to support a mid-term renegotiated 'Programme for Government'. More significantly, the party also voted to support the coalition government's favoured initiative to rescue Irish financial institutions: the National Assets Management Agency (NAMA).
In the weeks leading up to the vote, Green Party leader John Gormley announced that the new programme would be transformational - a statement that succeeded in focusing media attention on the new agreement negotiations and away from the controversial NAMA. The NAMA solution had created widespread unease among party members, but what many had failed to realise was that the two Green cabinet ministers had already signed off on NAMA at cabinet meetings.
Despite John Gormley's stage-managed and dramatic 'transformational' announcement, only a political dilettante would ever believe that there could be a transformation of the political policy landscape under a Fianna Fáil-led government. Yet Green parliamentary party members and ministers continued to nod through budget cuts in social welfare entitlements, along with cuts to the disabled, the blind and carers.
And as if to add insult to injury, the Greens even walked through the yes lobby in support of a blasphemy bill, championed by the hard-line Fianna Fáil minister for justice, equality and law reform. The same minister has decimated the Equality Authority and the Combat Poverty Agency. The overall budget for 2010, agreed by cabinet and supported by the two Green Party ministers, identified savings of EUR4 billion by targeting child benefit, the young unemployed, the blind and community support schemes. Public sector pay has also been reduced, with all workers, including the lowest paid, getting sharp wage cuts.
While all political parties represented in the Dáil have accepted the need to balance the national finances and agreed the need for cuts, there has been widespread condemnation of the options chosen, with accusations that the budget was callous and uncreative in its approach. For example, recent research has shown that if tax breaks on personal income and corporation tax were reduced to average EU levels, their cost to the exchequer would fall from EUR7.2 to EUR2.2 billion. This EUR5 billion saving would be more than EUR1 billion more than the cuts targeted at the less well-off.
A key problem for the Green leaders is that, despite much public handwringing, they are firmly embedded in a government that is lurching from crisis to crisis. Ireland's economic collapse has exposed grossly inept if not corrupt practices at the highest levels in both the political and financial spheres, and in the senior public and civil service. But not a single person has been sacked or jailed as a result.
So where does this leave the Greens? Many now believe that the decision to enter government in 2007 was a major tactical and strategic error. The Irish Greens had two choices - to go into government in a minority position and prop up a socially-conservative, centre-right administration, or to remain on the opposition benches, giving the organisation time to broaden and deepen the party's electoral strength and influence.
By staying out of government, the Greens could have greatly increased their membership and local authority base and expanded the Green parliamentary party with a view to government in a subsequent election. Instead, the Greens got a drubbing at last year's local and European elections.
The Greens' strategy has been to define the party's policy on narrow environmental lines, appearing to ditch its equality and social justice platforms and moving the party to a more centrist, 'Green-lite' position. Its minor environmental gains, while admirable, have been dwarfed by its support for massive bail-outs of financial institutions, coupled with draconian cuts to the most vulnerable. In essence, the Greens are perceived as upholding policies that support the most culpable to the detriment of the most vulnerable.
To be fair, any government in power in Ireland in the current economic situation would face a backlash from the public, and being in government will always involve compromise. The lesson to be learned from the Irish Greens' experience is that, before entering into any coalition agreement, you must adopt clear and unambiguous bottom-line policies - and stick to them.
A former Dublin city councillor and deputy lord mayor, Bronwen Maher was a senior member of the Irish Green Party for 20 years before she resigned early last year in opposition to the policy direction taken by the Fianna Fáil/Green coalition government. Maher is now co-chair of the Irish Labour Party's environment and sustainability policy committee