Greenwashing the Establishment: How the Irish Greens Sold Out Environmentalists and the Working Class

by Patrick O'Donoghue

12 September 2020

Eamon Ryan, leader of the Irish Green party
The Green Party of Ireland / Flickr

The Irish Greens are currently in coalition with the two parties that have dominated Irish politics for almost a century, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. By propping up the faltering establishment at this critical juncture of the climate crisis, the Greens have given up a historic opportunity to break the cycle of conservative rule and agitate for radical change.

After a number of years in the political wilderness, the Irish Green party have made a comeback. The Greens joined hands with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in June by signing off on a new programme for government along with both of these establishment parties.

For many environmentalists, the programme is a catalogue of disappointments. Existing licences for gas and oil exploration will not be revoked (the programme only concretely bans the importation of fracked liquified natural gas (LNGs), while allowing the importation of non-fracked LNGs). 

What climate commitments the programme does make are lukewarm, including a target for reducing Ireland’s carbon emissions by seven per cent by 2030 – by which time the current government will be long gone. 

Under its Climate Action Plan, the government has also pledged to retrofit half a million Irish homes, again by 2030, a plan for which this 2020 programme provides no timeline. The programme does nothing to take on Ireland’s climate-destructive agribusiness, including its bloated beef barons such as Larry Goodman. The EU-Mercosur free trade agreement – which many environmentalists have warned “will cancel out climate efforts” – is also unopposed.  

Those within Ireland’s nascent environmental movement are frustrated with what they see as the status quo’s attempt to lower the temperature of Ireland’s ecological discourse at a time when radical demands are hotting up globally. As a result, many environmentalists – including the highly influential Saoirse McHugh – have left the party following a recent leadership election. To them, the Irish Greens have become enablers of neoliberalism, and the corporate interests that continue pushing the planet further towards the brink.

June was not the first time that the Irish Greens have cut a deal with the Irish establishment. It was the Green party that acted as Fianna Fáil’s accomplice in austerity following the 2008 financial crash. As we enter a similar chapter of economic turbulence, many Irish people are justified in thinking history appears about to repeat itself. 

The eagerness with which the Greens have prostrated themselves at the feet of Ireland’s duopoly proves beyond doubt, that they are less defenders of the planet than of their own power. Despite having only twelve TDs, the Greens now hold three of the top cabinet briefs, with party leader Eamon Ryan and his deputy Catherine Martin each taking on a ministerial portfolio. To put that into perspective, Fianna Fáil holds seven cabinet positions, despite having won over three times more Dáil seats (38) than the Greens in the February general election. 

To many, the Greens’ recent capitulation was predictable. Due to the party leadership’s lack of any class analysis, the Greens have long sought to place the burden of climate change on the shoulders of individuals, the poor, and people generally constrained by social conditions, rather than the big corporations that create and profit from those conditions.

Take the government’s new Waste Action Plan, launched recently by the Greens after years of campaigning from party activists. Although incentivising the reuse of plastic bottles and disincentivising the use of single-use plastics is laudable, much of the plan will disproportionately affect the working class. 

For example, the plan bans “buy one, get one free” deals on food and seeks to impose levies on “fast fashion”. Yet what the middle class regard as fast fashion, the working class may view as affordable essentials. 

This kind of class bias is not new from the Greens, whose long-held support for the carbon tax has invited contempt from working-class communities in Ireland.

There is a clear parallel to be drawn here between the Irish Greens and Extinction Rebellion, whose recent disavowal of socialism suggested an unwillingness to confront the ideological engine of the climate crisis: capitalism. 

The environmental movement in Ireland is pushing for system change, for policies that will guarantee a clean break with the market-led growth models that are destroying our planet. 

By pulling rank with Ireland’s ruling parties, the Green party has betrayed its own movement. As a result of this sell-out, the party may soon find itself closer to extinction than the planet itself.  

Patrick O’Donoghue is a working-class freelance journalist based in Dublin.

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