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Tuesday 5 December 2023 Dublin: 5°C
Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images Jan O'Sullivan has warned the Greens to be careful about entering government.

Greens should be 'extremely' careful about going into government with FG or FF, says ex-Labour minister

Jan O’Sullivan said that the Greens needed to ‘tie down’ any commitments from the two parties.

THE GREEN PARTY needs to be “extremely careful” if it goes into government with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, former Labour TD Jan O’Sullivan has warned. 

But, in a warning to Eamon Ryan’s party, she also said it shouldn’t be allowed to “divorce” itself from decisions taken around the cabinet table. 

The former education minister, who inherited the Limerick seat following the death of left-wing stalwart Jim Kemmy in 1998, lost out in the general election. 

Her defeat came as something of a symbolic blow to Labour in an all-round disappointing election. 

For nearly the entire history of the state, the city has returned a left-wing TD – whether it was for Labour, or the now defunct Democratic Socialist Party or ‘Democratic Labour’. 

Now, for the first time ever, the Green Party has secured a seat in the constituency. 

O’Sullivan says she isn’t bitter about falling victim to a ‘green surge’. But she warns the party, which could see itself be courted as part of a grand coalition with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, to be careful. 

“They don’t want to be the meat in the sandwich and obviously I presume they would only go in if they get a very significant climate package, which would be challenging for both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael,” she says. 

O’Sullivan is speaking from experience. In government between 2011 and 2016 as part of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition, she took on a variety of roles – including Minister of State for Housing and Planning and, from July 2014, the Minister for Education and Skills. 

Four years ago, she counted herself lucky to have kept her seat as the party fell from 37 to only seven seats. 

She says that she knows what it’s like to be the smaller party in that relationship and advises the Green Party to “tie down the commitments they get in relation to climate”. 

“Sometimes you think you have a commitment in a programme for government,” she says, before quickly realising that might not be the case. 

“They will particularly have to pin down the money they’re going to need for what they want to do on climate.”

O’Sullivan is also adamant that if the Greens enter government, they can’t be allowed to distance themselves from collective cabinet responsibility. 

“I don’t think they should be able to divorce themselves from all the other elements that go on in government,” she says. 

“For us, we were blamed for everything that the government did. Not just the bits that Labour would have put in the programme for government or Labour would have been pushing for.”

“So I think they need to be extremely careful if they’re considering going into government with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.”

Labour’s future

O’Sullivan has her mind made up. Even if there is another snap election, she won’t be putting her name forward. 

“I won’t be running again. My posters have been sent for recycling. I have decided it’s time to give the opportunity to younger people,” she says. 

irish-ministers Julien Behal / PA Archive/PA Images Labour and Fine Gael in happier times in 2011. Julien Behal / PA Archive/PA Images / PA Archive/PA Images

When it comes to the future of the Labour Party, O’Sullivan is confident it can regain people’s trust. 

“I don’t see Labour as dwindling. I think we will grow. I know the organisation of Labour and I know we have branches all around the country. We have people who have a strong allegiance to Labour,” she says. 

Nonetheless, the election re-ignited talk that a merger with the Social Democrats, which finished the election with a healthy six seats, was now all but inevitable. 

O’Sullivan has plenty of experience with mergers. When the Democratic Socialist Party joined Labour in the early 1990s, it was O’Sullivan and party co-founder Jim Kemmy who ultimately conceded that it was better to work together. 

She says that she would like to see a “re-alignment of the left”, but doesn’t think it’ll happen soon. 

“The Social Democrats”, she says, “are too young to be in the position to want do that at the moment”. 

And while her own party has decided not to enter government this time around, she believes the time will come again when the party will be called to “go in and roll up its sleeves”. 

“It’s always a decision – do you do something that is going to make things better in the immediate future and medium term, or do you hold out forever and just wait for the revolution?”

 New leader

O’Sullivan is backing Alan Kelly – over Aodhán Ó Ríordáin – to be the next leader of Labour, after Brendan Howlin announced he was standing down. 

She didn’t back him four years ago, but says he’s now changed: “The Alan I know now is much more of a leadership person than the Alan I knew four years ago.”

“I didn’t think he was ready to be leader last time and I thought he was somewhat divisive within the party last time. People have strong views about him one way or another. And I thought we needed a healing leader that time. We needed someone to hold us all together,” she says. 

And while she is undoubtedly disappointed that there are now no female Labour TDs, she thinks that the Seanad elections should bolster representation in the parliamentary party. 

Besides, she has confidence in the feminist principles of the Labour Party. 

“A lot of our men would describe themselves as strong feminists,” she adds. 

Now, O’Sullivan is planning her next steps. ”I have had 21 really good years in here, most of them in opposition,” she says.

“I’m going to take a bit of time to decide what I want to do.”

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