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Ciarán Cuffe: There's an extraordinary opportunity here for the Greens in government

The Green Party MEP says, ‘When the planet is burning, it is not a time to argue over the colour of the fire engine.’

Ciarán Cuffe MEP

As members of the Green Party, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil debate the merits of the new programme for government, the leaders of the Greens arguably have the toughest task getting the deal over the line, with two-thirds of the party’s membership needed to carry the proposal.

As the battle for the hearts and minds of the Irish green movement begins, we invited two representatives with opposing views to state their case. RISE TD for Dublin South-West, Paul Murphy has written a letter to Green Party members asking them to reject the deal, while here, Green MEP Ciarán Cuffe says this is an armistice moment that must be grasped:

WHAT CAN YOU actually achieve in politics? For an ideologically-driven party like the Greens, it is a question we consider every day. Sure, we all want to save the planet, and bring about a just transition, but what changes can you actually achieve within the constraints of Government? Opposition is easy, but Government is tough, particularly for smaller parties like ourselves.

Every vote, every amendment, and every decision is a series of compromises. The draft programme for government ‘Our Shared Future’ reflects those choices. However, from a Green party perspective, there is a lot to like.

A commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 51% over the coming decade would be a huge achievement, and although it still would not align with what climate science dictates, it would show the world what can be done. A commitment to retrofitting 500,000 homes to a B2 energy rating by 2030 would be extraordinary.

Timing is everything and with the arrival of Covid-19, it’s obvious now that these are not normal times. As the pandemic struck, the European Investment Bank announced that they would end financing for fossil fuel energy projects from the end of next year.

A new departure for a new normal

Some of the language in the draft programme is transformational: ending Direct Provision; providing cost rental housing; and spending €360m a year on walking and cycling. The adoption of these measures would be timely, but other measures such as the provision of free contraception for women aged 17-25, and ‘baby boxes’ to all new parents underscores the role of the state in taking care of its citizens.

A lesson from the Covid-19 crisis is that the State can and should assist its people in providing services that are needed. A focus on public health, public transport, and public housing is required as we move to a new normal dictated by these extraordinary times.

None of this will happen overnight. There are of course areas where we didn’t succeed in negotiations, but that is inevitable given the Green Party’s representation in the Dáil. There’s a lot of commitments to reviews rather than actions, but that can be the start of effecting change.

We are still in mid-crisis, and rebooting our economy within the health constraints of the pandemic will be hugely challenging. If our membership decides that we should enter Government (and the bar is set high at two-thirds support of our voting membership) there will be difficult calls to make in the coming months and years.

However, if we sit at the cabinet table we have a voice and take part in the decision-making process. I accept that if you’re in opposition you can provoke debate, and on occasion bring about change.

No time to ‘hurl from the ditch’

With interest rates the lowest in living memory, now is the time to borrow to invest in a low-carbon future. Bord na Móna announced on Tuesday that it will suspend peat harvesting activities and prioritise peat rehabilitation. Meanwhile, the EU has trebled its funding for a ‘Just Transition’ in coal and peat extraction regions. That means more green jobs.

This is an armistice moment that must be grasped. These opportunities happen at best once a decade. When the planet is burning, it is not a time to argue over the colour of the fire engine.

We can seize the opportunity of the European Green Deal, announced by the Commission last year. It lays out plans to make Europe the first carbon-neutral continent by 2050. We need to embrace this opportunity for low-carbon employment, or we can wait for a progressive political alliance that may never emerge.

As an MEP I can see that the language of politics is changing: the circular economy is now centre-stage; zero pollution and low-carbon solutions permeate our discussions, and the Sustainable Development Goals inform our debates.

There is a golden opportunity here to marry climate action with social justice, and while the text of the programme isn’t perfect, it allows us to take action on issues that we have campaigned on for years. There are commitments to more protection for renters; to enacting hate crime legislation; and a new National Action Plan Against Racism. Such measures can bring about a fairer Ireland.

There is an extraordinary opportunity to be seized now in 2020, where the Green Party can make real the ideas that we believe in, and take responsibility for changing the world. We should grasp this moment and enter government.

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In the words of Barack Obama’s former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel: “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that is it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

Ciarán Cuffe is a Green Party MEP for Dublin. You can read the full programme for government here.

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Ciarán Cuffe  / MEP

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