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Interview: Saoirse McHugh on why being able to say 'I told you so' gives her no comfort whatsoever

“When you look at what the government is coming out with in terms of climate, they may as well be climate change deniers.”

Saoirse McHugh
Saoirse McHugh
Image: Green Party

SAOIRSE MCHUGH WAS one of the most high-profile members of the Green Party in recent years. She is now one of the most high-profile former members.

McHugh left the party in July – making good on a promise saying that she would do just that if the Greens went into government with either Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

The party this year formed a coalition government with both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and McHugh felt she had no option but to leave.

Her departure was not a surprise – the environmentalist had strayed from the official party line on more than one occasion, speaking out against issues like carbon tax and what she perceived as the party’s lack of ambition in terms of climate change targets.

McHugh believes some people in the party wanted to be associated with her when she had a chance of winning a seat, but were ultimately happy to see her leave.

The Achill Island native became a household name during the European Parliament elections in 2019 when she narrowly failed to win a seat for the party in the Midlands-North-West constituency.

She ran in the Dáil and Seanad elections this year but failed to be elected.

Shortly before the general election in February, she says, she was getting phone calls from people high up in the Greens telling her to not be so publicly critical of the party as it was damaging the chances of her and other candidates on polling day.

On one occasion, McHugh says she was asked by party management not to go ahead with a planned appearance on RTÉ.

“It was a few nights after I was on Prime Time and said I didn’t agree with the carbon tax.”

McHugh says a press officer called her and and told her “so many people are so angry with you, you’ve ruined the chances of a load of Greens in rural seats”.

McHugh found the phone call “upsetting” and asked for the names of the candidates in question so she could “ring them and apologise”.

“I don’t want to think that my colleagues are really angry at me. I asked for [their names] several times … basically wouldn’t tell me.”

McHugh says she contacted “most of the rural Greens running” and those she spoke to said her comments hadn’t bothered them “at all”.

“It’s almost like people were just trying to make me feel bad, I just thought that was just weird aul behaviour.”

In the end she did go on RTÉ, after receiving encouragement from other colleagues, but winning a seat in the Mayo constituency did not come to pass.

When asked for comment about the issues raised by McHugh, a spokesperson for the Greens said the last few months “have been challenging” and the organisation “is growing, and different platforms and modes of communication have entered the frame”.

“In recognition of that and as part of our commitment to continuous improvement we are in the process of reviewing and updating procedures and policies around dignity and respect, along with educating and informing members about those processes.

“External experts have supported and continue to be consulted in relation to the development and implementation of party-wide well-being measures.”

The spokesperson did not specifically respond to the allegations that McHugh was told her comments were damaging to other candidates, and asked to not do a TV appearance.

They added that any allegations of bullying or harassment reported to the party will be taken “extremely seriously”.

‘Climate change deniers’

After the election, McHugh was very critical of the Greens’ “lack of ambition” while helping devise the Programme for Government (PfG), as well as the party’s performance since getting a coveted ‘seat at the table’.

When she quit the party, she described the PfG as “a terrible document”, adding that the party’s membership “were told it contained certain things that it didn’t”.

In June, shortly before McHugh left, 76% of Green Party members voted to endorse the programme – above the two-thirds required.

Once the PfG was published McHugh didn’t have high hopes for the Greens’ time in office as the document showed “the maximum limits of what would be achieved” and in her opinion didn’t promise enough in terms of climate action, housing and health.

“I have to try and pull myself back, because obviously Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are there and responsible too but, you’d have higher hopes for a party like the Greens.”

The PfG commits to a 7% average yearly reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade, and to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. This Climate Action Bill sets out the “suite of policies” that will be implemented to “achieve this goal”.

McHugh, and some people still in the Green Party, are less than impressed by these “goals” – saying they don’t go far enough and fail to address many issues.

“When you look at what the government is coming out with in terms of climate, they may as well be climate change deniers,” McHugh tells us. 

“To truly take it as seriously as it should be taken, it would require the confronting of and winding down some of the most profitable industries on the planet. And that would be extremely hard for any government to do, they’re lobbied hard.”

McHugh says some members of the public don’t take climate change seriously because it is seen as a problem further down the line, rather than right now.

Most people take Covid-19 very seriously, she notes, in part because it has been headline news every day for most of this year. Climate change makes headlines, of course, but nowhere near as many.

“You’re looking at trends (in relation to climate change), rather than ‘I’ll get sick or my parents might get sick and die’,” McHugh notes. 

“If you look at the trends of the last 100 years, you realise flooding has gotten worse and more frequent. But you remember floods from when you were young, so it’s easier to say ‘oh, this has always happened’.

“[Climate change] is just not treated like the emergency that it is.”

Agriculture vs environment

McHugh is critical of Ag-Climatise – a roadmap published earlier this month which aims to make the agricultural sector in Ireland “climate neutral” – whereby emissions are balanced by methods of removing warming gases from the atmosphere by 2050.

This too lacks ambition and does not promise enough, she argues.

McHugh says, in order for people like farmers to support more ambitious climate goals, the government has to ensure they are not “left behind”.

“I think people will buy in if there’s no fear of being left behind. It’s about ensuring that financially it makes everybody’s lives better, and it’s taken as an opportunity to improve things.”

Farmers who fear for the future of their livelihoods need to be helped to move into more sustainable methods of working, for example, and given financial support.  

McHugh says discussions around climate change often end up unfairly pitting people who work in agriculture against environmentalists.  

“This ‘farmers versus the environment’ kind of thing, in my own experience, that’s not coming from environmentalists and it’s not coming from farmers. It’s a very intentionally constructed false binary, I suppose, between the two.

“It’s devoid of any sort of nuance. The only purpose that I see it serving is to close off two sides from each other.”

McHugh says the argument that it’s “one or the other” makes no sense.

If we have no soil and no clean water, if we don’t have any biodiversity, we won’t have any agriculture. It’s not actually one or the other, it’s both or neither.

McHugh adds that blaming vegans, for example, for the plight of farmers ignores the fact “we’ve pursued an industrialised mode of expansionary agriculture for the last 30 years and we’re pushing smaller farmers out”.

“We really need to look at who is that benefiting because it hasn’t benefited the majority of farmers on the island, it hasn’t benefited water and land, and it hasn’t benefited rural communities.

“I often hear people say that if we change our agricultural system rural communities would die a death, and say ‘Well, I don’t know where you live, but I’ve lived most of my life in a rural community, and it is dying a death, and it has been for some time.”

When quitting the Greens earlier this year, McHugh said: “This government, I believe (and I hope I’m wrong) will do massive damage to the idea of environmentalism by linking it with socially-regressive policies.”

Speaking now, she believes her fears were justified. “I had hoped that I was wrong about government, being able to say I told you so, has no comfort in it whatsoever.”

‘Boots on the ground’

Political parties are often less popular after a spell in government, but a minority party in a coalition can be decimated – as Labour and the Greens themselves have found in recent years.

It’s not impossible for minority parties to make an impact and get certain policies through, McHugh notes but adds that the PfG was not ambitious enough to make it worthwhile for the Greens to go into power.

“I know there were some people who were eager to go in [to government] no matter what.

A lot of influential people in the Green Party just kept repeating the ‘feet under the table’ mantra, saying ‘we’ll be at the table’ and will have ‘boots on the ground’ – to imply that once you were in maybe there would be more wiggle room.

McHugh says media reports labelling certain people in the Green Party as “kingmakers” during government formation talks overstated the power they held.

“I think it is possible for a smaller party to achieve some good wins, but I think a lot of that would have had to been put down in a programme for government, and I don’t think there’s much now to be gotten.

“I think you have to be really hard nosed about how you gonna go about doing that and rely on more than just being there.”

Electoral politics

In her statement about leaving the Greens, McHugh said didn’t “believe that our pathway to a just and free society lies in electoral politics”.

Several commentators were critical of her choice of words here, saying she came off as a disgruntled failed election candidate.

“Maybe I could have worded it better”, McHugh says of the comment now, but adds she was surprised at how “dismissive” the reaction was.

“I just found it really surprising, it was a question more than anything.

“I was surprised it got that much attention. As far as the kickback goes you would think, why would you care if you thought it was such a silly thing to say? Would you not just ignore it?

Silence is the greatest subtweet, why are you so obsessed with me?

Online abuse and sexism

McHugh is no stranger to online abuse and has had to grow a thicker skin since being in the public eye.

Elected officials or candidates generally have to accept insults and personal abuse as par for the course, and the worst of this is often reserved for women.

McHugh believes some people would not speak to her or about her in the same way if she was a man.

“My brother goes through my messages sometimes and he, although he has never run for election, says ‘I have never, ever been spoken to like that’.

“I was glad actually Holly Cairns brought it up – a lot of that ‘silly little girl’, ‘ignorant little girl like’, the amount of that you get.”

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Earlier this month, Cairns, a Social Democrats TD, invited a board member from Greyhound Racing Ireland who wrote online that she was “an ignorant little girl” to a broadcast debate about the industry.

Speaking in the Dáil, Cairns said she wanted to place on the record of the house that there is “no excuse” for such comments.

Wayne McCarthy, who sent the tweet, is a board member of the state organisation and has since apologised for his comments. Fine Gael TD Joe Carey liked the tweet and has also offered his “sincere apologies” to Cairns for doing so.

A Private Members’ Motion by the Social Democrats TD that sought to prevent an increase in funding of €2.4 million to the greyhound industry was defeated in November.

Regardless of whether or not a person agrees with their policies, calling a male TD “a silly little boy” is virtually unheard of.

“I do think a lot of it is gendered, especially along the lines of ‘you haven’t a clue’, that whole line of criticism is often reserved for women. There’s a particular flavour that only gets applied to women,” McHugh tells us.

Another run?

McHugh is not entirely sure what’s next for her, or where she’ll be living in a year’s time, but she is ruling out another election bid for now.

“I’m not going to be involved with party politics. As to how best I can be engaged with politics outside of that, I’m still figuring it out and the pandemic doesn’t help.”

There was speculation in recent months that McHugh would join Sinn Féin or another party, but she says this is not her intention.

She acknowledges that during the Seanad election in particular she felt more “liked” by members of other parties than the Greens.

Some Green TDs, she recalls, indicated they would not vote for her, while people in other parties said they would give her a lower preference vote behind their own candidate.

“It was an awful thing to you feel more liked in other parties (than your own).”

Despite this, however, she says she was never officially approached by another party to join.

McHugh sees the “attraction” of running as an independent but adds: “I don’t think I would.”

Like many people her age, she is “figuring out” what to do with her life. Once the Covid-19 pandemic is over, she and her partner may move off Achill.

“Is it impossible to find anywhere to live, and house prices are through the roof,” she says of the island, noting that these issues are not exclusive to more urban areas.

Moving to somewhere on the mainland is a definite possibility – both for work prospects and being “around more young people”.

“I’d love to be around even a town the size Westport (in Mayo), or even smaller again like Newport or Louisburg, just a bit of life, being able to walk places like the shop.

“I’d love to be within walking distance of town with maybe even, god forbid, a café.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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