Monday, December 13, 2010

Northern Ireland Green Party Leadership Hustings

The Green Party in Northern part of Ireland has a foot in two camps. It's officially part of the Irish Green Party but it also has to deal with the UK government so it has a relationship to the Scottish, English and Welsh Green Parties too. At their recent conference they made a number of decisions, like opposing AV in the coming referendum, and adopting a new leadership structure.

They are currently conducting their first leadership election and the two candidates, Steven Agnew and Cllr Cadogan Enright, have very kindly agreed to take time out of their busy schedules to let me interview them. I've saved one question for a post of its own, look out for that!

Could you tell me something about yourself outside of the Green Party?

Steven Agnew: I have a two year old son and he is my best escape from politics. He’s an absolute dream. He smiles a lot and cries little. If I don’t have another child it will be because I know I can’t get this lucky twice. He has slept through the night since he was four moths old (apart from when he was teething) and he still sleeps from 7pm until 8am. I suspect that every parent reading this now hates me.

Before being a parent and getting into politics full time I went to a lot of gigs. I still do when I can but am now much more choosy about which gigs I go to. I like either heavy, punk influenced guitar music or stripped down singer/songwriters, particularly Elliott Smith and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy.

I also starred in an independent film called “I Wanted to Talk to You Last Night” made by my good friend Michael MacBroom. During the summer I played a cameo role in his second film “Endless Life” which will hopefully get some kind of release next year. I have also sang onstage with a few local bands, but I would neither consider myself a singer or an actor.

Cadogan Enright: I am married 30 years and have 5 children between 27 and 4 years of age. My wife Brenda has stood for election for the Green Party in Belfast, as has one of my sons Peter in the Republic. My father had a British Military background, and my mother a Bio-Chemist daughter of an Irish Cabinet Minister of very long standing who had led the war of Independence. After 1 year of primary school in Belfast, I was raised in Africa in the 1960’s by my Irish / British parents and we only returned to NI in 1972 following the Biafran War and a brief sojourn in London.

I left school in 1974 and worked mostly in England until 1977. I got a mature students grant (I totally support the students rebellion - in my day you got a grant that you could live on and your fees were paid) and studied in Derry City and Dublin Computer science and Commerce. Subsequently worked in the Republic, France, NI, Russia (back in the USSR), Britain, USA, Germany, Russia (post coup) mostly developing computer software and re-organising companies to make them more competitive. Qualified as an Accountant along the way.

I spent 10 years reorganising business systems in major multinationals from the mid-90's like Diageo, Cadbury Schweppes, Elan, Aerospace etc and set up my own business in Dublin which was finally killed off by the Irish credit crunch in 2008. We moved home to NI in 2003 and currently run a "Fairtrade and Local Café" in Market Street in Downpatrick where I am a Green Councillor.

Please describe your political experience or history to date.

Steven Agnew: I joined the Green Party in 2003 after meeting then leader John Barry at a protest march against the invasion of Iraq. I would not have considered myself to be interested in the politics of Northern Ireland which was limited to the arena of ‘the trouble’. I was interested in human rights, animal rights and social justice issues such as homelessness. These issues did not seem to fit into the political discourse in Northern Ireland. John seemed to be able to articulate my interests into a coherent political philosophy and soon. I was campaigning for him in North Down where four years later we would get our first seat in the Assembly. I hope to retain that seat next year.

In 2007 I stood as a poster candidate in East Belfast but it was in 2009 when I stood for the Party in the European elections that my political career really took off. A strong media campaign coupled with the message that the Greens were big players in Europe led to the Party getting its biggest vote to date in a Northern Ireland election. Along with the election of Brian Wilson as MLA, this campaign gave the Green Party the credibility that it been previously lacking.

In May of this year I stood in North Down in the general election. It was a tough campaign and I learned the importance of having a good campaign team around you, something I had during the European elections but lacked for this one. I now have a very strong team in place for the Assembly and local government elections next year and am raring to go.

Cadogan Enright: I joined the Greens on the 1990’s in Dublin in Fingal – Trevor Sargent’s constituency – Trevor has a great leadership style of permitting and facilitating people to become involved. I worked on policy documents like energy Download, building control, water (with my wife), economics, Northern Ireland, planning etc etc. I was also involved in Trevor’s election campaigns and helping greens get elected at local Government level. We moved to NI and in 2003/4 I set up the Green Party in South Down (see I was election agent for our 3 successful council candidates in 2005 and for our successful Regional (MLA) candidate Brian Wilson in 2007.

I have been on the NEC in Ireland for many years, being nominated initially by Fingal and representing NI since the NI party merged with the Irish party in October 2006. I stood in this years Westminster Elections and am standing next May in the Local and MLA elections.

We have copied the Fingal approach to party organisation in my local party, and as Chair I have tried to emulate Trevor Sargent's approach locally. We travel down to Fingal for elections in the Republic, and they travel up for elections here. This connection probably explains why our local party is the only one really thriving to date in NI – but we have promising signs now in Antrim and other areas developing.

What do you think the priorities of the Greens should be in the coming years?

Steven Agnew: In Northern Ireland the first task is to increase our number of councillors, retain our Assembly seat, and hopefully gain one or two more. If we do that we will have cemented our place in Northern Ireland politics but should we lose our Assembly seat and fail to gain any others we will struggle to make any impact for many years to come.

In terms of our message I think it is important that we use this election to put to bed the myth that the Green Party is a single issue party and assert are credentials as a party of the left fighting for social justice.

While it is our responsibility to keep climate change on the agenda now that all other parties have abandoned it in the midst of the economic crisis, we must address the people’s concerns about job insecurity and show how Green Party policies really will help improve their lives.

Cadogan Enright: I had fond hopes during the 1990’s that the need for a Green Party would disappear during my political lifetime and felt fairly sure up until five years ago that our policies would be subsumed by the other parties in countries across Europe and that, in particular, the influence of the EU would steam-roller resistance.

I now feel that the maxim “think global act local” is the way for the long haul, trying to win dozens of small victories locally which others can use as a precedent. E.G. beach by-laws minerstown, Greens announce victory at tyrella beach, Greens welcome news on strangford seals, massive fish kill quoile, Annalong river scandal, Lough

I feel the policy we developed in 2005 in NI of attracting independents, and adding our vote to them to get elected was a waste of time and 20:20 vision. We were never able to integrate the independents and are now paying the price of not developing our own candidates and local parties properly on NI, something I have been trying to ensure we do in my own area where we have a slate of political virgins stepping up to the plate next May who have been campaigning actively for several years as you can see from my website.

Following our election success in 2007, I argued strongly that our priority needed to be the building up of the party around the province. I felt that an over-concentration of our resources in staff at our Stormont-financed offices would mean nothing if we came to the next elections and found ourselves with no organization in the vast majority of constituencies around the province. Sadly, this is the situation where we now find ourselves in today. Employing even a part-time organizer could have transformed the party over these last few years.

Could you outline what lessons Greens should learn internationally from the experience of the Irish Greens in government?

Steven Agnew: I am proud of the achievements of the Irish Greens in government. There is no doubt that the current Irish government is unpopular, but we knew our vote when we went into government with Fianna Fail, a party whose policies we had opposed for many years.

We were a party with six TDs in government with a party with over seventy yet we managed to secure the Civil Partnership Act despite much opposition. We increased investment in renewable energy and electric vehicles, and we extended the broadband network to many rural communities. One of our major achievements was the reform of the planning system which had allowed the building of what are now ghost villages during the housing boom. The Green Party has ensured that the type of irresponsible rezoning that was one of the major causes of Ireland’s economic crash will not happen again. We get very little credit for this as few recognise its importance.

But there are lessons to be learned. In the first year we were seen as too cosy in our relationship with Fianna Fail. I remember when Bertie Ahern announced his resignation; Green Party Leader John Gormley was at his side. This literal closeness suggested that the Greens were all too comfortable in government with Fianna Fail. I think Nick Clegg is making the same mistake, although in his case I believe that his and Cameron’s ideologies are not that dissimilar. We changed tact somewhat after the first year and Dan Boyle, the Party’s Chair, became the voice of protest at the senior Party level.

Any party going into government as a junior partner will find it difficult. The question every member has to ask themselves is “is it more important that the Party stick to its principles or is it worth making compromises if we can make a real difference to people’s lives?”. I believe the compromises were worth it, though no member is happy with the ECB/IMF imposed budget that has just been announced.

Cadogan Enright: On the positive side, making a clear list of the deliverables and making program-managers responsible for their delivery during the course of the government was a good idea.

However it is clear that our Fianna Fail partners managed to long-finger a lot of our important legislation and we should not have let them. EG Incineration Aarhus convention, Party Political Funding Reform. We are still awaiting the publication Climate Change Bill and it will be pretty scandalous if it does not get passed before the Government falls in February or March. FF have allowed us to get issues that they see as “damaging” – only damaging to their supporters though – not to ours! Hunting, animal welfare and Lesbian and Gay Partnerships being legally recognised.

I also feel that there was a long list of “no-cost” items in our programme for Government that could have been delivered given the lack of interest in FF is such items – competition between Mobile Phone companies North and South – feasibility studies for reactivating railways severed by the partition of Ireland, failure of the banks in the RoI and NI to compete effectively driving up costs and other regulatory style issues. Even simple issues like making Irish Language TV available in NI as per the peace agreement took way too long – and even now is only promised when digital takes over from Terrestrial TV.

The purchase of the NI Grid by the RoI was a big gain, enabling the Grid to be re-engineered to accommodate much higher levels of renewables and greater links to Britain and the rest of Europe.

Clearly as a member of the NEC during I carry collective responsibility here, and I particularly regret the vote to support the rescue of the Irish Banks. Even if we had left Anglo Irish bank out on the basis that it borrowed abroad, lent abroad and had no infrastructural benefit to the Irish Economy the IMF rescue and the damage to the economy in the Republic would have occurred.

The terms agreed with the EU central bank clearly favour big German bond-holders who lent to Anglo. An average borrowing rate of 5.8 to 6% was an insult given that Ireland is paying it to the very German banks that lent to Anglo. Clearly with the EU central bank rate at 1% Ireland's borrowing rate should have been no more that 3%. That being said the manufacturing and exporting base of the Irish Economy is hale and hearty so all is not lost.

I also regret our inability in Government to throw our weight about on issues that cropped up after we went into Government. For instance the Irish Government is clearly either breaking or about to break the Bern Convention on the Badger Cull issue. Our Minister could quite simply rule the application for a new cull licence out or order based on International Law – there are some things you don’t need to tip-toe around the civil service on. See here.

stay tuned for part two...


Jim L. said...

How nice! Sure the Greens in Government have completed screwed the Irish working class, smashed welfare payments, reduced the minimum wage, generally been complicit in the robbing of the Irish people to bail out bankers and bond holders - but, but they DID manage to introduce civil partnerships and broadband in rural areas. Which makes everything OK.

James Mackenzie said...

Fascinating post, and two strong candidates. Glad to see that neither are of the oppositionalist view that colleagues in the Republic shouldn't have sullied themselves with office, while also recognising what's been done wrong. Gives me great hope for GPNI, whoever wins.

Les Reid said...

It is good to see that the Greens in NI can produce two strong candidates for the post of Leader. The campaign addresses both show firm commitment to Green principles and a good grasp of political issues throughout these islands. That augurs well for the Green Party in NI, no matter who wins.

However, I am uneasy about Cadogan Enright's condemnation of the bank bail-out. It is easy to say that the banks should have been allowed to collapse, to teach the greedy bankers a lesson, but that would have wrecked many businesses and robbed people of their savings. It would not have taught the greedy bankers any lessons either, because they had already made off with their fat bonuses. Kicking the stable door to bits after the horse has bolted is not a very wise move.

Jim Jepps said...

I'm with you on that Les.

I think there's a difference between criticising the situation that made those bailouts necessary it's quite another to say 'oh the banks should have just gone to the wall'.

However, I do think we should have had far firmer conditions on the bailouts that restricted how much those at the tops of the banks could make money out of taking risks with other people's money.

I'm often struck by how otherwise sensible people can't see what the repercussions of not bailing out the banks would have been.

Ronan said...

Mr Enright is clearly a knowledgeable businessman and so his opinion that the banks should have been allowed to face the consequences of their actions is natural in my opinion. His professional experience would have told him that that business development comes with inherent risks (moral hazard) which impact on your employees and your firm. As such, you better be sure to have fully assessed and understood those risks when making your decisions. Every entrepreneur and SME owner in the country faces this every day.

However, with the bailouts it seems that these free market realities do not apply to the sector which draw the largest profit margins. The risk is socialised while the profits are privatised. All the while, the real economy and the SMEs that are the backbone to it are haemorrhaging. Mr Enright is completely justified in seeking a balanced and equal treatment of our businessmen and women. It is an absolute disgrace that it has come to the point in Ireland where the small businessman is sent to the wall (due to requirements for increased reserves over 10% for banks) for the benefit of a protected minority. This is almost Orwellian in its contradictory nature.