Northern Ireland Green Party Leadership Hustings
I was asked by a blogger to answer a number of questions about in relations to my candidature in the Green Party in Northern Ireland leadership contest. These were my responses:
1. Could you tell me something about yourself outside of the Green Party?
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 choosey about which gigs I go to. I like either 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 sung onstage with a few local bands, but I would neither consider myself a singer or an actor.
2. Please describe your political experience or history to date.
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 troubles’. 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.
3. What do you think the priorities of the Greens should be in the coming years?
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.
4. Could you outline what lessons Greens should learn internationally from the experience of the Irish Greens in government?
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. The insulation scheme which the Greens spearheaded is helping to tackle fuel poverty and create jobs. 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.
5. What one policy of the Green Party are you most passionate about personally and which one policy would you like to change?
I am passionate about social justice. While environmental policies are important, I am not a ‘deep green’ in that I think they are only important in so far as they make life better for people and other sentient beings (I believe that animal rights have to be given a higher level of importance). So I think that making the lives better for the most vulnerable in our society should be our first objective.
I think the proposal for a national insulation scheme is a key Green policy and one that sums up the approach of our Party. It would improve people’s lives by making them more comfortable in their homes. It would help the economy both by creating jobs and by reducing the amount of money that we are sending out of our economy by spending it on imported fossil fuels. And of course it would reduce our emission thus helping in the fight against climate change. It is economy for people and planet.
I would like to change our branding. If I could borrow Marty McFly’s time machine I would go back and tell the founding members of the Party not to call it the Green Party. Every day we fight a battle against the public perception that we are more interested in protecting every blade of grass than we are in improving people’s lives. While improving people’s lives and protecting the environment in which they live are inextricably linked, this is a hard message to get across.
Or maybe I just want to change the name so I don’t have to listen to any more rubbish puns on the colour green. So I’ll finish with one I never grow tired of; “it’s not easy being green”.
These responses were first published on The Daily (Maybe):