03 June, 2011

Rebuilding and Renewal

Where to begin?

We ran, we lost, and the rebuilding must now begin. Three months later I’m only just realising the pressure that we were all operating under for the last few years. It was difficult enough as a TD and as a Minister of State. I can only imagine what it was like for Eamon and John sitting at the Cabinet table.

There were also enormous pressures on our Oireachtas and head office staff who now find themselves out of work. Still, I’m relatively optimistic about the prospects for the Party in the longer term. We’ve always prided ourselves on the strong voluntary ethos of the Party. Now that will be put to the test.

There’s a great opportunity now to start afresh, with the benefit of our experience from the last thirty years, and from our four years in Government. While many of our current policies are detailed and carefully considered, they are of an era that preceded the Financial Crisis. Now we need to wipe the slate clean of policies and start afresh with just our seven principles to guide us. New policies must be crisp, clear and written in plain English. Our experience allows us to produce distinct policies that can be readily implemented the next time we’re in Government. We now need to show that we can do more with less, and ensure that the vulnerable will benefit from any changes that we propose. Environmental charges make sense, but not the flat charges for water and property that Phil Hogan appears to be currently pursuing.

The Green Party reformed planning and energy policy and has the potential to achieve so much more. We were on the cusp of changing the way politics is funded, about to restructure local government and provide a directly elected mayor for Dublin. All of that preparation can and will continue.

The Party now needs to appoint bright young voices as well as the voices of experience to speak for us. We have the luxury of time on our side to regroup before the next significant elections in three years time. We must reach out to campaigners who are fighting for causes that we’re only just beginning to understand. We can borrow from the campaigning methods of the Facebook and Twitter revolutions in the Middle East, but we must also learn from the way the GAA is grounded in our communities. We need to call up new members once they’ve joined, meet them for a coffee, and get them working on worthwhile projects. These are challenges for our new leader and a new National Executive.

I’ll still licking my wounds from electoral defeat, but I’m proud of what we achieved despite the economic tsunami that we had to deal with in Government. I’m staying involved, but I’m certainly enjoying the work life balance that I’ve discovered after twenty years as an elected representative for the Party.

01 March, 2011

Crash, Bang, Wallop

Ouch, that hurt.

wo weeks after the event it all seems fairly clear.

The Green Party went into Government with Fianna Fáil. The IMF came in, and the electorate kicked out Fianna Fáil and anyone associated with them, and that included the Greens.

I had thought people would boot out Fianna Fáil back in 1997, when I first ran for the Dáil in Dublin Central. It all seemed stunningly obvious at the time. The Tribunals had been set up, and everyone was talking about corruption. Even the late Jim Mitchell had taken £5,000 from Ben Dunne, surely Fianna Fáil AND Fine Gael were going to take a hit in Dublin Central and elsewhere. Fat Chance.

In 2002, when I ran for office in Dún Laoghaire I was convinced that Fianna Fáil were for the high jump. Nope, back they came.

2007, and the mask appeared to be slipping. They came back with 78 seats. "The boom is getting boomier" said Bertie Ahern. If you can't beat them, work with them, and that's what we did four years ago.

The numbers meant that Fianna Fáil were going to be back in office anyway in 2007, with the help of the PDs, so why not green the Programme for Government? Small parties get the chance once in a generation to effect change, and we took that opportunity. We started to shift taxes away from labour to energy and resources, and make tax systems more sustainable and job-friendly. Meanwhile as we were beavering away at this, a tsunami came down the street in the form of the financial crisis and intervention by the IMF. No wonder we suffered. Despite trojan work from fantastic staff and supporters, the Green Party failed to win any Dail seats in Election 2011.

The election has delivered a clear result, but the issues that we campaigned on haven't gone away.
As oil hits $115 a barrel, the issues of peak oil, energy security and climate change must remain in focus.

We brought in a transformative new planning act, but it requires vigilance to ensure that it fulfills its purpose.
We published the Climate Change Response Bill, and we’ll be watching carefully to see that it proceeds. Other legislation such as the Noise Nuisance Bill and Dublin Bay Bill didn’t see the light of day, but deserve to do so.

Reform must be a theme for the Greens over the next five years. We need reform to make Government more transparent and open. We need reform to give Dublin a directly-elected mayor. We need reform to make local government more responsible to people's needs, and be more independent of central government. Perhaps we need to re-brand as the Green Reform Party to ensure that this message is clear.

I'll be watching to see how the new Government tackles some key issues. Metro North doesn't seem to get a mention in the Fine Gael / Labour Programme for Government. The new Children's Hospital seems to be in danger of being kicked to touch. Fine Gael voted against the 2010 Planning Act, and I'll be curious to see what Phil Hogan and Willie Penrose mean when they propose that "A democratically-decided Regional or City Plan will replace the present top-down Strategic Planning Guideline model." Climate Change gets just over two lines of a mention, so I'm not overly optimistic on that front either, even though we left a box-fresh Bill in the Senate that's ready to enact. The Dublin Mayor Bill doesn't even get a look-in, which is bad news for the capital, and there are no firm commitments to reduce the number of TDs. The Bill to ban Corporate Donations which contributed to the boom and bust economics of the Celtic Tiger years doesn't even get a mention.

Still, there are positives. Some of the local government reforms could be good, and I love the idea of providing an Irish version of www.FixMyStreet.com. Sure, if we could even come up with clear guidelines for local authorities to respond to email queries, we'd be well on our way to success in that area. I like the proposal to remove barriers to mobility across the public service, and feel that could transform government for the better. I was pleased to see Ruairi Quinn appointed to Education, and was glad to see that the year of free pre-school will be maintained. I wish him well in wrestling with the funding challenges of higher education.

The Green movement will remain as a force in Irish politics. Perhaps though we need to listen more, and lecture less. Perhaps we need to lead the way, but not instruct people that they have to follow us. We need to talk more about the good news that comes from implementing green policies, and less about the end being nigh.

I think I’ll enjoy the freedom of the weight of office being lifted, and in fact I’m already enjoying it.
I’m not making too many plans for the moment, but I do know that I’ve been a campaigner for all of my adult life, and that will not go away.

22 February, 2011

Renewing Ireland, 48 hours to go

Glad to hear that the Octopus in the fish-tank in 64Wine in Glasthule gave me a scratch yesterday. Not quite sure if it had fully grappled with the vagaries of the proportional representation, but hopefully it understood that I'm fighting for the last seat in Dún Laoghaire, and that I need every vote that I can get.

I find that I'm reaching out to more liberal and progressive voters who are disenchanted with Fine Gael and Labour. I admired Fine Gael back when Garret Fitzgerald, Mary Banotti and Gemma Hussey were in the Dáil. However in recent years there's been a swing
to the right in that Party that many voters I meet are unhappy with, and are happy to discuss with me on their door-steps. They want a Fine Gael that is socially liberal and that is prepared to legislate for Ireland's changing families in 2011. Lucinda Creighton's rejection of marriage equality, and some of Leo Varadker's wilder utterings may be a sign of things to come, should they be in government. I'm hoping some of them may vote green instead.

In Labour there's also a conservative streak, but it comes from the opposite end of the spectrum. It's coming from the old-style Labour Party that's unwilling to embrace change. Demarcation and protectionism have damaged Labour, and while many in that Party understand the need to respond to the needs of small businesses, and reform work practices in the State sector, there's still a long way to go. The financial contributions to Labour from Unions can only affect their policies. In recent times for instance, Labour argued against streamlining Dublin Bus services to better serve the city's needs. Reforms ARE required to do more with less, and reflect the modern city's requirements. In recent days ICTU's analysis of our election manifesto seriously misrepresented our policies. For ICTU to suggest in their analysis that the Greens favour "light touch regulation and low personal taxation" is absurd when we brought in tough independent regulators like Patrick Honohan and Matthew Elderfield. It's also worth reminding people that Labour proposed a 2% cut in income tax back in 2007, but the Green Party did not propose such reductions. I'm also a bit disenchanted with Labour advertising trucks and cars trundling around Dún Laoghaire for the last few weeks, at a time when Labour says that they're serious about tackling climate change. Perhaps the Greens can fill that space

Yesterday was a long day. It started with the dawn canvass at Dalkey DART Station. Birdsong and construction noise from road improvements accompanied the chat with early-morning commuters heading towards town.

Headed down to the Select Stores just after nine for a cuppa with my sister, and in came Cllr. Stephen Fitzpatrick and Senator Ivana Bacik a few minutes later. We swapped stories of sore limbs and encounters from the campaign trail.

Back to my office on Patrick Street in Dún Laoghaire for a look at the notice board to see what the rest of the day consisted of. Got distracted by replying to emails, and never got to write a press release about the unfolding events in Libya and elsewhere. Still hoping that
Muammar Gaddafi exits the stage and that democracy prevails.

Dragged a window-box full of daffodils onto the desk behind me just in time for an hour of an online canvass, part of our 'ask a green day'. Questions ranged from oil and gas taxes to planning issues to civil partnership. Hopefully I got to answer most of what was fired at me.

Headed up to Blackrock and grabbed a sandwich at the Lazy Days Cafe (I wish!) before heading out for the afternoon canvass around Obelisk Avenue. Met a lot of undecided voters keen to debate their choices. People are risk averse, but want radical change, and I argued the case for voting green, emphasising the need to prioritise education and foster the green economy.

Afterwards I headed into St. Vincents Hospital and met up with fellow green candidate Oisín Ó hAlmhain. Oisín's a pharmacist, and we discussed health care issues with a voter who spoke with us about reforms in the HSE

Back to Sandycove to meet residents concerned about a derelict site where parts of a hoarding are falling over onto the footpath. I pointed out the options available to tackle the issue, and we agreed that the Council should take action under the 1990 Derelict Sites Act to make the land safe. I gave them a copy of the Unfinished Developments Manual which I worked on in my time as Minister of State in dealing with Ghost estates. I'll chase that up with the Council in the morning.

There was time for another quick food stop in Dún Laoghaire, before heading back out again with a fantastic team of canvassers off Newtownpark Avenue. We split into three teams, to cover as much ground as possible between the rain showers. People want change in the Universal Social Charge, PRSI, and are worried about rising fuel prices.

I looked at my watch, realized it was after nine and headed up to Sandyford. I caught the end of the Southside Travellers Election Evening and we discussed school drop-out rates, the wishes of Travellers separate ethnicity to be recognised, as well as the nuts and bolts of medical card entitlement.

Heading home I listened to the three way leaders debate on the radio, and had a quick chat with Senator Mark Dearey about events in Libya. We'll get that statement out in the morning.

That's a snap-shot of the campaign so far. I'm looking forward to some rest on Polling Day

11 February, 2011

Thoughts from the Canvass

At most doors the focus is on employment. I'm pleased that Labour are with us on the importance of green jobs.

A lot of the new jobs ARE green jobs, in renewable energy, and in areas like the Warmer Homes scheme. There’s thousands of contractors registered under the Home Energy Savings Scheme, that’s a lot of jobs, not to mention renewable energy.
One of the most interesting of encounters so far was last week. It was one of those stormy afternoons, when people open the door and hold on to it with their two hands to stop it from slamming with the wind. She was elderly, about five foot nothing, and was delighted to have a candidate at the door in Silchester Park in Dún Laoghaire.

I like it when people have a list, and hers was impressive. She put on her glasses and ran through it.

Why can't they defer these Ministerial Pensions under they're 65.
They should, I'm in agreement with deferring it until Ministers retire.

What about fully vouched expenses?
I agree. Mine are online and I have the full list of receipts to back it up.

Could you not reduce the amount of TDs and councillors?
You're right, we'd like to bring it down to 120 TDs, and half of them should come from a list system, where you can be sure that you're selecting legislators.

Honesty and transparency?
Well, I think you have to judge that for yourself. We've made mistakes, and maybe with hindsight we'd have done things differently.

And your Vision of Ireland?
That was one of those right between the eyes questions. It's what people really want to know, and have difficulty in asking you.

I agreed with her, we discussed the loss of that sense of community, of meitheal
during the boom years. Community spirit is the glue that holds us together, and there's an opportunity to rediscover that, during difficult times. My vision? I guess it's one that involves a steady-state economy, and I guess I've seen glimpses of it in Italy and in communities on the Northern coast of Spain. It's in the writings of Michael Viney, Herman Daly and Jane Jacobs, and In organisations like Seedsavers. However it's also there in smart new media firms like Salesforce, in buildings like the Media Cube in Dún Laoghaire, and in international companies that have put down roots in Ireland and generated exports. It's about making the most of the old, and the new, about passing on the environment in a fit and healthy state, and in ensuring that the glue that holds communities together stays strong.

It's a difficult concept to pin down, and a time of economic distress hugely challenging to discuss in the frenzy of electioneering, but a Vision of Ireland is what so many people are seeking, in Spring 2011.

01 February, 2011

And they're off

It's all about the finish line.

That pic shows one of the UpStart crews getting ready for postering on Merrion Square this evening. I like their ideas about using creative election posters to spark a debate about creativity and the value of arts in public life.

It's also all about jobs. Many of the new jobs created in last few years have stemmed from the green policies that we've introduced in Government, and we can further if we're returned to the next Dáil.

I'm told that over 6,000 contractors have registered with the Home Energy Savings Scheme. That's real jobs, right now. Much of the money taken in in the carbon levy goes right back the people through grant aid and direct support for upgrading social housing.

It makes perfect sense to do this - to tackle climate change and to reduce our dependency on the €6 Billion of oil and gas that we import every year, particularly when oil has touched $100 a barrel again. Sure, that price goes up and down, but the direction has been upward, and the more we can wean ourselves off fossil fuels, the better.

Renewable energy is another plank of the green jobs strategy. It's about more than wind, it's about ocean energy: waves, tides and currents. It's about willow and other forestry crops that can provide fuels, and an income for farmers. It's about retrofitting office-blocks, homes and schools to cut down on energy use and create jobs in doing so. Energy efficiency and insulation is at the core of all this.

It's about the digital revolution - jobs in cloud computing, and in start-ups like the Media Cube on the campus of Dún Laoghaire's Institute of Art Design and Technology. You can see it in the presence of new media firms in Ireland like Facebook, and in new initiatives in cloud computing like the work of Salesforce over in Sandyford Business Park.

It's about design - Encouraging innovation and good design can spawn innovation, creativity and new employment. That's what happened when the Kilkenny Design Workshops were set up in the 1960's. Design has contributed to Denmark's economy and identity for over a century, and it's something we should be mainstreaming as part of our economic revival. There's signs of this happening through the Government Policy on Architecture and through Dublin's bid for World Design Capital 2014. I'm also enthused by groups like Upstart that are promoting creativity through their innovative posters that we'll be seeing more of over the next few weeks. I bumped into them at Merrion Square this afternoon and they're full of ideas. Arts, culture, design and creativity are all interlinked, and my hunch is that they've a lot to offer to Ireland's recovery.

Meanwhile back in the Dáil it was a whirlwind of a day. The Taoiseach gave a speech that was suprisingly statesmanlike, and quoted some great lines from the Poet John O’Donohue that are worth repeating:

"May you be hospitable to criticism. May you never put yourself at the centre of things. May you act not from arrogance but out of service. May you work on yourself, Building up and refining the ways of your mind. May those who work for you know you see and respect them. May you learn to cultivate the art of presence In order to engage with those who meet you… May you have a mind that loves frontiers so that you can evoke the bright fields that lie beyond the view of the regular eye. May you have good friends to mirror your blind spots."

It's good advice to anyone who aspires to public life.

Enda's speech lacked gravitas, and while at pains to respect Cowen's family, failed to rise beyond the usual point-scoring. Gilmore spoke about one Ireland with some well-written words. John Gormley made a strong plea for electoral form and looked towards a reduction in the number of TDs with half being elected from a list system, which seems to work well in the New Zealand system.

After a quick coffee with Senator Mark Dearey I headed out the Rock Road to Blackrock and on towards Dún Laoghaire, getting used to a new ladder and stopping to climb a few lamp-posts, posters in hand and cable-ties between my teeth. I grabbed a slice of pizza in the office, met some of our poster crews, and headed off for a few hours canvassing, some more postering and then back home to write this.

These are busy times. Let's pace ourselves between now and the 25th February.

20 January, 2011

Moving on

It was one of the strangest of days that I've had in my time in Leinster House.

Paul Gogarty's appearance on Morning Ireland this morning summed up how we all felt, and his own blog post clearly expressed the frustrations of the last twenty-four hours. There were lengthy discussions of our Parliamentary Party, and an intense media frenzy. Senator Mark Dearey's iphone app of the Irish Constitution got put to good use!

As I walked out the main gate on Kildare Street an RTÉ cameraman fell over backwards, and then another went down. As I crossed the street yet another cameraman was about to walk backwards into a utility pole and I had to grab his arm to prevent another accident. I met the RTÉ guy later on Merrion Street, and thankfully he was OK, although a bit bruised.

I thought our press conference in the Merrion late this afternoon went fine. We gave our account of events, and left it to Fianna Fáil to give theirs in another forum.

Quite a sense of relief to know that the date has now been set for the election. Friday 11 March is seven weeks away as I write, and it feels good to have a sense of closure in sight for the Green Party's time in Government.

The intervention of the IMF changed everything, and we said back in November that we'd leave once the difficult economic decisions were made. To date we've approved the Four Year Plan, concluded the deal with the IMF and EU and passed a tough budget. The one remaining item is to pass the Finance Bill, and we've said that we'll stay in to ensure that it is passed.

Sure, we'd love to pass important legislation on ending corporate donations to political parties, the Dublin Mayoralty Bill, and the Climate Change Response Bill, and if they can be approved within the time available I'd be over the moon, but I'm not holding my breath that all of this can be achieved. Communicating the importance of the Climate Change Bill has been difficult, and one of the many challenges of our time in Government. Hopefully we can continue on with the legislation during what promises to be a tumultuous Government term.

That pic? That's the view looking out on Government Buildings from beside my office. A frosty sunset on an eventful day.