There’s an election in the air. Preparing for the local government poll on 2 May 2019 was fundamental to the Green Party NI annual conference, held today in Belfast’s Clayton Hotel. Regional candidates were given the opportunity to speak from the podium and talk about the issues in their areas.
In speeches and panels, there was an emphasis on sustainability and zero waste policies as well as a call for better government and governance. Simon Lee, Castlereagh South representative, finished his speech to conference saying:
“People are frustrated at delivery waiting for delivery. It’s time to put the people and the communities we live in first, and not party politics. People are ready for a new kind of politics.”
Speakers also stressed the changes that they had brought about in their communities and councils. They also emphasised the value of being part of the global Green politics movement and the significant block of 50 MEPs within the European Parliament.
The talk of hands-on activism extended to many admissions of how people had been recruited: Anthony Flynn bumped into Steven Agnew and was out canvassing for Ross Brown that evening; Rachel Woods served her old politics lecturer John Barry in a restaurant and was soon interning in the party’s Bangor office and is now a councillor. Beware having coffee with a Green Party activist: membership is infectious!
Party membership is rising, but conference attendance does not seem to be rising as fast. Perhaps that’s a sign that grassroots activity is what excites members rather than meetings? Or perhaps it’s a sign of the difficulty of squeezing a movement into a political party? That said, the representatives who spoke were articulate, driven and seemed keen to succeed at the ballot box.
Tanya Jones, deputy leader opened the conference and reminded delegates that “in a polarised, anxious and pain-ridden world, Green politics has the capacity to build bridges, to offer hope and to speak boldly for those whose voices most need to be heard.”
“There is a constant pressure, exacerbated perhaps by the populisms of this decade, to reduce politics to a pantomime cast list of personalities in conflict. It suits the lazier sections of the media (not of course those who are here at half-past nine on a Saturday morning), it suits those political parties whose identity is indeed based upon opposition, it suits those who are doing very nicely out of hard questions not being asked and it suits those who would prefer not to think too deeply about those questions. ‘They’re all the same’ is an ideal way of ensuring that nothing significant changes.
“But we’re not the same, and we don’t have to pretend to be. Our party doesn’t arise out of conflict, doesn’t identify with any competing nationalism and doesn’t define itself by ethnicity, class or faith. Green politics is about what we have in common, across boundaries of generation as well as geography. There is no one excluded from our vision, and so no one whose voice we choose not to hear.
“That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t speak clearly and courageously, challenging the speech of hate, of bigotry and of prejudice. That is needed more than ever. But we can combine passion with dignity and clarity with compassion. We can remember and respect the humanity of our opponents, even if they seem sometimes to have forgotten it.”
She reasoned that the four interlocking Green principles of social justice, environmental sustainability, grassroot democracy and non-violence which can “work together to build a realistic and achievable framework for now and for the future”.
Addressing the candidates and activists in the room, she encouraged them that “Green politics gives each of us the chance to find our niche”. But she warned that “none of us can do everything, not even John Barry!” and advised against both extremes of trying too many things or giving up at the size of the work and the distance still to be travelled.
“Green transformation is made up of small tasks, often done by small people. There’s something each of us can do.”
Tanya ended her speech by explaining that she’ll be standing down as deputy leader later this year as she (temporarily) heads over to Dundee to study for a master’s in environmental law.
The ‘power of local government as a tool for change’ was a panel topic. Former councillor Prof John Barry reflected – barefoot – on his seven years as an elected representative. He suggested that grassroots politics to think of themselves “as John the Baptist rather than Jesus” in the sense that they’re often clearing the ground and planting seeds rather than reaping the harvest. He finished by sharing his four proudest achievements while on council, though suggested that not everyone would want to copy him.
NILGA chief executive Derek McCallan spoke about the importance of local neighbourhood decision making, denied that local councils were making a power grab in light of the current vacuum at Stormont, and made a passionate plea to use the expertise and experience of citizens to take part in participatory budgeting and improve the mal-governance in Northern Ireland which sees £20 billion of NI’s £21 billion budget spent by departments (rather than at a local level by councils).
Councillor Rachel Woods represents Holywood and Clandeboye. She spoke about local government being dragged into areas and issues well outside their remit given the lack of a working Executive and Assembly.
Breakout sessions looked at the NI planning process (with an update on the Save CQ campaign), equality legislation, feminist political activism and participative democracy.
Party leader and North Down MLA Steven Agnew spoke immediately after lunch. He began his low key speech by reflecting on the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.
“What really should have been a celebration, unfortunately for me at least, felt more like a memorial. We still should celebrate two decades of relative peace, but we shouldn’t settle for peace alone. We should be wary of taking the peace that we have for granted. But peace alone should not be the height of our ambitions. Northern Ireland does deserve peace but we also deserve clean politics and good governance.
“If we look back at the leadership and courage that was shown 20 years ago, it only serves to highlight the pathetic failure of the two parties which have destroyed our Assembly. Twenty years ago we had an inclusive process that involved all parties, all electors, and ultimately led to a deal that was endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland.
“Today we have opaque negotiations which resulted in a deal that was scuppered by a minority group within what is still a minority party. Twenty years ago, parties set aside their own self-interest for the common good. Today, we have two parties who have no interest in good governance, but their only motivation is to regain power [and] save face. We saw that with the deal that was proposed and the year [of negotiations] it took to get to that stage. Nothing new came forward. The ingenuity of the deal that was proposed was about how it was presented, not about the content. The content was the same as what was being proposed at the start of the talks process.
“Twenty years ago the problems seemed insurmountable but the parties then were willing to climb the mountain. Today the problems are immensely solvable but the parties won’t even walk up the hill.
“The result is Northern Ireland has no government and we’ve no voice when it comes to Brexit. The Green Party [in Northern Ireland] is thankfully part of a wider European movement, and we’re using our influence, our connections and our voice to represent the majority in Northern Ireland who voted to remain. And the message we take to our European colleagues is that not just Northern Ireland, but the UK, must remain a part of the customs union. This is the only way to guarantee no hard border on the island of Ireland and no hard border down the middle of the Irish Sea. No hard border on the island or between the islands is the only way to preserve the principles of the Good Friday Agreement.
“We have long known that the DUP don’t even attempt to represent one section of Northern Ireland society. But today it is not even a unionist majority that they seek to represent. It’s the minority of the people of Northern Ireland who voted to leave, who voted for Brexit. And what’s worse, abusing the relationship that they have with the Tories they seek to represent an even smaller minority, the hard Brexiteers, who as Nelson McCausland put it – want to leave regardless of the cost. And the recklessness of [how] they proport to represent Northern Ireland. Brexit at all costs: that is not what is good for Northern Ireland; that is not what is good for our people.
“The Green Party continue to use our voice to represent those who voted to remain and will take every opportunity we can to seek a referendum on the final deal. Because democracy isn’t just about voting once and being done with it. If that was the case, we could have said that we had a referendum in 1975 … the people decided and that’s it, we move on.
“But I supported holding a referendum on the EU whilst obviously I disagree with the outcome. Because democracy isn’t imply about voting once. If that was the case then I could be MLA for North Down for as long as I wanted. But the reality is that in 2011 I went to my electorate with a promise of what I would deliver, a promise of the representation I would deliver, and then five years later I stood again on my record and people got to make their assessment again. And I’m delighted they did so, and I’m delighted that they came back with a stronger mandate.
“The same principles should follow with Brexit. Yes across the UK, if not here in Northern Ireland, people voted to leave. But they were made promises. And once they see what promises are upheld and which ones fall by the wayside, once they see what ‘Brexit means Brexit’ really means, once they see what the final deal is, then they we should have a say again on what the final deal is, what Brexit actually means, what the consequences are for ourselves and, in my case, my constituents, our citizens.
“A lot of talk was said about taking back control. That cannot just simply be more powers given to the Prime Minister. Taking back control really does have to mean power for the people. That is true democracy.”
Shifting his focus back to Northern Ireland politics:
“It is not just when it comes to Brexit that the Green Party is promoting grassroots democracy. Our continuing campaign for a Citizen’s Assembly means that we remain at the forefront of empowering our people. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, then clean politics can only be achieved through genuine power sharing. And that doesn’t simply mean the DUP and Sinn Féin getting together and sharing power out between the two of the, It means all parties sharing power through inclusion of citizens. Again, that is true democracy. This is the change that we need to move Northern Ireland from the politics of vested interests to a future of good governance for all. We need to make that change happen.”
The Green Party leader spoke about public services that were at “breaking point”.
“With DUP and Sinn Fein at the helm our hospitals are at breaking point, we see schools going to the wall, and we’ve had no government for well over a year now. No party should survive this level of failure and the reality is really starting to hit home now: you cannot eat a flag. It could not be more true for those who are suffering due to the welfare cuts. Remember how they were told ‘no one will be worse off’? Is that your experience? It’s certainly not the experience I get in my constituency office. It’s not the experience of those working in our advice centres. It’s certainly not the experience of our communities.
“Welfare cuts are damaging our communities and destroying lives. Sinn Féin made that false promise and then walked away: for that they should be ashamed. The Green Party is assisting people through the benefit system through our constituency offices but we also continue working to change the system. We know that these are ideological cuts. We know that the system was designed as an attack on the poor. And that is why when the legislation was going through the Assembly, the Green Party did more than any other to improve the legislation – legislation that we felt was wrong in principle but we engaged with the process, tried to make it better, and we will not walk away.”
He looked back at electoral success:
“This year I marked seven years as Green Party leader. I’m proud to be so and I’m proud of the many achievements of the party in that time. Most recently we emerged from ‘the year of multiple elections’ with an increased number of MLAs, an increased number of votes and an increased number of members. We emerged, from what was for many political parties the most difficult, stronger than we’ve ever been.
“However – and I’ll say this at every opportunity – we do not measure success in the number of votes received; we measure our success in the amount of change achieved.
“That’s why I want to pay tribute to Clare Bailey who has shown tremendous leadership in the battle for gender equality. I stand today with the Republic of Ireland heading into a referendum on reproductive rights and I am confident that they will make the choice for positive change. But in Northern Ireland rights will continue to be denied.
“Clare has been at the forefront of highlighting this injustice along with shining a light on violence against women and the gender pay gap. As a party we have sought to follow Clare’s lead [by] advancing equal representation throughout our party and leading the way in achieving gender balance among our own candidates in recent elections. This in turn builds on a proud record of leading the way on a number of issues: marriage equality, children’s rights, while all the time maintaining our commitment to environmental protection and sustainability which ultimately saw us defeat the frackers.
Steven Agnew said that his party “continues to be at the forefront of working in our local communities” and praised the earlier contributions from local representatives who are hoping to stand in next year’s elections. He paid tribute to outgoing deputy leader Tanya Jones who had previous served as membership secretary, putting in place a system for engaging, recruiting and retaining new members that has been “a big part of what our recent success has been built on”.
He also singled out John Barry who stepped down as a councillor last year. “The marker of John’s impact on us as a party, not to mention the work he has done in the community, is the number of people sitting here today who if I asked them why they joined us would say ‘you know that John Barry’. I was one of them and there will be a support group set up!”
The Green Party leader also thanked outgoing party chair Ricky Bamford who has “done a fantastic job” and received warm applause for her work in the party. He also acknowledged the contribution of press officer Linda Stewart who had been covering Sinead McIvor’s maternity leave.
“The Assembly currently is not sitting and I think it is right that we shifted the focus [of this conference] to local government and recognised the importance of the work done by our local councils because it does go unsung in many cases. We’ve heard of the work and the hours that councillors put in for what is in theory a part-time role. But for many – as Tanya alluded to earlier in her speech – who have no sitting MLA, no sitting MP, councillors are their only link to local government, and that role should be recognised and acknowledged.
“We heard today from Derek McCallan [NILGA’s chief executive] that where the Assembly is refusing to take up its powers, councils are ready and willing – and of course he rightly made the point – if the resources are given along with extra responsibilities. The earlier planning session brought it home that if councils are to fulfil their roles, it’s not enough to have planning powers, we need the regeneration powers to go with it. We have to empower local government. This is a party that believes in decision making at the lowest effective level. And we don’t see that enough in Northern Ireland and I Derek couldn’t have made the point better when he said ‘we don’t need central government to clean our gullies’.
Finally, back to next year’s elections:
“I think as a party we should look forward with confidence to the council elections next year, particularly buoyed by the fantastic result for the English Greens in their recent local government elections. Out of any party, they’ve seen the greatest growth in terms of its proportion of seats. And I want to pay particular congratulations to Jonathan Bartley, the co-leader of the English Greens. I’ve had the pleasure to getting to know Jonathan since he became co-leader … For me his appearance on [BBC] Question Time was when he really emerged from Caroline Lucas’ shadow. He wasn’t just a competent substitute but a fantastic ambassador for the Green Party in his own right.
“Being part of the wider Green family has never been more important than it is now. The UK may leave the EU but we will not cease to be European Greens. The success of one Green Party is a success for us all. This year we have shared in the victor of the English Greens. We have celebrated with them just as II am confident that next year they will be sharing and celebrating our victory.
“We are citizens of the world. We are part of a global movement. We are the Green Party. Thank you.”
Alan Meban. Tweets as @alaninbelfast. Blogs about cinema and theatre over at Alan in Belfast. A freelancer who writes about, reports from, live-tweets and live-streams civic, academic and political events and conferences. He delivers social media training/coaching; produces podcasts and radio programmes; is a FactCheckNI director; a member of Ofcom’s Advisory Committee for Northern Ireland; and a member of the Corrymeela Community.