I CAST my first vote at the 1981 general election, where Charles Haughey sought a mandate to be Taoiseach for the first time. He didn’t succeed.
It was also the first Dáil in 16 years to have a party representative other than Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Labour. Joe Sherlock was elected as the first ever TD for Sinn Féin, the Workers Party. Such was the choice in Irish politics in 1981.
Into this political environment came a mild- mannered Englishman, Christopher Fettes, a teacher living and working in Ireland.
He questioned the lack of choice in Irish politics and a letter to the Irish Times brought about a glimmer of interest. A public meeting was arranged at the Central Hotel in Dublin on December 3.
A flyer was distributed beforehand, in the name of the Ecology Party of Ireland. The meeting was to determine whether such a party should exist.
The flyer spoke of an alternative to capitalism and socialism. In clunky language, it outlined a number of political ideas that would have been new to many, such as a non-exploitative approach to nature, a storehouse economy, land reform, and a guaranteed basic income for all.
The meeting, chaired by the redoubtable Máire Mullarney, attracted 40 people.
The word Ecology was a deliberate choice. In Ireland, it was thought the word Green had certain connotations, but this reticence would later be put aside when the title Green Party/Comhaontas Glas was registered.
The movement internationally was still very much in its infancy. The German Greens, looked to as the leaders of this movement, would not enter their national parliament until 1983.
The genesis of the Greens in Ireland was similar to in other countries. The counter-culture of student protests in the late ’60s created a gap that went unfilled. There was growing environmental awareness and a substantial anti-nuclear movement was also without a political home.
Cork would play a large part in creating a Green support base.
The Irish version of Friends of the Earth was born in West Cork. In the first general election with Green candidates in November, 1982, the best performing candidate was Owen Casey, son of an ex-Labour Party TD and Lord Mayor of Cork.
The first successful Green candidate was elected to Killarney Urban District Council in 1975. Marcus Counihan had campaigned on better care and management of the town’s National Park.
By 1989, the party had its first TD, Roger Garland in Dublin South. No-one saw his election coming.
The party’s first tranche of city and county councillors were elected in 1991: ten in Dublin City and County, one in Kildare, one in Wicklow and one in Cork City (me). This contingent included Trevor Sargent, John Gormley, Nuala Ahern and Ciarán Cuffe. Sargent was elected a TD in 1992.
The next leap forward for the Irish Greens came in 1994 when, against the odds, Patricia McKenna and Nuala Ahern were elected to the European Parliament, and Gormley became Lord Mayor of Dublin. In a Cork South Central by election, I won 16% of the vote. A breakthrough seemed imminent.
It didn’t happen in 1997. Gormley joined Sargent in Dáil Éireann, but it was a disappointing election. In 1999, the number of Green city and county councillors even reduced, but those elected included Eamon Ryan, Mary White, Paul Gogarty and Deirdre de Burca.
In 2001, Sargent was elected leader of the Green Party/Comhaontas Glas. For years the party had avoided having a single figurehead. The support of two thirds of membership would now be required to agree any major decision.
The breakthrough did happen in 2002. Six Green TDs were elected, five in Dublin and me. In 2005, the Greens became an all-island party.
The 2007 general election would again see six Greens TDs elected. I was not among them, but I did find myself part of the party’s negotiating team to become part of government. Later, I would be appointed to the Seanad with Deirdre de Burca.
You don’t get to choose the circumstances of when you are in government. The Greens did so at the onset of an international economic collapse. By 2011 the party was dead in the water. No Green was elected to Dáil Éireann or Seanad Éireann.
The party has since been effectively rebuilt due to an influx of young, enthusiastic volunteers.
Green support grew thanks in part to the campaigning of teenager Greta Thunberg, octogenarian David Attenborough and others.
In 2019, the party saw two members elected to the European Parliament as well as 57 councillors, securing more than 200,000 votes across the island that day. A high watermark for Green support.
The general election of 2020 reaffirmed this: 12 Green TDs were elected, joined by four senators. The party was sought as a partner for government, reopening a long-established fault line in the party — to enter government and accept responsibility; or to continue to operate as a party of opposition.
Entering a coalition hasn’t been easy, with significant resignations, but the party will be judged on what it can deliver on commitments: the Climate Action Act, a White Paper on ending Direct Provision, and the publication of the report of the Mother and Baby commission, among others.
After 40 years, it is easier being Green in Ireland, but it is still far from easy. We will continue to try to inform, then act on those policies we believe can help bring about better communities, and with that a better world.