Ben Lowry: Green approach to pacts and SF suggests party has lost its environmental focus

Steven Agnew Green Party leader with his supporters after winning a Stormont seat in North Down in March 2017.
 If the party kept a environmental focus, there would be a spectrum of goodwill. Photo by Brian Little/Press Eye
Steven Agnew Green Party leader with his supporters after winning a Stormont seat in North Down in March 2017. If the party kept a environmental focus, there would be a spectrum of goodwill. Photo by Brian Little/Press Eye

Green Party policies are mainly located firmly on the left of the political spectrum.

In fact, these days Green movements in the western world are positively radical – anti war, pro major wealth distribution and ultra liberal on social questions such as gay marriage and abortion.

But there are, and have always been, people who are right wing politically who are environmental in outlook.

After all, if conservatism is about conserving the best of institutions and traditions, it ought to be concerned about conserving wildlife and nature.

Some of the most important issues on Earth at the moment– protecting species in Africa, rainforests in South America, the antarctic – relate to the environment.

Thus the Green Party has featured more highly up my list of vote transfers than might be obvious to anyone who knows that my views on matters such as welfare are almost the opposite of theirs.

Ultimately, I think ecology so important that it must not be left to market forces.

The extent to which climate change is man made, and the degree to which that climate will change, is still unclear but there is no doubt among leading scientists that emissions play a role.

Climate is only one of many environment concerns that some people across the political spectrum share.

Another is the obscene amount of plastic and waste that is discarded every day. My view is that recycling needs to be massively increased around the world.

A further environmental stance that many conservatives support is stopping or minimising development on greenfield sites.

On both sides of the Irish border we have weak planning policies for one-off homes in the countryside. In Northern Ireland there was cross-party fury when PPS 14 put a belated stop to such haphazard housing, but Stormont reversed the policy and a liberal approach to planning bids was reinstated.

Such slackness is defended on the pretence that it is an attempt to help rural communities. But many of the standalone building sites approved in recent decades were flogged off for profit, rather than used to house young farming families.

Loose planning has caused lasting damage to the fine countryside of which Ulster has so much (through part of which I walked yesterday, near Killinchy).

Supposed ‘conservative’, ie strict, approaches to planning have been better at protecting countryside in places such as England, France and New England.

But while some people on the political right could find common ground with the Green Party (in the 1990s, many Green voters in Great Britain were Tory-inclined), this has become harder as the Greens have adopted increasingly shrill policy stances, unrelated to the environment, which needlessly antagonise conservative-minded environmentalists.

Consider how the Greens locally tried to get an anti Brexit pact in this election.

It is plausible to argue that European Union membership is best for the environment. With some panache, Stanley Johnson did so last year when he toured the UK to oppose Brexit (I interviewed him before his Queen’s talk, and he loyally defended his son Boris’s role in the pro Brexit campaign, before attacking Brexit on ecological grounds).

But you might have expected the Greens first to work with Alliance. The two are not far apart politically, do well in the same areas and appeal to similar voters.

In a way those similarities make a pact difficult (Alliance standing down in favour of Lady Sylvia Hermon in 2001, to unseat Robert McCartney, did it lasting damage in its North Down stronghold). But an Alliance-Green anti Brexit pact could have been powerful (not, of course, in stopping Brexit, but in winning a seat or two in Northern Ireland). They have a large combined vote in constituencies in or near Belfast. Such a pact might have lured the SDLP away from Sinn Fein (the former rarely now has the confidence to criticise the latter) and so put pressure on republicans.

If Sinn Fein then wanted to join in, the Greens might have called for minimum commitments on attitudes to violence – ie, no glorifying of past terrorism, even if they cannot get SF agreement on the wrongness of that terror. Or a commitment that IRA ‘war crimes’ will not be defended by candidates. Or a commitment to zero tolerance of dissident murder.

SF would reject such demands, but the Greens needed to ask to expose that.

You might wonder: why should the Greens even ask about such controversies if the pact is about opposing Brexit? But the Greens did raise ‘red lines’ beyond Brexit. They refused to back Alasdair McDonnell because of his pro life views. Yet they tried to link up with a party that defends past taking of life on a large scale.

It has been a sorry spectacle of a party that ought to be focused on the environment, and so engendering goodwill among a wide range of people on the left and right, losing its way in recent years.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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