Steven Agnew interview: Why I asked for a pay cut ... and why I gave up booze

Steven Agnew has presided over a near doubling of the Green Party Westminster vote in five years
Steven Agnew has presided over a near doubling of the Green Party Westminster vote in five years

There cannot have been any other political leader in the history of Stormont whose first political actions were to request a pay cut and give up alcohol.

But Steven Agnew, the leader of the Northern Ireland Green Party, was always an unlikely politician in a place like Northern Ireland – let alone a political leader.

NI Green Party leader Steven Agnew talks to News Letter political correspondent Sam McBride in his Stormont office

NI Green Party leader Steven Agnew talks to News Letter political correspondent Sam McBride in his Stormont office

Yet in five years as an MLA he has built a considerable reputation across the chamber as arguably the most consistent and articulate advocate of left-wing politics, winning respect even from many of those who fervently disagree with his politics.

And last year the North Down representative – who is only the second ever Green MLA in the history of Stormont – steered through the Assembly a bill which places a statutory obligation on government departments to cooperate with each other when to do so is in the best interests of children.

Seeing a private member’s bill into law is a considerable feat for any back bench MLA, but particularly so in the case of Mr Agnew’s bill because the DUP – which had the power to block the bill – made clear early on that it had major concerns about the proposed legislation.

Speaking to the News Letter in his office on the fourth floor of Parliament Buildings, Mr Agnew is upbeat – not only about his own chances of retaining his seat, but about the prospect of being joined by at least one other Green MLA after May’s election.

Since entering Stormont, his once trademark mop of blonde hair has been shorn and he does not adopt the tactics of left-wing Dail mavericks such as Mick Wallace who make a point of literally standing out from the crowd by eschewing suits and ties to wear bright – often pink – clothing in the chamber.

But the 36-year-old still stands out for his forthright (if politely delivered) views – lambasting the DUP and others on environmental issues and critiquing the big parties (and the supposedly left-wing Sinn Fein) for proposing to slash corporation tax for big business.

His road to Stormont began in 2003. He was energised as never before by the road towards war with Iraq, which he “passionately” opposed.

“Prior to the invasion of Iraq, I took a number of actions, one of which was to say [to his then employer, a homeless charity] ‘don’t pay me above the level of income tax because I don’t want to pay taxes to this war’, so I took a wage cut to come under the income tax threshold [at that point, a total income of just £4,615 a year],” he said.

“I just didn’t know what to do and that was the only thing I could think – I don’t want to give money to this.”

“I also stopped drinking alcohol because I knew it was heavily taxed and I lived on basic essentials.” He quickly added: “I only had the money to live on basic essentials”.

He went to protests where he met Queen’s academic and Green Party member Dr John Barry and it was through Dr Barry that he first encountered the Greens.

“I didn’t know about politics, I wasn’t involved in politics, I don’t come from a political family but I thought ‘what this guy [Dr Barry] is saying is what I believe’ ... I first believed in John and then I came to believe in the Green Party.”

That year he campaigned for Dr Barry, who was standing in North Down in the Assembly election. Referring to his pre-political self, Mr Agnew said: “I would always have said to people ‘I’m not political’. Yet at the same time, I was passionate about issues of social justice, human rights ... I just didn’t associate with Northern Ireland politics.”

Now, with half of the population not voting at all, yet many people energised about individual political issues, Mr Agnew is attempting to persuade those people to vote for and join the Green Party, which now has a membership of about 500 in the Province.

The party is targeting seats such as East Belfast – where it now has its first councillor in the capital, Ross Brown – as well as South Belfast, where the candidate, Claire Bailey, has established a significant vote over several elections and could be in with a chance of a seat.

Facing that electoral challenge, he said that the biggest problem facing Northern Ireland at the moment is waste – both in terms of household waste and the waste of financial resources.

“We currently have the largest illegal landfill site in the whole of Europe – Mobuoy – which is an example of the waste in every sense ... the clean-up costs of that could be £150million.

“We’re often told that we want to keep light touch regulation because it’s good for the economy.

“Well, having to spend up to £150m of public money on cleaning up effectively illegal activity – we don’t take that approach to other aspects of crime and we shouldn’t take that attitude to environmental crime.”

Over the last five years, the Greens’ vote has almost doubled – from 3,542 votes in the 2011 Westminster election to 6,822 votes in last year’s election.

But although the party has had an upward trajectory under Mr Agnew’s leadership, it has not been without jolts along the way, some of them self-inflicted.

Almost a year ago a gaffe by Mr Agnew saw him lose a councillor after he said on live radio that he did not see the point in making it illegal to be a member of a terrorist organisation (though he made clear his firm opposition to all violence).

As he result he lost a councillor – Noelle Robinson – who held the seat which he had initially won.

He met victims’ campaigner Kenny Donaldson and a group of victims of terrorism who accepted his explanation.

Recalling that incident, Mr Agnew speaks with candour unusual in a political leader. “I think that I poorly articulated our position and I’ve held my hands up; I’ve said sorry to my party, I’ve said sorry to the councillor in question and I’ve moved on.

“Subsequently we’ve had the Westminster elections where we had our best ever result ... I made a mistake; I held my hands up and I hopefully have learned from it.”

Is it difficult to apologise for such a public gaffe?

“Personally, the situation was difficult. Saying sorry for it? No, I knew I’d made a mistake; that was easy ... in politics sometimes somebody has to say when the emperor has no clothes; well, sometimes the emperor needs to know and see it for himself; I knew I’d got that wrong.”

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Pioneer Wilson no longer in the party

Steven Agnew’s predecessor in North Down – the groundbreaking first Green MLA, Brian Wilson – now is no longer a member of the party.

Mr Wilson, part of a long line of North Down maverick politicians, has been critical of his former party but Mr Agnew insists that there is no bad blood between him and the man for whom he was first employed as a political researcher.

“I think Brian’s always going to play that role of challenge but he’s a political analyst as much as he was a politician and is now retired.

“I think it’s notable that one of the last things which he did was to get into a row with his son who is an Alliance councillor over the issue of the gun club in North Down, so he’d even challenge his own son on a public forum.

“That’s Brian’s nature and to be honest it’s why he got the vote he got because he always stood up for things and challenged whoever it was, so I don’t take it personally.”