Ex-Green MLA warns SDLP/SF pact risks party reputation

Steven Agnew MLA, leader of The Green Party, at a 2015 rally at Stormont
Steven Agnew MLA, leader of The Green Party, at a 2015 rally at Stormont

The Green Party’s first-ever MLA has said entering an electoral pact with Sinn Fein would risk damaging the reputation of the party.

Brian Wilson, who had also been an independent councillor in North Down and Ards, said he remained “sympathetic” to the Greens.

Brian Wilson in 2007

Brian Wilson in 2007

However, he voiced concerns that the idea of a non-sectarian, anti-Brexit alliance being mooted by the SDLP – which both Sinn Fein and the Green Party may join – would amount to little more than a “nationalist coalition” which would alienate its unionist supporters.

Listeners who phoned in to BBC Radio Ulster’s afternoon Talkback show on Friday voiced similar sentiments, with one stating that the party appears to have turned “a deeper shade of green” in the eyes of many voters.

The Green Party has said its executive will discuss the matter on Saturday.

Councillor Wilson, who held the North Down Assembly seat for the Greens from 2007 to 2011 (but who was previously a member of the Alliance) told the News Letter: “In principle I think the idea of getting an anti-Brexit coalition is a good idea...

“But I don’t see how it’s practical within the Northern Ireland context, given the whole political structure [and] the sectarian nature of Northern Ireland politics.”

He pointed out that North Down – the constituency of Green leader Steven Agnew – voted Remain (by 52.4%), and that the constituency is overwhelmingly unionist.

He added that any “people in the Green Party who are pro-union, they would not want to be seen in a coalition which is basically a nationalist coalition”.

“You’ve two conflicting loyalities here – you’ve the issues of Brexit and anti-Brexit, and the issues of nationalism and unionism.

“And there aren’t straight splits between the two of them.”

Asked if going into a pact with Sinn Fein could harm the Green Party’s reputation, he said: “Yeah. I think you’ve got to be concerned about who you’re seen to be dealing with, because that’s what politics here in Northern Ireland is about...

“A lot of people who’d actually be sympathetic to the Green Party would not actually want to be associating with Sinn Fein. But it’s very complex.

“Even if you’re involved in a very superficial level, it will be used against you. That’s the way Northern Ireland politics works.”

Asked if linking to Sinn Fein could leave the party tainted, he said: “I think that.

“I mean [it’s] probably not justified to some extent, but it’ll be used in subsequent elections against the Green Party.”

Mr Agnew appeared on Talkback on Friday, where one caller put it to him: “Steven has just turned the Green Party a deeper shade of green” – referring to its flirtation with the idea of joining a nationalist-dominated pact.

The North Down MLA responded: “It’s unfortunate that we have to see every political discussion in Northern Ireland through the prism of unionism and nationalism.

“When you’re a genuinely cross-community party, people almost look to go: ‘But what are you really?’”

Mr Agnew had been involved in a row over his stance on terrorism in 2015, when he had declared that he saw no point in membership of terror groups being illegal, arguing that this was “more likely to incite terrorism rather than prevent terrorism”.

He later clarified his stance, stating his opposition to violence and saying that the party would not move to “decriminalise terrorist organisations” – but not before North Down councillor Noelle Robinson had quit the party in protest.

She declined to comment on the idea of a pact on Friday.