Ben Lowry: This is a vital time for environment, yet at times it can seem that the Green Party NI focus is elsewhere

On Tuesday the leader of Green Party Northern Ireland issued a statement saying they would not contest South Belfast in this general election.

Saturday, 9th November 2019, 1:34 pm
Green Party NI leader Clare Bailey is elected South Belfast MLA in 2017. Photo by Jonathan Porter / Press Eye

Endorsing the SDLP candidate Claire Hanna instead, the Green MLA Clare Bailey said:

“I believe that Claire Hanna is well versed on the threats posed by Brexit and can use her Westminster relationships to make an early and positive impact. I’ve listened to the people of South Belfast and I’m taking the action needed to reject Brexit and Tory austerity.”

On Thursday Ms Bailey issued another statement, saying the party would not now be standing in any of the four Belfast constituencies: “The realities of the first-past-the-post system and the threat posed to our way of life by Brexit means that we must do everything possible to maximise the pro-Remain vote.”

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In neither statement did she mention the environment.

You might have expected the leader of a party whose very title suggests that green issues are paramount to at least insert a line, or preferably several paragraphs, into her statement on why staying in the European Union was so important from an ecological point of view that it was worth backing rival parties — parties that place less emphasis on the environment — to stop Brexit. But no.

Ms Bailey missed a trick compared to Stanley Johnson, father of Boris.

In the run-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, Mr Johnson senior flew into Belfast to explain why, as someone who had been an environmentalist since he joined the World Bank in the 1960s, he had – via his later membership of the European Parliament and his work for the EU Commission – the green benefits of being in the EU.

I interviewed Mr Johnson, who charmingly expressed pride in his son’s role in the Leave campaign before politely explaining why Boris was wrong, and Remain was better.

Mr Johnson spoke of his regret that there is no environmental protection agency in Northern Ireland, and his pleasure that the EU habitats directive offered potential protection to parts of Lough Neagh.

Mr Johnson was so committed to green causes that he was abreast of such issues even in this Province.

When Ms Bailey said last week that the Greens would stand aside in North Belfast, she did not specify that voters in that knife-edge seat should back Sinn Fein. But it is the only Remain party that can win there, so logically the 600 people who voted Green in the seat in 2017 should now back John Finucane.

Sinn Fein, SDLP and Green votes combined put Mr Finucane about 500 ahead of Nigel Dodds.

Did the Greens secure any concession for this support, to assuage ecologically minded people who find republicans objectionable?

Did they request a conciliatory statement on past IRA terrorism?

Or concrete support for the integrated education for which Ms Bailey is a long-standing campaigner? (and why, for that matter, would an integrated activist support the SDLP in South Belfast over an Alliance pro Remain candidate, when the latter is far more keen on abolishing segregated schools?)

Did the Greens even urge Sinn Fein to reciprocate the goodwill by trying to disprove those who believe republicans are sectarian by pledging to place as high a priority in future on climate change than, say, the Irish language?

But then it is not perhaps surprising that Ms Bailey’s statements about withdrawing from the Belfast general election constituencies failed to mention the environment.

There are plenty of other issues that she seems to talk about more.

I have trawled through statements that were sent out by Green Party NI in her name to our news desk since the beginning of June or placed on the Green NI website (see panel below).

Not one is principally concerned with an environmental matter, although several of them mention it, such as Ms Bailey’s statement last month when an election was called in which she referred to the “climate breakdown”.

It is a pity that the green movement has come to this.

Anyone who is seriously concerned about the environment will realise that there left-wing arguments in favour of it (about rapacious capitalism) and traditional conservative ones (about the degradation of our rural landscape).

It is no surprise to me that in the 1990s many disillusioned Tories flirted with Greens. Anyone who believes in personal responsibility should be a recycler, for example.

There are many pressing green issues in Northern Ireland. One of the most urgent is the slack approach to planning and the tolerance of bungalow blight, which politicians from Jim Wells to Danny Kinahan to Brian Wilson (ex Alliance, ex Green) have challenged.

Likewise NI’s weak conservation laws for fine old buildings.

The Green Party should be leading those debates, and others such as whether it might be best to support nuclear power (to cut carbon), and how to embrace the better aspects of capitalism (technology that pioneers electric cars) while also pushing for strict environmental enforcement fines.

There have been other statements in recent months by Green NI politicians on the oceans, on fossil fuels, on renewable energy. But there have been more on other topics, from flags to abortion. And it is not unreasonable to assess a party by paying particular attention to the apparent priorities of its leader.

A real green movement would let environmentalists treat constitutional matters as ‘conscience’ issues. Some might be unionist, some republican, some neither, just as some might be pro gay marriage, some pro life, some atheist, etc.

But they would be united above all in a passionate ‘green’ ness that transcends borders and what they see as other lesser issues.

• Subject matter of Green Party NI Clare Bailey statements since beginning of June:

Jun 3 Bailey on two arrested journalists

Jun 3 Bailey on Trump state visit

July 2 Bailey clarifies party flags stance

Jul 28 Bailey and Greens sponsor Alternative Queer

Aug 28 Bailey on Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament

Sep 4 Bailey calls for pro remain agreed candidates

Sep 24 Bailey welcomes Supreme Court prorogation ruling

Sep 24 Bailey welcome for new N Down MLA

Oct 2 Bailey on second reading for Domestic violence act

Oct 2 Bailey reacts to ridiculous Boris deal

Oct 3 Bailey welcome Sarah Ewart court judgement

Oct 8 Bailey welcome for abortion guidance

Oct 15 Bailey on integrated education

Oct 17 Bailey responds to Brexit deal

Oct 29 Bailey on the general election

Nov 5 Bailey backs Hanna in election

Nov 5 Bailey relief at compensation for institutional abuse survivors

Nov 7 Bailey says Greens not to stand in East, West, Belfast

• Based on a trawl of News Letter newsdesk emails and Green Party NI website press releases

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