It has been a remarkable political year in Ireland- economic depression, tripling of unemployment, halving of property prices, bankrupt banks and businesses and crippling imbalances between government spending and tax revenue. It all started just about a year ago and it has amounted to a chastening experience for a Green Party in government for the first time.
According to polls the Government parties, Fianna Fáil, presently the largest political party and by far the bigger of the coalition partners and the Greens face wipe out come election time. Fianna Fáil, traditionally polling about 40% at general elections, are reduced to a core vote of about 25% while the Greens face losing all of their 6 parliamentary seats won at the last election.
From an advocacy perspective the Greens entering into Government in 2007 seemed to open a new door on policy making, especially since many of the Progressio Ireland policy asks are linked to environmental best practice. Ethical guidelines to investments made by our government’s National Pension Reserve Fund, our sovereign wealth fund designed to pay for public sector pensions from 2020, matches Green thinking. Indeed the Green Party, after some concerted lobbying, have pushed vigorously on this issue inside Government.
In the case of getting the government to ban the use of illegally logged timber by introducing procurement procedures that ensure that government buys only certified timber, the Green politicians and party officials I met immediately understood the significance of this issue and the connections with their broader agenda.
So the presence of the Greens in Government has led to a series of great environmental policy changes that has pushed Ireland to the world’s forefront in addressing global justice and climate change, right? Well actually not quite or at the very least, not yet. Faced with growing unpopularity the Greens have focused almost exclusively on domestic issues and any policy changes affecting international issues have come through prompting from NGOs and not from their own initiative. Their influence in Government has been relatively weak; at the end of lobbying one Green politician he concluded by advising me to lobby Fianna Fáil backbenchers as they had more power. And the Greens have yet to come to grips with the byzantine nature of an Irish civil service that avoids making decisions at all costs and is very skilled in formulating warm words which have no policy implications.
Progressio’s lobbying on procurement rules to stop illegal timber being used by the public sector is an interesting case in point. We started this advocacy about six months ago, first seeking alliances with other NGOs working in this area, drawing up a policy position and working with the media to get the issue better understood. Specialist press was especially useful – I expect the Irish Timber and Forestry Newsletter to appear as guest publication on “Have I Got News for You” very soon. The links with our programmes are very clear, especially with our partners CAM in Honduras and so we also benefitted from a visit from a representative of CAM where we met with the Forestry Service in the Department of Agriculture.
We met with semi state organisations working on setting forestry policy in Ireland, certification organisations such as FSC Ireland and PEFC Ireland and then with political party officials. We also received pro bono help from International law firm Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, facilitated by UK legal charity A4ID, to examine European regulations on illegal logging and see how these can be implemented into Irish law.
We then wrote to the Junior Ministers of Finance and Agriculture. Finance because they are responsible for public procurement and Agriculture because of their policy role on Forestry. Relatively hostile responses had been received from other agencies when approaching the Department of Finance on previous occasions so we made sure that our approach was framed positively but we also set out the real moral and legal challenges associated with the present policy.
And then we met the politicians. Fortunately our timing was exceptionally good. In response to internal party disquiet at very poor local election results the Green Party had insisted on a renegotiation of the Programme of Government. Prior to these negotiations I met with Mary White, lead negotiator for the Greens and an internationalist with a deep commitment to addressing climate change and a long standing interest in forestry policy. Together with her advisers we met for just 40 minutes but we covered all the issues and Mary made a personal commitment that they Greens would do all they could to get this agreed by Government.
We also met with Fianna Fáil representatives and Labour Party’s spokesperson on climate change who raised the issue in the Seanad (the upper house). In reply the Labour Senator got a very interesting response from the Junior Minister of the Environment saying that the Green’s senior Minister for the Environment and the Minister of State at the Department of Finance had agreed to work together to prepare Ireland’s first national action plan for green public procurement, which would include international best practice on addressing illegal logging. Then Progressio received a letter from the Minister of Finance saying that he would bring our representations to the Government Contracts Committee, a committee of procurement officials from Government Departments and agencies that helps the Department develop policy and procedures for the award and delivery of public contracts.
Then finally, after much brinkmanship, two parties agreed and then the Green Party Special Assembly passed the revised Programme for Government was confirmed. It was with a smile that I read the first line under the heading Green Economy where the Government promises that, “We will put in place new public procurement procedures and guidelines to ensure that green criteria are at the centre of all state procurement.”
Not there yet, but almost.....
Emmet BerginAdvocacy Officer, Progressio Ireland