In February 2016, Ireland’s national election sent heads spinning as the country entered uncharted political waters. For the first time in the history of the State, neither of the country’s two political powerhouses, Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, secured support from more than 50% of the electorate. Widespread disaffection with mainstream political parties created unprecedented opportunity for smaller parties and Independents and established one of the most diverse Irish parliaments in history.
Political commentators exclaimed this “New Politics” would spell disaster for Government operations with Independents championing “pet causes” and local issues, having no interest in a cohesive Government. They cited similar patterns of populism in Spain, Portugal and Greece, where parliaments were “crippled” by voters’ disaffection with mainstream political parties.
Ireland’s new parliament certainly has dampened the spirits of the now Fine Gael-led minority Government who, without a majority, have lost the ability to manage the House and frequently lose votes on their private members’ bills. However, look under the covers and “New Politics” is not all bad news, particularly when it comes to climate action.
‘New Politics’ Gets Results
In a 90 to 53 vote last February, the Government approved legislation to drop coal, oil and gas investments from the €8 billion Irish Strategic Investment Fund. The bill was introduced by an Independent politician, Deputy Thomas Pringle, who stated at the bill’s second stage hearing:
“A lot has been said about attacking so-called new politics and the situation that has arisen. However, this Bill would never have passed Second Stage in the previous Dáil because the Government had the numbers to block anything it wanted to… That change is very positive and shows that things can change in the House.”
While Ireland’s Strategic Investment Fund comprises a small amount of fossil fuel assets relative to the global investment in these companies, when complete, it would make Ireland the first country in the world to legislate a shift in capital from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
The political momentum continued in June when the Irish Government unanimously banned onshore hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as the first private members’ bill to pass both Houses during the lifetime of this Government. Ireland now joins three other EU member states – France, Germany and Bulgaria –who have banned the practice on land. In both the divestment and fracking legislation, “new politics” facilitated campaigners’ victories because parliamentarians were under less pressure from traditional party politics.
While Ireland has historically been a laggard on climate action and the country’s greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise as the economy recovers, the government passed climate legislation in 2015 and are finally kicking into action as a result. This year marked the publication of the first national climate action plan in over eight years. While weak on measurable impact, it is a baby step in the right direction, legally requiring every government department to produce a plan to reduce emissions.
Innovative Democracy Helps Too
This year also saw the establishment of Ireland’s first National Dialogue on Climate Action. The Dialogue aims to create awareness and motivation to act in relation to the challenges presented by climate change and facilitate people to discuss and maximize consensus on the response to those challenges. In a country whose mainstream media still hold debates about whether climate change exists, the Government Dialogue is an overdue godsend with the potential to align Ireland’s climate narrative with the overwhelming scientific and global consensus now calling for urgent action.
Previous efforts by the Irish government to engage the public in climate action during the country’s Celtic Tiger years focused solely on “the power of one”, encouraging citizens to lower their individual carbon footprints without acknowledging the system changes that needed to be made in parallel. Ireland’s Economic and Social Research Institute reported the campaign had "no persistent effect" on the habits of millions of people, despite a EUR 10 million spend. The new National Dialogue on Climate Action could go further by facilitating public engagement in reducing emissions at scale and collating their views to inform Ireland’s climate policies going forward.
The most innovative move toward participatory climate action in Ireland begins on September 30th, when a ground-breaking process in democratic decision-making on climate change commences within Ireland’s Citizens’ Assembly. Established in 2016, the Assembly provides a platform for 99 citizens, randomly selected to represent the views of the people of Ireland, to discuss crucial issues facing Irish society. The Assembly is a successor to the 2012–14 Constitutional Convention, which catalyzed the legalization of same-sex marriage approved by the people of Ireland in the momentous Marriage Equality Referendum of 2015.
The Assembly’s upcoming consideration of the topic ‘How can Ireland be a leader in tackling climate change’ comes in response to years of Government inaction on climate change. In an unprecedented move, the Assembly’s Chairperson and Irish Supreme Court Judge, Mary Laffoy, recommended the Assembly meet for an additional weekend on November 4th to fully consider the issue. After the conclusion of this assembly, the Irish Government is obliged consider and respond to each of the Assembly’s recommendations.
Individuals, non-governmental organizations, and businesses from Ireland and around the world have already voiced their concerns on the topic of climate change to the Citizens’ Assembly through a public consultation last August. The Assembly received nearly 1,200 submissions from that consultation, far more than traditional government consultations, indicating the Assembly is highly regarded by the Irish public. The Assembly’s consideration of Ireland’s response to climate change will be closely watched both in Ireland and around the word, giving Irish people a new democratic means to encourage their Government to take positive action on climate change.
After the last general election in Ireland, then Prime Minister Enda Kenny conceded his party’s defeat, stating: “ Democracy is always exciting but it is merciless when it clicks in.”
Indeed, Ireland now finds itself squeezed between “merciless” democracy in both the U.S.A. and the United Kingdom and flails politically between a two-party model and a multi-party consensus system. However, “new politics” has already reaped rewards that will benefit generations of Irish people to come through the prohibition of fracking and an anticipated divestment from fossil fuels. And new structures of democratic engagement like the Citizen’s Assembly and National Dialogue on Climate Action could help to accelerate the fossil free transition. In a world where climate politics sits on a knife edge without American leadership, Ireland may prove unconventional politics and innovative democratic methods can tip the balance in the planet’s favor. Watch this space.
Dr. Cara Augustenborg is an Irish-American environmental scientist, climate lecturer at University College Dublin, Chairperson of Friends of the Earth Europe and award winning blogger at 'The Verdant Yank'. Follow her on Twitter @CAugustenborg, Facebook, or CaraAugustenborg.com.