The result of the Green Party leadership contest, had it been narrated by David Attenborough, would have seen the magnificent old naturalist whispering into the microphone about Eamon Ryan something along the lines of “the old male has seen off his rival, for now, but it has come at a steep cost. Wounded and bruised, he limps away, and knows, surely, that his days of dominance are coming to a close”.
In the aftermath of the result, where Ryan prevailed by just 48 votes out of nearly 2,000 cast, he and Catherine Martin attempted a show of unity. And for the next while, unity will prevail. Even the most reckless Greens must know that this contest has damaged the image of their party, and there will be a concerted attempt to demonstrate collegiality and maturity and a united front for the next while. But it will be a façade.
It wasn’t much noted at the weekend, where the headline number of the latest opinion poll was that Fianna Fáil had slumped down to 12% support, but the Greens suffered a slump of their own – falling from 8% to 5%. Before the Government has even had time to make a mess of things, a chunk of Green voters have walked away in protest at the party entering Government at all. It will be all but impossible to win them back, because no matter what the Government does, there will always now be an opposition party promising something more left, and more green.
What’s more, the narrow result of the leadership election has created a cancerous tumour that will eat away at the party from without, and from within. Every time the Greens are seen to be on the losing side of a debate within Government, some columnist will be on hand to write that the defeat will “increase the mutterings about Ryan’s leadership”. Almost everything the Greens do in Government will now be seen, and written about, through the prism of the leadership debate. Journalists will be lining up to offer Catherine Martin tempting questions which she can answer only by putting herself publicly at odds with Mr. Ryan. Opposition politicians, who, ironically for Mr. Ryan, are prone to behaving like a pack of wolves, will smell blood. The attacks on him will be more personalised than before, with a concerted effort to make him appear sleepy, and weak. Sinn Fein has already begun. The press and the media have a wounded animal in their sights, and they will hound him now, until he collapses.
Internally, such a narrow result will prompt second guessing nearly every time a major decision has to be made. “Would Catherine have done the same thing”?
Once politicians reach this phase of their careers, and the narrative around them becomes one of weakness and vulnerability, they rarely recover. Even Margaret Thatcher could not survive a narrower than expected leadership contest win – and Eamon Ryan, for good, or for ill, is no Margaret Thatcher.
The bigger problem for the Greens, though, is not the leadership, but the brand. There is a misalignment between the party’s old guard and the younger members and voters who are now jumping from the ship for pastures new. The Greens are led by a generation of middle-class ecologists – the kind of people who marvel at projects to save the Red Kite, reintroduce the White Tailed Eagle, and dream of a land where Bears, Wolves, and people live in perfect balance with each other.
But the Greens won votes, and canvassers, and members, from an entirely different class of activist – the kind of young radical eco-leftist who sees climate recovery as a kind of happy by-product of the destruction of the capitalist system altogether, and who dreams instead of replacing the nation state with a kind of feminist commune where housing is free and women is spelled womxn.
The two forms of Green politics cannot co-exist – one seeks a green economy, the other would be happy enough with no economy at all. The Government is wedded to the former, but most of the extra votes – and all of the extra energy – won by the Greens at the last election came from the latter.
The tension between these two camps will, ultimately, condemn the Greens to disaster at the next election, regardless of who leads them. But as the impending disaster becomes more apparent to Green TDs and Senators, they will search around vainly for anything that might save them, and any change that might win back the voters they are losing. Eamon Ryan, therefore is doomed. He is the walking dead, Malcolm Crowe from the Sixth Sense, and Shrodinger’s Cat, all mixed into one. He’d be better off resigning now, focusing on his ministry, and letting the decline of the party be traced directly to Catherine Martin’s ruthless ambition.
Otherwise, it’ll be a sad end to a genuinely interesting, and public-minded, career, even for those of use who’ve consistently opposed his views.