Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Greens must get off knees and stand up for principles

Politics cannot be divorced from principle and principle has to be shaped and guided by certain moral precepts, the first and most important of which is the distinction between right and wrong. Politics only works on the basis of those in power doing what is right, saying what is right, making laws to ensure that this and other principles are followed. The opposition is there to ensure that such standards are kept.

In too much of the coverage of the Willie O'Dea affair, a quite different approach has been evident in the reporting and commenting, as though Leinster House operated on the simple basis of what you can get away with.

More than once, senior commentators treated the matter as done and dusted without a comment on the gravity of the misdemeanour, the dishonesty of the motion of confidence. The critical comment came lamentably late, and was concerned with the principle of survival, not with the interests of the State in having integrity preserved or protected.

We were on the brink of the Government led by Taoiseach Brian Cowen getting away with an extraordinary and disgraceful political stroke. He was transgressing the trust of the public in him and the members of the Government. He was duping the Greens and making them party to the outrageous protection of O'Dea. And in the case of O'Dea himself, we were witnessing a high officer of state being protected and kept in office at a time when a garda investigation had been initiated into whether he was guilty of the criminal offence of perjury, together with slander and lying. And this process of protection was being done simply because the numbers game seemed to ensure his survival.

There was a mixture of brazen insolence and the ignoring of any principles in the way Cowen responded to the crisis in the Dail, making it a crisis for the whole country. And his approach was echoed in the shallow awfulness of Dermot Ahern, Micheal Martin and other ministers, including Pat Carey, the Government Chief Whip, as they pursued one of the most disgraceful episodes I have witnessed in more than 45 years of political journalism.

None of the early leaders of Fianna Fail would have attempted the outrageous vote of confidence in O'Dea this week. Eamon de Valera, Sean Lemass and Jack Lynch would have sacked him. And they would have been right. Of the later leaders, it is more difficult to draw the same line. Bertie Ahern and Albert Reynolds would probably have tried to do what Cowen attempted. Reynolds was disciplined and eventually destroyed by his coalition partner, Dick Spring, on a different issue, but one that hinged on integrity.

As for Charles Haughey, he would have recognised the outrageous use of a majority to sustain such a minister in office, and would at least have had the sense not to pull the stroke of a motion of confidence a week ahead of the opposition motion. He would have measured two things: the damage to himself and his party and the restraining influence of his coalition partners, the Progressive Democrats, who in the end were forced to destroy him. The fact is Desmond O'Malley would not have allowed him to do what Cowen tried to do.

In a sense this is the nub of the problem the O'Dea issue has delivered to the Irish people: a Green Party slave mentality that has fatally and totally undermined the shreds of credibility they had up until this week. The only confidence Fianna Fail had in them was the confidence they would submit to whatever Cowen presented them with, and they did so in backing the Dail motion.

The position of the Green Party is a pitiful one, but not entirely lost. The Greens know the difference between right and wrong. They know they are persisting in wrong choices and in being led like bullocks to slaughter every time a crisis is provoked. They are even visibly craven in their embarrassment. The all-too-public demonstration of this took place in the Dail on Thursday, when the party committed a further act of submission. Their excuses for what they do get thinner and thinner, their integrity is worn away; all that they stood for is in a state of paralysis, attendant on the next act of humiliation.

There is, however, the possibility -- remote and eccentric in the light of what has happened, but still there -- of recovering an initiative that was always there for them, but was repudiated. This is to become what they have failed so far to be: monitors over Fianna Fail instead of colleagues or partners.

This was successfully done by O'Malley and can be done by the Greens. They are in the peculiar position of having no future either way. If they pull out of government, they are doomed. If they stay in at the level they have demonstrated up to now, they are doomed.

They need an immediate renegotiation with Fianna Fail that increases their power and diminishes that of the larger party. They need to remove Mary Coughlan and replace her with their own nominee. They need to take charge of the imminent and necessary re-shuffle and assert their control over the issues they value most, taking charge on the economy and on the stagnant reform programme. They need to direct legislation. They need a third person in Cabinet, replacing O'Dea, and that person should be Trevor Sargent, to take a portfolio in charge of economic development.

They need to get up off their knees.

Every effort would be made by Fianna Fail to block them. The Greens know how far this unacceptable level of humiliation can go. They have experienced it throughout their terms of coalition partnership. They have made all the mistakes possible, and some that go beyond what ordinary people thought possible. What more is needed to inspire a new approach?

If they do it and it fails, they recover a small part of their credibility. But Fianna Fail are in no mood to go on treating the Greens as slaves. They face the choice between annihilation at the hands of the public and an equally public annihilation at the hands of their partners. Which would you choose?