Green Leader addresses Northern Ireland AGM
The Leader of the Green Party and Environment Minister John Gormley has noted with interest the announcement yesterday evening that corruption charges were being brought against four former Dublin City councillors. Speaking in Downpatrick at the AGM of the Northern Ireland Greens, Minister Gormley said: “I am confident that the era of bad planning is coming to an end.”He continued: “I am reminded of the episode where one of those charged, former councillor and senator Don Lydon, put my colleague Trevor Sargent into a headlock in the chamber of Dublin County Council, as Trevor highlighted payments to politicians involving land zoning. Then as now, the Green Party was a solitary voice against bad and reckless planning, while councillors from Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein – at the behest of developers – rezoned as much of our countryside as they possibly could.
“In opposition we said we could clean up the planning system. In Government we have done just that, primarily with the Planning Act, which became law this year. It will ensure that planning decisions will be community-driven, not developer-led, and that housing is built close to schools, shops, jobs and transport services. Thanks to the Green Party, development will now be focused on creating sustainable communities – not ghost estates. We have also initiated investigation into planning in six local authorities.”
“I am encouraged that the wheels of justice are beginning to move against white collar crime. The Green Party has insisted that the Government set up a cabinet sub-committee to consider all aspects of fraud and white collar criminality. For our institutions to win back the trust of the people, a comparable sense of urgency that exists for gangland crime and other aspects of criminality also needs to apply to white collar crime. We have to ensure that all means possible are used to bring to justice those guilty of fraud, corruption and financial irregularity.”
Minister Gormley also congratulated John Hume on being voted Ireland’s Greatest individual. He said: “I am moved to pay tribute to one of those people whose courageous efforts to build bridges and advance human rights was recognised last night. John Hume is indeed one of Ireland’s greatest individuals, and I would like to applaud the work he has done for all communities on our island,” he said. The full text of the speech follows.
I am very happy to be here with you in Downpatrick. I would like to thank Brian, and Steven, and of course Cadogan, whose constituency we are in today, for inviting me here and giving me an opportunity to talk to you and give you a quick update about progress south of the border.
If a week is a long time in politics, the 18 months since we last got together in Belfast has been a lifetime. So much has happened – both politically and particularly, economically.
The spectre of dissidents and their murderous intent to disrupt and destabilise life in Northern Ireland reminds us that securing peace on our island is a job that is not yet finished.
It is in stark contrast to their evil hatred that I am moved to pay tribute to one of the individuals whose courageous efforts to build bridges and advance human rights was recognised last night. John Hume is indeed one of Ireland’s greatest individuals, and I would like to applaud the work he has done for all communities on our island.
Mobilising for elections
Steven was a very able flag-carrier for the Party in last year’s European elections, growing the Green presence by over 10,000 votes. I would also like to acknowledge Adam McGibbon and Barbara Haig who stood in the Westminster elections this year, alongside Steven and Cadogan. It is never easy to stand for elections in first-past-the-post elections, where the chances of success are slim, and I applaud you for it.
While it is difficult, the recent experiences of our Green colleagues in Brighton and further afield in Melbourne, shows that it is not impossible. This year, for the first time, there are green members of Parliament sitting in Westminster and Canberra. I am inspired by the success of Caroline Lucas and Adam Bandt. Their successes, despite the huge challenges of disproportionate election systems which discriminate against smaller parties, are an inspiration for us all.
I hope that they will inspire candidates – both those that we already know will run, and those who are currently perhaps only considering the idea – to put themselves forward. To run proud, energetic and visible campaigns in the local council and Assembly elections next May.
It has never been more urgent that we have strong green voices in council chambers, in Stormont and in Dáil and Seanad Éireann.
At the moment I quite often hear people saying things like ‘we can’t afford green policies’ or ‘now is not the right time to be green’. This could not be more untrue.
In the 30 or so years that I have been involved in politics – alongside many of the individuals who I am delighted to see here today – I have seen peaks and troughs; booms and busts; bubbles inflate and bubbles burst in Ireland, in the UK, in Europe and across the world.
What has characterised each and every one of these episodes, is that when the politicians from the established parties go about putting things back together, they do so having learned none of the lessons of the past.
Following the last serious recession politicians in Dublin, London and Washington oversaw economic growth that thrived on superficial consumption. We watched financial services industries grow and grow, even thought we barely understood what they did and regulated them very poorly. And we all saw our societies develop an obsession with property that was deeply unhealthy.
Regular workers on regular salaries were buying second, third and fourth homes, creating ‘portfolios’ that they could only afford due to often reckless bank lending and in a market that was growing at unsustainable rates.
In Ireland, in the UK and in the US, we developed cappuccino economies; overpriced, frothy and totally superfluous to our real needs. This is the precise reason why green policies and a green vision for economics is so vital RIGHT NOW.
A green economic vision
The world economy, with whom we trade so much, is beginning to grow again, and so are our exports. As we stare at the wreckage of the last cycle of boom and bust, and as we play our respective roles in regrouping and rebuilding, we Greens have a duty and an opportunity to help create a more sustainable economy: locally, nationally and internationally.
Of course we will input into the debate about levels of income tax and the type of public services that we want. But we also have a key role in arguing and influencing for an economy that creates sustainable prosperity and well-being for all of our citizens, not simply economic growth and financial reward for the few.
In this respect the Greens are unique. Once upon a time, our questioning of whether economic growth was the best measure of a society’s devlopment, and our policies to minimise consumption were ridiculed by the establishment – both the neoliberal and socialist branches. The Stern Report lent a lot of support to our arguments, but the collapse of Northern Rock, Lehman Brothers, and the economic crisis that resulted, has changed everything. While our world leaders and our international institutions are still trying to get to grips with the damage to the financial system, there is a vacuum for new economic models, and we Greens have a key role to play.
We know that creating incentives for growth and jobs in the green and cleantech sectors, and creating disincentives for the consumption of finite, polluting resources, is the key to tackling the climate challenge. We also know that the pioneering ‘first movers’ will become world leaders in this new economy. So in Government and out of it, we must propose, influence and convince people that our ideas and policies are viable and essential.
I believe that we can make it happen. I believe that you can make it happen here in Northern Ireland, with your abundant wind and ocean energy, your agricultural resources and your motivated, skilled workforce.
We are making it happen at a European level. Our 55 Green colleagues in the European Parliament are working hard and punching well above their weight to ensure that European policies and investments are focused on tackling climate change and creating and supporting sustainable jobs.
And in Dublin we are making it happen in Government. In the Irish economy one of our good news stories – and I appreciate they are few and far between at the moment – is the emergence of a strong, innovative green sector. Over 16,000 jobs have been created in the green economy since the Green Party entered Government. This is not a notional figure. These are real jobs being delivered on the ground in retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient; in wind, ocean, biomass, and photovoltaic energy; in research; in electricity transmission and cutting-edge electronic components; in building smart computer networks and grids; in data storage and cloud computing; in lighting; in district heating; and in transport solutions.
It is one of the many aspects of our part in government that has gone largely unheard, but since 2007 we have been delivering a Green New Deal for Ireland. In 2004, an EU report valued Ireland’s green economy at €1.4bn. In 2008 the value was conservatively put at €2.8bn. Research produced by my colleague Eamon Ryan’s department last year suggested that 50% of all new jobs are in the green sector. The growth has truly been astounding.
Yet our work is far from complete. One of the projects in my department that I am working on is green procurement. In the South, the public sector has a spend of just over €16 billion a year, which provides it with an enormous spending power. My department has been drawing up a Green procurement action plan. It will contain guidelines on green procurement in six key areas: construction; cleaning products; clothing/ textiles; electricity; office machinery; food; and paper. I believe this green procurement will not add to public costs. It will save money. And it poses an enormous opportunity for job creation for innovative firms. By increasing our public spend on goods and services which have an emphasis on the highest environmental standards, companies whose products meet these criteria will flourish and grow.
Our policies on job creation and business support are tried and tested and I believe that there are opportunities for you to pursue them here in Northern Ireland. My door is open to you should you need help with this.
The jobs that the Green Party has been instrumental in creating over the last three years have also been in the waste sector. In recycling, resource recovery, packaging design, biogas, solid recycled fuel, and mechanical and biological treatment, waste is both a challenge and a great opportunity for enterprise and employment creation.
As Greens we know and have always argued that land-filling waste must be avoided. Some argue that it should be avoided at any cost; and that is where mass burn incineration arises. It suits engineers and big authorities to replace one large system with another large system because there is not much thought involved.
We Greens argue that waste is not just something that needs to be disposed of – we see it as a resource. Where possible we should reduce the volume of waste produced in the first place though better packaging design and retailing solutions. Then we should reclaim as many resources as possible; through sorting, recycling, composting and reusing. There are options then for the small volume of waste remaining. Some of it can be treated biologically and some can be turned into solid recycled fuel, which can then be burnt in efficient power stations, and energy derived from it.
This approach to waste, which Green parties, and eco-friendly cities and countries across the world already have in place, requires imagination, innovation and education. It reduces initial volumes of waste, and it creates jobs. But it requires the people in charge of the waste system TO THINK.
It is much easier for them to simply swap landfill for mass burn incineration. This is the approach that we are fighting in the Republic. And I know you are also fighting this approach here in Northern Ireland.
Cleaning up the mess
In the republic the Greens were the main – and perhaps the only genuine – critics of the property boom. We opposed tax breaks for unnecessary housing and commercial building. We passionately fought against reckless, developer-led zoning decisions made by councillors from other political parties. We struggled to raise awareness about a planning culture that saw estates of houses spread willy nilly across the countryside: miles from the jobs, roads, schools and services needed to support them.
We have seen our worst fears realised. We have seen our public finances, which became hooked on transaction taxes – on stamp duty and V.A.T. – during the boom, shrink to a shadow of what they need to be in order to pay for our public services. We have seen our banking system become recklessly reliant on inflating property prices. And we have discovered clear patterns of regulatory failure.
Since 2007 we have been trying to clean up this mess. And we have made many successes. We have radically reformed planning laws, introduced windfall taxes to dissuade speculation, brought in a new system of financial regulation headed up by respected and competent individuals with strong, independent mandates. At the Green Party’s insistence, there have been reports and there will be an inquiry that will shine a light on the factors that caused our financial and banking collapse. We have also gotten rid, or are in the process of getting rid, of the people who were responsible for our mess.
I note with interest the announcement yesterday evening that corruption charges are being brought against four former Dublin City councillors. I am confident that the era of bad planning is coming to an end.
I am reminded of the episode where one of those charged, former councillor and senator Don Lydon, put my colleague Trevor Sargent in a headlock in the chamber of Dublin County Council, as he highlighted payments to politicians involving land zoning. Then as now, the Green Party was a solitary voice against bad and reckless planning, as councillors from Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Fein attempted to rezone as much of our countryside as possible – at the behest of developers.
In opposition we said we could clean up the planning system. In Government we have done just that with the Planning Act, which became law this year. It will ensure that planning decisions will be community-driven, not developer-led, and that housing is built close to the schools, shops, jobs and transport services. Thanks to the Green Party, development will now be focused on creating sustainable communities – not ghost estates. We have also initiated investigations into planning in six local authorities.
I am encouraged that the wheels of justice are beginning to move against white collar crime. The Green Party has insisted that the Government set up a cabinet sub-committee to consider all aspects of fraud and white-collar criminality. For our institutions to begin winning back the trust of the people, a comparable sense of urgency that exists for gangland crime and other aspects of criminality needs also to apply to white collar crime. We have to ensure that all means possible are used to bring to justice those guilty of fraud, corruption and financial irregularity.
Over successive budgets which have been incredibly difficult to frame, we have ensured that those who could pay more, have paid more, and we have protected the most vulnerable. We have played our part in government in making income tax more progressive. By now the top 5% of earners pay 48% of tax. We have replaced transaction and labour taxes with resource and income taxes. We have closed down tax shelters and cracked down on tax exiles. And we will continue to be progressive and pursue this key concept of fairness while we frame over the next two months what could be the most difficult budgets that any government in Dublin has ever introduced.
Homelessness and education
For those of you who made it down to our critical special convention in the RDS this time last year, you will know the arguments made in favour of endorsing the renewed Programme for Government. Alongside key policies like the Climate Change Bill, Dublin Mayor bill, banning corporate donations and implementing other important aspects of political reform, many of the arguments that day focused on what the Green Party could do to protect education and the social justice agenda by remaining at the cabinet table.
Investing in education – in the future of our society and economy – is a critical priority for green parties wherever they are located. In the Republic, despite massive pressure both from demographic changes and much a lower national tax take the Green Party has protected the key aspects of investment of education. And we will do everything we can to protect this sector in the forthcoming budget. We have also protected homeless services.
My Department is responsible for providing funding for homeless accommodation costs. And I want to be very clear in relation to homelessness funding my department currently provides to refuges. During the economic downturn, I have made it a priority that vulnerable groups are protected. Therefore, I have made it a priority during the three budgets that have taken place in the last 30 months that homelessness funding has been ringfenced against cuts. This has meant that total current funding for all homeless accommodation and related services was increased in 2009 by 5% in monetary terms to €62m. This represented an even greater increase in real terms. I am glad to be able to say that this higher level of funding is being maintained in 2010. Protecting the homelessness budget will continue to be a priority for me. Thank you for your time.