A row about a Seanad by-election has stolen attention away from a big political win – here’s why.
HAZEL CHU RUNNING as an independent candidate in the Seanad by-election is “deeply divisive” and undermines the party’s position in Government.
That was the message Minister of State in the Department of Agriculture and Green Party Senator Pippa Hackett in a letter sent to Laois-Offaly grassroots members last night.
Chu, the current Lord Mayor of Dublin, announced on Monday that she would run in the by-election next month after receiving nominations to do so from several Green Party TDs and three senators.
She did not receive official backing from her party to run in the election, but deputy leader and Cabinet minister Catherine Martin was amongst those who nominated her.
When asked about the matter this week, party leader Eamon Ryan said he would not be voting for her in the election but would be adhering to a pact made between the three coalition parties that candidates for Seanad seats currently held by the government parties would be agreed by them all.
Therefore he said he would be supporting the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael candidates on each of the two panels in which there are by-elections – stating that this is in line with an agreement reached by the three parties.
So why all the controversy this week over Chu seeking a Seanad seat? What’s the big deal?
Well, there are a few issues at play here – and it looks like this particular row is far from over as yet.
Yesterday, Green senators Roisin Garvey and Pauline O’Reilly – alongside Hackett – put forward a motion of no confidence in Chu as the party chair at a meeting of the parliamentary party.
The motion – which was later deferred – does not carry that much weight, with motions of confidence only applying to the party leader. But, still, it doesn’t make for good optics.
Letter to grassroots members
In her letter to members, Hackett said Chu “is an incredible politician and has shown amazing resilience and courage in the face of horrendous personal abuse, particularly since she became Mayor of Dublin”.
But she said Chu had gone against the wishes of the both the parliamentary party and the party’s executive council by seeking a nomination.
“Many of us feel this makes her position untenable,” she said.
O’Reilly, one of the senators that backed the motion, then appeared on RTE’s Claire Byrne Live today stating that while she hoped the party could come to some resolution, she believes it should be in the form of Chu considering if she should continue in her position as chair.
She said it would not be fair for her to ask Chu to walk away from seeking a Seanad seat, but said in her view, it would be very difficult for Chu to be able to hold both roles.
“I wish I wasn’t on here saying all this,” said O’Reilly, before adding that she can’t just say that “all is rosy in the garden” of the Green Party right now.
She would have rather dealt with it all internally, O’Reilly said on the RTÉ show after a statement from Chu was read out.
“I’m very disappointed that Senator O’Reilly has chosen this avenue to express her unhappiness about me. After not being informed of a motion of no confidence on me, the agenda [for the parliamentary party meeting]was sent only an hour before.
“I was not told by any members of the Parliamentary Party proposing the motion including the leader who I spoke to on the phone hours before. The leader made it explicitly clear on several occasions that there was no pact,” said Chu’s statement, seen by The Journal.
The party said there will be no selection convention but a previous motion to prevent members from nominating or running fell, said Chu, stating “as such I have broken no rules”.
This issue is only divisive if we continue to make it so. Yesterday at my campaign launch I expressed confidence in my leader and our parliamentary party and voiced how we were doing good work. I hope this respect will be reciprocated and we can continue to serve the public as best as we can. I would ask that if any members have any issues with me please let me know directly.
O’Reilly told Claire Byrne that she was only speaking on the programme as Chu had spoken on the show the previous day.
She said it was “not really reasonable” for Chu to say this shouldn’t play out in the media, when she had put forward her point of view on the airwaves already.
She added that it was also not reasonable for others to be expected to give their viewpoint quietly behind closed doors.
Chu confirmed to The Journal that she is still seeking a seat in the Seanad, and will remain on as chair of the party unless someone seeks to remove her.
When asked if the party airing its grievances in public is damaging, she said:
“The party is a broad church and that’s how we got elected. I’m all for discussion and dissension there needs to be a compromise on positions. We need to preserve our political capital with our coalition partners but we need to do the same with our members. Whatever the dissension is we need to make sure it’s dealt with internally first.”
Speaking to Green Party sources there are concerns that the placing down of such a motion in Chu was ill-judged, and only served to keep the row in the public spotlight for longer.
Instead, the matter sucked attention away from the issue the Greens really wanted voters to focus on – the revised Climate Bill.
Before Covid-19 hit, climate change and climate justice was one of the most important issues on the political agenda.
What was described as a ‘green wave’ hit the ballot boxes last February, and the Green Party held many of the cards in terms of government formation.
In the 2020 general election it won 12 seats, which made it the fourth largest party after FF, SF and FG.
During the government formation talks, they secured some big wins – including this week’s climate legislation, which commits to Ireland becoming carbon neutral by no later than 2050.
There biggest problem for the party this week is that the last few days their representatives should have been on the airwaves talking up their Climate Bill.
What it will mean for the every day person? What difference it will make in our lives? All these talking points and conversations should have dominated the agenda.
Instead, the internal wranglings of party politics are playing out in headlines and on the national airwaves.
Airing ones dirty laundry in public is something most political parties attempt not to do. Eamon Ryan often speaks about how his party is different to to others – how it is less adversarial than that the other established political parties. However, it definitely seems to be giving the others a run for their money now.
Party sources say that they do worry that they aren’t singing loudly enough about their achievements in government, and that there is a need to be less introspective.
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It is not the only time the internal issue of the party have leaked out. One of the major issues is the party’s disagreement over the Ceta trade deal – something Chu’s husband, Patrick Costello, who is a backbench Green Party TD, is taking the government to court over.
One source said the majority of the party have an issue with Ceta, but the leadership and Ryan in particular still wanted to plough along with it.
The same source said it’s clear there is a problem in the party if an issue like that is sidelined, but there’s uproar over something like Chu’s Seanad bid, even if she appears to have broken no rules by putting herself forward.
While on the surface of this dispute appears to be about Chu stepping outside the box without the green light, there are bigger issues at play here.
They stem back to the party leadership.
In July 2020, Ryan retained his role as leader of the party, having won by 48 member votes – receiving 994 votes as against Martin’s 946.
He said it was a “really close result, no doubt about that”. He thanked Martin for what he described as a civil leadership contest.
However, the civilities haven’t lasted all that much within the party.
Sources agree that the latest Seanad seat debacle actually amounts to a sequel in the conflict between ‘Team Eamon’ and ‘Team Catherine’.
One party source said it isn’t about the coalition anymore, it is about Ryan’s leadership or lack of it. They criticised how the whole matter had been handled, stating that Ryan is nowhere to be seen.
The same source said the Climate Bill had been lost in the noise, as the party claimed “disaster from the jaws of victory”.
The matter could have been diffused in numerous ways by the leadership, but instead was left to play out.
One problem might be that the Greens appear to have a short memory.
The party won its first seat in 1989, and went on to double its seats by 1997.
By 2007, the party had six TDs and went into coalition with Fianna Fáil, under Bertie Ahern.
It would be their downfall. In 2011, the Greens lost all six seats in Dáil Éireann and lost all State funding.
It was a hard road back, but the Greens were back on top in the wake of the election just over a year ago.
Over a year later, they should be able to confidently point to their wins as a collective – but if this week has shown anything its that if the party is not careful and doesn’t get its house in order, it will once again have squandered its successes.