- 24 Jun 19
Ciaran Cuffe was born in South County Dublin, and has been a Green Party member since 1982. He has degrees in Archirtecture and Urban Planning and teaches a Masters course in TUD (Technical University Dublin). He has served as a Dublin City Councillor (both south and north of the River Liffey), and as a Green Party TD in the Dun Laoghaire constituency. He was Minister of State for Horticulture, Sustainable Travel, Planning and Heritage from 2010 to 2011, as part of the ill-fated Fianna Fail/Green Party coalition government.
He is also a member of the Dublin Cycling Campaign and was responsible for the introduction of 30kph speed limits in areas of Dublin. While it was evident that the Greens would show better on this occasion than in recent elections, the extent of their resurgence in Ireland took everyone – including the Green Party itself – by surprise. However, the Green’s success here is part of a Europe-wide Green wave, which sees the party gaining a strong strategic position in the new European parliament – a necessary antidote to the increase in the number of far right MEPs in France and elsewhere...
Jackie Hayden: So how does it feel having topped the poll in Dublin?
Ciaran Cuffe: As you can imagine it’s been a bit frenetic over the past few weeks. I’m still pinching myself. After all, phrases like “topping the poll” don’t roll too easily off the tongue in relation to Green Party candidates. I know the word ”humbled” is overused by politicians. I’m delighted and so grateful to the electorate. I now have to live up to the confidence the people have put in me.
Do you now regret that the Green Party didn’t run more local government candidates around the country?
I wish we had run candidates in certain areas. But I’m pleased that 49 Green councillors have been elected. That confidence shows that tackling Green issues isn’t just an urban challenge. It is one for the length and breadth of the country.
What do you think is behind the Green surge?
Climate change is, of course, a very significant element in our electoral success. People are often ahead of politicians in this regard. They’ve listened to the Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg speaking truth to power. And they’ve watched the documentaries made by David Attenborough and Duncan Stewart. They’ve made the connection between the global challenges we’re facing and the practical changes possible at local level.
We can change the way we travel, if, say, the investment is put into safe cycle lanes or a decent bus service or increasing the time for pedestrians to get across roads at pedestrian lights. These are practical changes that can reduce the carbon footprint, as well as making it easier to get around. Transport is a big issue. For me in Dublin, housing is another big issue. If we bring council homes up to an A-energy rating, not only does it reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but it tackles fuel poverty.
Is there a connection between the Green surge and the collapse of Sinn Fein?
There have been different issues in the public discussion at different times. The real problems of austerity featured prominently in the 2011 and 2014 elections. Unemployment was a big issue five years ago. Now housing is an even bigger issue. It’s like the old problem of generals still fighting the last war. We need to respond to new challenges.
Are you confident that there really is a greater awareness of environmental issues now, or might it just be a passing fad?
No, I’m not feeling confident. We’ve seen political surges in the past for different political parties, including the Greens. The wave can go back out, as quickly as it came in. If you go back six months, the Greens were at 2% in opinion polls. I’m taking nothing for granted. I look at Lynn Boylan, the Sinn Fein MEP who lost her seat after having a 25% vote five years ago. Politics can be a very fickle trade.
Is there a possibility that people might feel they’ve done their bit by voting Green and have no plans to go any deeper into the issues?
Oh sure. I think some would be delighted if they could outsource their carbon guilt onto government or others. I see a touch of that happening with Fine Gael when they happily talk about an electric car here or there, and (put up) a couple of bird boxes and we’re laughing. We have to bring deep-seated changes into our own lives and in the way that society organises itself.
As an MEP, what are your immediate priorities?
I’m trying to decide what committees I’d like to be on in the new parliament. Obviously Environment and Transport would be areas where some of the issues I’ve campaigned on would be discussed. But there’s also a rather turgid committee called the Regional and Urban Committee which speaks about housing issues around Europe and where it might be possible to discuss fuel poverty, energy and upgrading existing housing stock in our towns and cities.
Regarding the rise of the Far Right, is that something you would want to confront?
There are times to confront this. There are also times to sit down and listen and debate. During the period when I was in opposition in the Dáil, I would happily walk out the gate of Leinster House and pick up the megaphone and tell the crowd what they wanted to hear. During our period in government I learned that change happens slowly and often incrementally, and the detail of legislation and regulation can be hard and painful. There are times and places for both approaches. One of my colleagues in the next European parliament will be Silvio Berlusconi [former Prime Minister of Italy]. I’d be more than happy to confront him if I met him!
What would you say to him?
I’d tell him we have many crises in Europe. That telling immigrants to go back home is the wrong response to the global challenges that we face. That we have to show some compassion and some humanity towards those left behind by the forces of globalisation.
Is it possible that other parties will now try to adopt more Green Party policies and take the gloss off your upsurge?
I heard Charlie Haughey some 30 years ago say he was a bit of a Green himself. So I’ll take all the greenwash with a pinch of salt. We need to make changes to how our economy works. The issues are far too important to be left to the market to solve.
Presumably you’d be critical of our record on climate change issues.
Oh, we’re complete laggards! We’ve done very little. We’re emitting more, we’re driving more and producing more. We have to completely refresh how our economy operates. That includes agriculture, construction, energy and transportation.
You talk a lot about housing.
I talk a lot about housing because nobody who has been pushed out of Dublin by high housing costs wants to be commuting two or three hours a day. They would love to have a home they could afford, close to their families. So building decent homes for an affordable rent or price can also help us tackle the huge increase in transport emissions.
Do you think people are aware of the profound changes that you will be asking them to make, and especially that they might have to pay?
Tackling the climate crisis can be a good news story, and I believe that the finance for this can be sourced without imposing a huge cost on hard-working families. For instance, the European Investment Bank could help us upgrade our housing stock, or the State could invest more in public transport. If they simply reduced fares by 20%, that would get a lot more people out of their cars as well as making it easier to get around. We face the prospect of paying €150million in carbon fines next year. That must leave a bitter taste in many mouths. I’ve been warning about this publicly for over 20 years. I just hope Fine Gael wake up and smell the flowers.
But doesn’t the row over water charges prove that a lot of people in Ireland really don’t want to pay for anything?
I think people want fairness. And they want to ensure that people living a precarious existence aren’t penalised. We need to make sure that any changes we make are progressive. In other words, that the changes protect the less well-off and that the large corporations do the heavy lifting on this.
Would you re-introduce water charges if you could?
No, I wouldn’t. That debate has moved on. But I think we need to ensure that local government is properly funded and given the powers that it deserves and as are common elsewhere in Europe. I’d like to see more power devolved to local government. I like to give councils the power to build homes, to provide transport infrastructure, to help out with energy projects, and to tackle everyday issues.
Everyday issues such as?
One of our Green Party Councillors in Dublin, Sophie Nicoullaud, said that food is an election issue. We want people to have access to safe, clean affordable food. But where are the markets in Dublin? Why doesn’t the City Council provide quality fruit and vegetables in local markets? The Iveagh Market is derelict. The fruit and vegetable market is awaiting refurbishment but it’s moving very slowly. Decent local markets is something local government should be doing. I’ll certainly work in Europe to help with that.
It’s been suggested that the Greens will never win real working-class support.
I was elected as a Dublin City Councillor 28 years ago. I was recently elected again in the North Inner City. A large percentage of my votes come from working-class communities, who see Green solutions as part of what they want from their politicians, and that can mean decent housing in a decent environment, tackling crime. There’s often an attempt to pigeon-hole Green issues. In my political career I talk about housing, transport, education, the ordinary issues that affect ordinary people’s lives.
The Green view of the world seems to be in conflict with the concept of economic growth.
You get environmental challenges if you have very rapid growth. There’s a lot of talk about Green growth. We need to look at growth that’s good for the planet and growth that isn’t. More car crashes increase our GDP through increased hospital costs and insurance claims. But it’s not good for communities or the planet. But if we have more investment in walking and cycling it means less oil is used and we’re healthier, hospital costs are reduced and obesity is tackled. We need to move away from the old-style matrix such as GDP and look at a quality of life matrix or indices. New Zealand is having this discussion at the moment.
What else do we need to do?
We need to invest in community. We need to invest in clean air, clean water, clean food. All this would be good for community, and maybe even good for green GDP as well.
It’s ironic surely that you yourself will have a far bigger personal carbon footprint now, flying over and back to Europe to attend parliament?
Look. There are always ironies. I try to do my best. I was over in Brussels this week and I went by train and ferry there and back. I won’t be able to do that every time, but I’ll try where I can to limit my carbon footprint. It won’t be easy.
Does the Green Party have a Brexit policy?
We would favour a second vote in the UK. But we know that’s a matter for the people of the UK to decide. We’d love to see the UK remain within the EU. All the big global and local issues we’ve talked about require co-operation across boundaries and borders. But if we retreat back into the nation state there are risks of increasing tensions within Europe.
Have you spoken to your colleagues in the UK about Brexit?
I met several of my Green MEP colleagues in Brussels last week, Including Molly Scott Cato who’s the current Green Party MEP [for South West England].
Could the Irish government have handled Brexit better?
The UK made its own decisions. I think the Irish government has worked very hard to dialogue with both the UK and the EU. It’s not easy. We need to work closely with our colleagues in Northern Ireland and in the UK to maintain a strong relationship. A huge amount of our trade is with the UK. We share strong cultural and historical links, and irrespective of what happens over the summer, we have to ensure we work well with them. But obviously it presents challenges in the broader European context. We’ll be an island off an island that will probably have left the EU. I will be making the case that this needs to be figured into EU policy.
Mick Wallace and Clare Daly – also new MEPs – have protested against US planes landing in Shannon on the way to the Middle East. Would you support them?
I’d prefer not to see US military flights coming through Shannon. When we went into government with Fianna Fail 12 years ago, we sought that (commitment) from our colleagues in government. They weren’t willing to concede on that issue. The Irish Green Party doesn’t want to see an increase in defence spending. We’d be much happier to see us paying our own defence forces a living wage. We should concentrate on improving their pay and conditions and continuing our honourable record in the context of neutrality and being peacekeepers around the world.
Would you offer a welcoming handshake to Donald Trump when he arrives?
That may be one of the occasions I’d take up a megaphone! I’d make a clear distinction between the office that he holds and the policies he pursues. It’s important that our Government recognises the long-standing relationship between our two countries and that they welcome him as the leader of the USA, while we still disagree with the racist policies he pursues on both the domestic and foreign stage. I will be protesting against his policies.
Are you vegetarian?
No, I’m not. I love meat. But I don’t eat it every day. I would certainly encourage us all to cut down on meat consumption and reduce our carbon footprint.
Is eating meat your worst habit, or do you have others?
(Laughs) I rather leave that for others to judge. I do my best. I certainly spend too much time on my bike speaking into a mobile phone. That’s something I’ll try to do less of.
Isn’t that illegal?
I’m usually stopped when I’m doing it!