He discusses his political priorities, the Green New Deal and the fracking debate with Peter Cheney.
As his party’s name suggests, Steven Agnew sees the Green Party as having the environment’s best interests at heart. All other parties, in his opinion, view environmental policy as only an after-thought while the Greens see the importance of linking it up with economic and social policy.
“It’s seeing the whole thing as a whole,” he comments. “We need to move forward towards a sustainable economy. Now’s the time to do it when the traditional economic agenda has been shown to fail in the banking collapse and the current recession.”
Business as usual, to him, is not an option. Boosting construction would cause another property bubble and the plastic bag tax is an example of the Executive’s “piecemeal” approach to the environment: “That’s something we support but that doesn’t make it a green government.”
Many political careers have involved marches. Steven Agnew’s started on one, when students from Queen’s University converged on Belfast City Hall, to protest against the Iraq War in February 2003.
He was a graduate by then but was still interested in foreign affairs and social justice. On the way, he met Green Party co-leader John Barry and soon found that “a lot of the things I cared passionately about seemed to be what the Green Party stood for.”
Animal rights were also close to his heart but he “never really associated” those issues “with politics because of the nature of politics in Northern Ireland.” American punk singer Jello Biafra, who encouraged those disillusioned with politics to “become the alternative”, was another early influence.
After campaigning for Barry in the 2003 Assembly elections, he joined the party primarily as a social justice campaigner rather than an environmentalist but Barry helped him see the interconnectedness of social issues and environmental issues.
Looking back, though, Agnew concedes that while the Green slogan was “think global, act local … our emphasis was too much on the ‘think global’ and I think the ‘acting local’ has come in relatively recent years.”
The turning point for him was working for Green MLA Brian Wilson in the Assembly and seeing the “actual mainstream agenda” of policy. Agnew started working at Parliament Buildings in November 2007 and finds that MLAs are “quite respectful” in contrast to his brief term on North Down Borough Council in 2011 where “people still wanted to tell you why they thought you were wrong” even outside the council chamber.
Mature policy “still needs to be reached” as the Executive has “no corporate responsibility”. Parties act as being in government when they run a department but take up an opposition role when someone else is in charge.
He also finds parties “speaking out of both sides of their mouth” across the board. The UUP, he notes, lets its liberal MLAs attend gay rights events but also puts out ‘flag-wavers’ to make a conservative pitch. The SDLP presents itself as a pro-public services party but also supports cutting business taxes. “You can’t have strong public services and low taxes,” he comments.
Agnew’s key priority is his private member’s Bill to make government departments work together on planning, commissioning and delivering children’s services, which he believes will bring real benefits to families.
He’s working to get support from other parties and sees it as “a real chance of coming away from my term in the Assembly and saying: ‘I did that. I made that happen.’”
In one of this year’s more unusual political stories, opinion has been divided over the hydraulic fracturing (fracking) of rock to release shale gas in Fermanagh: a process endorsed by Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster and the DUP.
Fracking is opposed by the Greens and Sinn Féin. Other parties have varying degrees of scepticism.
NUI Galway geologist Tiernan Henry has put forward a measured view of the technology (agendaNi issue 52, pages 68-69) and suggested that the biggest issue is the actual quality of the debate which has been “quite polarised to date.” Surely opposition to fracking is an example of Green populism?
In response, Agnew quotes Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University, who explains the risks by multiplying the probability of a leak into the water table (1 in 150) by the number of wells.
“It’s the potential of what could happen, what the risk is, and I think we do need to be honest about that. The opposition needs to say: ‘Fracking’s perfectly safe as long as nothing goes wrong but there are a percentage of times where it goes wrong and we take our experience in that from America.’”
Tamboran has promised to manage fracking better than other operators but Agnew notes that all companies would take that line. The firm has a limited track record, having been established in 2009, and he regards its promised investment of £6 billion in the Northern Ireland economy as a “ludicrous figure”.
Opposition, it is put to him, gives him the freedom to back any campaign, in contrast to being in government. He maintains that he does give credit where it’s due, even praising Sammy Wilson for levying large retailers.
“I hope that we will be perceived, when we are opposing things, with credibility,” he comments. “We can stand and say: ‘We genuinely oppose this. It’s not just [that] we’re in opposition, you’re doing it and we say no.’”
As an Enterprise, Trade and Investment Committee member, he also has a duty to hold the Minister to account.
During the Assembly’s debate on fracking last December, Foster explained that her department had issued four licences for oil and gas exploration. However, Agnew points out that the department and Minister are legally the same entity and Minister Foster summarised the licence applications in a letter to the committee dated 18 October 2010.
The work programme in Tamboran’s licence also includes a “coring, fracturing and testing programme” in years four and five. The Minister has denied that this is a licence for fracturing but has stated that the programme would be subject to planning permission and an environmental impact assessment.
Green New Deal
Agnew and his party haven’t given up on the Green New Deal. No party opposed his amendment to put more money into the scheme but the existing funding (£4 million) has since been withdrawn and moved to the boiler replacement scheme by Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland.
“That seems incredible to me, that you can get that level of support for something and then it gets scrapped, when the money was there,” he says. Agnew emphasises that the Green New Deal was a job creator, which ties in with his third priority: promoting public works, funded by Invest NI’s underspend.
“We have to acknowledge that the public sector can, and should in my view, be given a boost, at a time when the private sector is finding it difficult to do so,” he states. “It’s not a case of creating a bigger public sector. I mean, a lot of the delivery of these jobs would be by the private sector.”
Maximising home insulation is a frequently cited goal of the Green New Deal. In Finland, 100 per cent of households achieved full home insulation and double-glazing by 2003 and the Arctic country has 45 per cent fewer winter deaths than the UK.
“This is about how we govern in Northern Ireland and about how we value our infrastructure,” he states. “We’re spending £500 million on a single road and we’re spending modest amounts on fuel poverty.”
The Green Party manifesto opposes any cut in the top rate of corporation tax but does seek a reduction in the small profits rate. Sammy Wilson’s admission that no cut could take place in the current Budget period came after an oral question by Agnew on its affordability.
Finally, the Greens are campaigning for an end to confidentiality on political donations. They were the first local party to publish the names of their donors, in February 2011, and Agnew is “delighted” that Alliance has now followed suit. He is “trying to shame the other parties into doing it voluntarily” and also lobbying the Secretary of State to change the legislation.
“If we allow another extension of this, I think politics loses all credibility,” Agnew predicts. “By and large, the vast majority of us take part in the political process without the fear of threat or intimidation but we’re saying that donors somehow would be different in that. I don’t buy that idea. I very much believe that the continuing secrecy of political donations is due to political parties wanting to hide their financial dealings.”
The Greens polled 6,031 first preferences in the 2011 Assembly election and 6,317 at council level, delivering one MLA and three councillors. Discussing his party’s future, Agnew is familiar with North Down’s reputation for voting in minor parties and independents “but actually the major reason why the Green Party got its first MLA in North Down is because that’s where it started its campaigning.”
Larger constituencies hinder smaller parties but he is targeting a second Assembly seat and wants the party to break through in Belfast City Council and win more seats in North Down. In summary, it faces a familiar dilemma for small parties: “We always have the tension of ensuring that we keep what we have and growing.”
Profile: Steven Agnew MLA
Aged 32, Steven was born in Dundonald and studied philosophy at Queen’s and worked with the Simon Community in a homeless hostel after graduation. He joined Brian Wilson’s staff as a researcher in November 2007.
Family (a partner and their son and daughter) takes up much of his time. Named after Man United’s Stevie Coppell, he is a Reds fan, and a vegan and enjoys gigs, cooking and growing vegetables. A fan of Woody Allen’s films, he is also a regular viewer at the Queen’s Film Theatre.