Currently second only to the TUV’s Jim Allister in his tenure as leader of a Northern Ireland political party, the Green Party’s Steven Agnew has consistently contributed from the periphery of Stormont’s political discourse since 2011. He talks to David Whelan about the party’s upward trajectory, the future of Stormont and Brexit.
As an 18-year-old man Steven Agnew recalls the feeling of “euphoria” as he watched the widely broadcast handshake between David Trimble and John Hume to the backdrop of a U2 concert at the Waterfront Hall. The rationale of that evening’s events was intended to show unity ahead of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) referendum, which Agnew would vote in support of.
Speaking in the Assembly 15 years later, Agnew, by then leader of the Green Party and an MLA, would articulate his desire to see the Good Friday Agreement reformed. At that time there were evident tensions in the Assembly and while calls for change did not gather momentum, those same calls are now being reiterated as the likelihood that Stormont will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Agreement without an Assembly increases.
“I am a huge supporter of the GFA but undoubtedly the full promise has not been delivered,” he says. Agnew points out that while some parties have failed to fully enact the Agreement, others view the details as set in stone, explaining that there needs to be a change.
Over the course of the current impasse, Agnew has been vocal in his support for the introduction of a voluntary coalition, something he believes would allow for elected representatives to once again start making important local decisions.
“I think within the current political situation there is great opportunity. However, the Secretary of State needs to be imaginative. I’d love to be proved wrong but I believe the current talks process is heading towards no agreement. If that is the case then it needs to be recognised that we can’t keep doing the same things and hoping for different results, another talks process isn’t going to work. The alternative to coming up with a solution is to cede power to the British Government which is a move in the wrong direction.”
Offering a greater level of detail into how such a process might operate, Agnew describes the inspiration he took from his involvement in the Irish Constitutional Convention, a part-citizen assembly, established to discuss the proposed amendments to the Irish constitution. “I believe it’s the best form of genuine democracy I have seen and it’s a model that is on our doorstep.”
In his time as leader, the Green Party has almost quadrupled its membership and in 2016 supplemented hitherto Agnew’s solo representation of the party in the Assembly with the election of Clare Bailey to the South Belfast constituency.
Although having minimal representation, the party has punched above its weight in terms of effecting change in the Assembly, something Agnew is immensely proud of.
He unpacks the introduction of the Children’s Services Cooperation Bill, which he pioneered and which was enacted in 2015; the growing support for marriage equality, an issue upon which the Greens brought the first motion; and a furtherance of the debate around reproductive rights which Clare Bailey has led, as the most notable achievements to date.
It is for this reason that Agnew believes the Green Party has avoided the questions of relevance which engulfed some of the other smaller parties at Stormont.
“Northern Ireland’s politics, not the people, is socially conservative and so we are constantly fighting against the tide. As a Green that’s what you expect to be doing and the upside we take from that is that we have a very distinctive voice. Where there has been media commentary around the relevance of some parties after recent elections, I don’t think anyone questions the relevance of the Green Party. We have a unique voice in Northern Ireland politics and we have a distinct place.”
Asked whether this rhetoric lends itself to the Greens being a future opposition rather than a member of the Executive, if the party were to meet the necessary quota, Agnew replies: “Internally we don’t view ourselves as opposition because as a party you have to aspire to decision making. If you believe your policies are better than what is being offered then you want to be in a position to implement those.
“However, I think it’s important to know the difference between being in government and being in power. I would argue that in recent years, outside of the DUP and Sinn Féin other parties in Northern Ireland have been in government but not in power. I wouldn’t take the Green Party into government unless we had the power to implement change on the issues we have campaigned around.”
Whether such a hypothetical scenario will ever materialise depends on the ability of the Northern Ireland parties to end the current deadlock and configure a government. Agnew believes that top of the agenda should be the reform or removal of the Petition of Concern (PoC).
Asserting that its very existence is designed to prevent change, he outlines his belief that its removal could be a catalyst for getting the Assembly up and running again.
He adds: “Looking at some of the issues that are currently blocking the Assembly resumption, such as marriage equality and the Irish Language Act, a lot of these issues have cross-party support. Removal or reform of the PoC means that we don’t necessarily need behind-closed-door arrangements and encourages an open and transparent debate in the Assembly. The will of the Assembly could and should prevail. We could be getting Stormont back up and running tomorrow if we had some type of agreement either to scrap the PoC or change to a weighted majority system.”
A European party, Agnew’s consistent opposition to Brexit has seen the Greens spearheading legal challenges. Emphasising the detrimental impact Brexit could have on the UK and Northern Ireland, he believes that recent interactions have highlighted a greater possibility of a softer Brexit than first feared or a Brexit that is effectively meaningless.
“I think a big change that will hit home is when the 2019 European elections take place and we have no representation. I would equate it to taxation without representation. We will still be paying into the EU and we will still be following EU legislation but we will have no representation.
“I think the UK as a whole had more power than it realised through electing MEPs to the European Parliament.”
Agnew is on record calling for a second referendum to be held on the terms of the Brexit deal, if and when they are finalised. He believes that similar calls are now gaining momentum and even suggests that such a move could manifest itself as a “convenient out” for the Conservative Government.
Specifically on Northern Ireland, he voices his frustration at those who campaigned or supported Brexit without giving full consideration to what any future border would look like. Asked about the potential for a unique deal to be struck regarding Northern Ireland he says: “I think we are now at the point where the only option that is going to be feasible to all is the UK as a whole staying in the single market and the customs union.”
“I wouldn’t take the Green Party into government unless we had the power to implement change on the issues we have campaigned around.”
Agnew outlines that any form of unique deal for Northern Ireland, which the EU appears open to, would have to involve creating a border in the Irish Sea to minimise disruption, something he acknowledges many unionists find intolerable.
“I think this only highlights the irresponsibility of those who campaigned for Brexit but refused to acknowledge that a hard border would be likely or what it would look like.”
Commenting on the decision by Clare Bailey to step down as party deputy leader, while remaining within the party and serving as a Green MLA, Agnew believes that her decision to focus on representing South Belfast was the right one.
Green Party Leader Steven Agnew with the party’s new deputy leader Tanya Jones.
He highlights that the almost immediate disruption to her bedding in as an MLA at Stormont meant that balancing the dual roles has been made even tougher. Asked whether having an unelected deputy, in the shape of Tanya Jones, who won the contest on 1 October, was a step forward for the party, he replies: “I always say that other parties here have more seats than talent but we have more talent than seats.”
Agnew outlines that there is significant benefits in having a member of the party leadership who has not yet been elected and can concentrate solely on the party. He adds: “I am confident that Tanya Jones will make a huge contribution as deputy chair of the Green Party. Tanya is an activist through and through and her strong sense of social justice is recognised and valued inside and outside of the party.”
Emphasising the Green philosophy that power should never rest in one place for too long, Agnew states that his own transition is always something that is in his thoughts. Hinting that two full terms (10 years) is an appropriate time limit for one person to serve as leader, he says: “I didn’t get into politics for power but rather to implement change. When and who succeeds me will depend largely on the capacity of that person and their readiness. Being a largely undisputed leader is great in that it shows me I have the party confidence but undoubtedly, I want people knocking on my door because it will show the growth and maturity of our party. I want people coming forward, getting themselves elected and putting up a serious challenge to me and I look forward to that being the case.”
Concluding with his short-term ambitions for the future, Agnew says that there is an onus on the party to ensure that their elected representatives at both Assembly and council level can still deliver for their constituents in the absence of a government.
He adds: “For the party more generally we have council elections coming up in 2019 and we see a great opportunity to grow our council representation and create a solid base on which we can then strive to get more Greens into the Assembly.”