One of the primary challenges facing the climate justice movement is the ability to translate environmental and political jargon. At its core, the movement has to be inclusive, accessible, fair and all-encompassing – but if we cannot get Green Party or climate-focused TDs like Saoirse McHugh elected to the Dáil, we don’t stand a chance of creating widespread, structural change. Why are voters so afraid of people like Saoirse? Why do radical alterations scare us, when it’s obvious that our current neoliberal capitalist, free-market system simply does not work? The media has a role to play, but the facade of politicians who pretend to prioritise the environment is as dangerous as ever following this election.
Saoirse McHugh, a native of the Achill Islands, is a spokesperson for rural communities who are fearing the loss of their industries and cultural traditions. With beef farmers and turf cutters being scrutinised for their respective industry’s damaging nature, the pressure to alter lifestyles is increasing. However, the last thing they want to hear is representatives from Dublin who are oblivious to agricultural life preaching about the unsustainability of farming. McHugh — who has a Masters in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security — burst onto the scene in the European elections last year, slamming rival Peter Casey in a memorable debate on Prime Time. The 30-year-old became a viral sensation, and the rest is history: A politician can now become an online celebrity with one sentence, especially when they’re relatable as human beings. Has she harnessed her people skills specifically for communicating her climate action messages?
“I definitely see the value in it, and I wish it was some well thought out strategy – but I think I’ve just ended up in politics so I continued to speak like a normal person,” Saoirse told STAND News. “I can see why people go into politics and start to curate and speak a different way. While it’s not intentional, it’s really important because, at the end of the day, politics is day-to-day.
“I think it leads to a separation between the people and politicians. They think, ‘Oh I could never be a politician because I don’t understand their ideas – I’m missing something when I talk to them’. We’ve come to expect a certain type of bluster and performance from our politicians. If someone really knows what they’re talking about, and if they’re trying to communicate in good faith, you should be able to understand it. Otherwise, it’s just bad communication, whether it’s intentional or not. Seeing more of a person’s everyday life reflected from our elected representatives would be good for us as a country, I assume.”
Many young campaigners and recent climate converts watched the election progress just to root for McHugh. While she didn’t get elected to the 33rd Dáil, there could be a possibility of seeing her on the NUI Seanad panel. If we learned one thing about her over the last year, it’s that she doesn’t give up easily. The accumulation of 4,177 votes is also worthy of high praise.
Electing people with a nuanced view of policy-making for rural Ireland is absolutely imperative for Ireland’s move towards a greener future, yet the Green Wave didn’t make much traction outside of Dublin – especially with Sinn Féin’s unprecedented success. This does not mean that climate change has been forgotten in the eyes of the electorate, it simply means that our nation cannot see past the disasters of housing and health – our future has been robbed from us by a centre-right Government who unleashed austerity measures.
For those of us living paycheck-to-paycheck, out on the streets, terrified of landlords, on a waiting list to see a consultant or even get a bed in the hospital for paediatric chemotherapy treatments; the Green wave is a distant stream. Eventually, things will have to change, and in a radical manner. Much of the country won’t face this shift unless they are given fair alternatives to their current way of life, and how can we ask anything less of people? Local representatives who understand their area’s resources reaching the governmental level to enact legislative change is one answer, as well as the realisation that health and housing are undeniably green issues. Every form of injustice relates to the climate.
“I think over the last 10 years, the young Greens are five or 10 years ahead in terms of communicating climate action through people’s everyday experience,” McHugh comments. “With climate movements in Ireland, the focus in the future will be more heavily focused not on how we reduce climate emissions, but also what society do we want to live in. It isn’t just one policy or one box that we’ll tick. It will be how we totally transform society forever, and how we’ll be living in 70 years.”
Paying turf cutters to sequester carbon is one potential answer, but what about beef farmers? They could monetise themselves by helping carbon sinks on wetlands or boglands, or get paid for having wildlife on a farm, according to the environmentalist. Her disapproval of a carbon tax stance has garnered some controversy, but Saoirse merely acknowledges that in rural areas, it may just encourage vulnerable people to turn off their heating and sit in the cold, rather than enact crucial change.
Speaking to other publications just before the election, McHugh said:
“I spent way too long at doors and way too long at shops talking to people. You can’t rush people and say ‘vote for me. Bye now’. If you’re looking for somebody’s vote, you have the courtesy of listening to them.”
Mayo has incredible potential in terms of its natural land and water resources, as well as wind energy. Keeping these resources within the local economy, rather than offering them to multinational corporations who don’t understand the country itself is a key priority.
Mayo needs a 50-year plan, according to McHugh. Her honesty, passion and sincerity mark her out as different, but the main reason she tends to be described as a ‘ breath of fresh air’ is simply her blunt way of speaking, which is in total opposition to her fellow politicians. She doesn’t hide any of her views, which party leader Eamon Ryan is totally in support of, and often once a member of the public speaks to her, they walk away singing her praises. McHugh is more radical than the standard Green party member and policy, refusing to prop up Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, but exerts caution in the countryside.
“My ideal country would be no state, devolved communities organising themselves, but I feel like in the situation we’re in, we have to get involved in politics. We’re so far away from revolution, even though I’d be like ‘hold them out, sharpen the guillotine!’” This recent JOE.ie video has racked up 241,000 views thus far on Twitter alone, but as always, certain comments underneath are rude, derisive and mocking – her sarcastic sense of humour clearly being misconstrued. While Irish people constantly criticise our Government and its policies (or lack thereof), nobody offers any solutions. When someone like Saoirse, who speaks exactly what is on her mind and refuses to abandon her principles, offers a unique viewpoint – she is cast down by the public. Yet she hasn’t given up on her ability to enact legislative change, confirming to STAND News that she intends on applying for the Seanad nomination:
“I was enjoying not having plans until yesterday, and then I thought, ‘Right, I’m off to the Seanad and if I don’t get elected, then this is it’. I feel like I’ve been doing non-stop elections, since the European elections in 2018. You just have to keep going,” she says.
This week brought yet another disappointing European Union vote, which saw Fine Gael (minus Maria Walsh MEP) offering formal backing to 32 major gas infrastructure projects in a move critics say will lock Europe into burning fossil fuels for generations. Shannon LNG is part of this plan, and McHugh confirms her disappointment but admits that she wasn’t surprised at the result.
“It’s a disgrace, but I’m not shocked. It’s depressing, and even in eight years or in 10 years -we will definitely go over two degrees of temperature rise, or even four degrees – there will always be something to fight for. I’m regularly like, ‘I hate this’, and I just want to go to Thailand and drink all day long and be one of those white people you meet who lives there who shows you the best spots. Other days, I know that I wouldn’t be able to do that.
“It would be great if nobody has this burden, but they do,” she adds. “All we can do is fight for their future, we’re fighting for ourselves too really. Which is really depressing or really inflating, depending on which way you see it.”
Visionary young people who realise that centrist policies and moderate change is difficult to create actual progress are few and far between in the 33rd Dáil. Furthermore, we must acknowledge that few women were elected. The pressure which rests on the Green Party’s shoulders as the planet slowly descends into inescapable destruction is only rising. If you associate the Greens with negative policies, the public’s view of environmental change will simultaneously become negative – and we absolutely cannot afford to do this.
An anti-capitalist, a democratic socialist, left of Mao – whatever label you want to give her – Saoirse can convince you to see past the jargon and view the world through her eyes. She’s made her mark, and that’s what matters because young Greens living outside of urban areas can now envision a future where their voices are heard, even if they go against the grain.
Photo by Saoirse McHugh
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