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Dissecting the reaction to McHugh’s resignation

An Cailín Rua

An Cailín Rua
Anne-Marie Flynn

Last Thursday, Achill native Saoirse McHugh did what many had been expecting her to do for quite a while and announced her resignation from the Green Party.
McHugh had always maintained that the cause of environmentalism is inextricably linked with social progression, and that a holistic approach to improving people’s lives by addressing problems with housing issues, taxation, healthcare and agriculture goes hand in hand with achieving support for climate action. She did not support the Programme for Government. This move felt inevitable.
Predictably, immediately, the snide responses started rolling in. Why is she getting all this attention, and why does her opinion matter, when she has never been elected? (This, hilariously, from many prominent middle-aged men in the media, who presumably left their self-awareness at home for the day.) ‘She’s failed three times to be elected, so of course she is decrying electoral politics’. ‘She’s throwing tantrums because she didn’t get her way in the party’. ‘She’s undermining democracy’. Let’s address each of these in turn.
Firstly, I have never been elected, yet I am fortunate enough have a platform in this paper twice a month in which to express an opinion, with which people can and do agree or disagree at their own discretion. Hundreds of thousands of people have created their own platforms on social media, upon which they also express their opinions daily. All of us have a public voice if we choose to use it.
Saoirse McHugh has created her own platforms through her activism; that they attract attention is testament to the waves she has created in a stale political landscape. An Irish Times journalist sniffily questioned why the story was ‘even interesting’; apparently McHugh was ‘not entitled’ to the attention she was getting. Presumably the same journalist was unaware that the story was, at that time, among the ten most-read pieces on The Irish Times website, and had been covered by practically every media outlet in the country, which would be somewhat unusual if the story wasn’t of general interest.  
Secondly, Saoirse McHugh had the courage to put her name on a ballot paper not once, not twice, but three times. Three times more than most of her critics. This too ignores the fact that McHugh managed to raise the Green first-preference vote by over 400 percent in the Midlands-Northwest constituency in the 2019 European elections, and in the Fine Gael stronghold of Mayo, by 500 percent in the 2020 general election. All without the support of a huge party machine. She received more first preference votes than many of her Green party colleagues in the east, one of whom is now a Minister. She must have been doing something right.
McHugh stated that she doesn’t ‘believe that our pathway to a just and free society lies in electoral politics’, referencing the bullying and silence that undeniably takes place within parties, and the effort and energy taken up by elections and internal party struggles. I don’t agree with this – I’m really not sure what the realistic alternative to electoral politics would be – but she has a point.
Electoral politics does not drive change, it follows, responding to public demand and to activism. The Repeal of the 8th referendum is the most obvious example – activists paved the way and many elected politicians (with some notable exceptions) only stepped onto the pathway when it was politically safe to do so.
As for throwing tantrums, McHugh said: “I do hope I’m mistaken, and I hope this government exceeds all expectations. I’d happily be proven so wrong!” Quite a tantrum, indeed.  
As a native of Mayo, who has chosen to build a future here, I would be proud to be represented by a courageous and intelligent young woman with principles and integrity, who sees nuances, cares about social justice as well as climate justice – and who sticks to her word. We might be waiting another while, but McHugh’s resignation should serve as a reminder that democracy is not just about electoral politics – far from it. It is also about public engagement and grassroots activism. I hope we do not lose McHugh from this space, and maybe it’s time more of us got stuck in to drive the change we want to see.