‘Many who left Greens didn’t want to listen, it was black or white for them’

Pippa Hackett is not your typical Green Party member. That is if there is such thing as a typical Green Party member. Given the increasing disharmony among the various factions within the party it’s hard to know who is a quintessential Green.

Hackett ticks many boxes when it comes to biodiversity and climate action but she is also a beef farmer with a penchant for horseracing that might put her at odds with some of the purer Greens who are militant in their pursuit of animal rights.

Not only did she study equine science in university, she has also bred racehorses with her husband Mark. The couple’s most notable success was a horse called Madame Trop Vite which won the 2008 Flying Childers Stakes at Doncaster.

The Greens in the UK want to end the use of the whip in horseracing while in Australia they want to ban the sport. While they have strong views on greyhound racing, the Irish Greens do not have a policy on horseracing.

“The horseracing sector has kept its head clean in a way the greyhound racing sector didn’t,” the Minister of State for Land Use and Biodiversity tells the Irish Independent. “You hear the stories but you get that in any sector.”

Hackett is quick to defend the use of the whip, saying it protects horses and jockeys. “They do have odd races with just hands and heels and I think it would probably be nice to see a bit more of that, but then there’s the argument that the whip is there to sort of protect the other jockeys and horses because if a horse is drifting you might tend to move away from it,” she says.

“I think if you dig down into any sector you’re going to find issues. You have to strive to improve welfare all the time and I think they do do that. Even within national hunt we’ve seen changes in fence design and look at how the Grand National has changed over the years.”

It’s a cliché to describe a political career as meteoric but in Hackett’s case the description is apt. She put her name forward for her first local election in May last year and was elected to the Seanad by December. Things took a step backwards when she came sixth in the five-seat Laois-Offaly constituency during the General Election in January. However, she managed to keep her Seanad seat.

But the biggest surprise came when the Government was formed and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan decided to promote Hackett from the Seanad into the Cabinet.

The new minister’s farming and agriculture background made her an obvious choice for her portfolio – but did it breed resentment among Green TDs who were overlooked for the role? “It’s rare that a senator full stop gets put into Cabinet so that was a huge shock all around, for me as well as my colleagues,” she says.

After six months in government, she believes she can trust her Coalition colleagues in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael but admits being at first somewhat overawed during the protracted negotiations after the election. “It was like ‘oh my God, you know Simon Coveney’s going to be in a group and we’re going to be talking about this or that’ but you know at the end of the day we’re just people,” she says.

Once appointed to Cabinet, Hackett found herself at the centre of a political storm over a top-up to her ministerial salary. She wasn’t prepared for the public backlash but says she was happy to have the support of her fellow Ministers of State Jack Chambers of Fianna Fáil and Hildegarde Naughton of Fine Gael.

“I think on the whole the Greens, to be honest, do get targeted a lot because we are the sort of centre-lefty types in the Government,” she says.

This interview was conducted just after a Dáil vote on an EU trade deal with Canada was postponed because Green Party backbench TDs Neasa Hourigan and Patrick Costello spoke out against the agreement. Hackett is dismissive of the furore within the party over the Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement (CETA).

“It wasn’t an issue to the ground. If you ask 10 people out in the street there now ‘what do you know about CETA?’ they will not know anything about it,” she says. However, she concedes the mother and baby controversy and the issues around nurses’ pay have been difficult.

Hackett says she understands the “frustration” of her colleagues who “are in a government that they don’t want to be in”.

But she’s also critical of TDs who “want to run government via Twitter” and those who want to “reinterpret the Programme for Government”.

“Ultimately, the strength of a party is its cohesion and if people want to act independently of that then that’s going to be problematic,” she adds. “To be a Green I think you have to be able to listen and be honest and be trusting of people.

“When you look at many of the people who left, I wouldn’t say they didn’t have those characteristics but many didn’t want to listen, they didn’t want to listen to the alternatives, it was just black or white really.”

She says she “doesn’t know” if the Greens will survive the Government’s term in office without losing TDs due to the divisive nature of internal party politics.

“I’d like to see us try to regroup to that sort of green cohesion. I don’t know if it can be done, maybe it can’t be fixed, but I still think we should strive to maintain that green philosophy.”

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