An interview with John Barry


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John Barry is Associate Director of the Institute for a Sustainable World and Reader in Politics both at Queen’s University Belfast.  He was educated at University College Dublin and the University of Glasgow.  From 2003-2009 he was co-chair of the Green Party in Northern Ireland and was a key figure in the creation of an all-island Green Party launched in December 2006. John has stood for local and Assembly elections, and is currently chair of the North Down Green Party.  He is a founding member of Holywood Transition Town and a member of the All Island Transition Network and is Chair of the Management Council of Holywood Steiner school.  His publications include Rethinking Green Politics (1999, Sage) and Environment and Social Theory, 2nd edition (2007, Routledge). He is currently writing a book on Green Politics in Ireland: The Political Economy of Unsustainability and the reclaiming of republicanism (with Pluto Press). John’s blog is the Marxist Lentilist.

How did you get involved in politics – and why the Green Party?

At University College Dublin in the mid 1980s I became interested in left-wing and radical politics.  I drifted around different groups without joining for a long while: Socialist Workers, Communist Party, Greens, The Workers’ Party.  I eventually joined the Workers’ Party and became active in my local area of North Dublin. I was always rather suspicious of the simplistic analysis offered, but nonetheless was attracted, as a working class young man, to the passionate commitment to bettering the lot of the majority in society.

In my third year I was taught by a visiting English political theorist Dr. Alan Carter, who offered a course on socialism and capitalism – though he spent a lot of the time talking about anarchism, and though this he introduced me to some serious problems with socialism/Marxism, and thus to Green politics.  I became involved in the ‘Ecology Society’ in University and got involved in the Irish Green Party, Comhantaos Glas, organising events and debates on campus and also as I recall stuffing envelopes and writing letters for one of the campaigns to get a Green – John Gormley I think! –  elected to the Irish Upper Chamber; the Seanad.  My academic research interests were firmly within green politics and I proceeded to do an MA Dissertation in UCD, and then later a PhD on the topic at the University of Glasgow (1991-1994) which was published as a book, Rethinking Green Politics, in 1999.

I’ve continued to specialise in the normative aspects of green politics, but increasingly have become more interested in ‘political economy’ since the weak spot of green politics to me has always been its lack of a robust political economic analysis and more importantly attractive and realistic alternatives.  This has definitely changed in the last number of years. Green political economy (as I term it) has advanced in leaps and bounds theoretically and analytically especially in relation to globalisation, and practically in terms of realistic economic alternatives to capitalist models or inappropriate and unsustainable over development.

How do you think the decisions of the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last month have influenced the agenda on climate change?

The non-decisions made at Copenhagen were predictable – I was interviewed by BBC Ulster in early December and said there would be no deal at Copenhagen but that 2010 would be when states would work towards a post-Kyoto deal.

Do you think the expectations of environmentalists were unrealistic?

No, not at all.  It was not unrealistic to expect the world’s governments to come together on the basis of the scientific evidence that a binding post-Kyoto Treaty was needed to being the transition to a low carbon economy globally.  What is clear now is that this transition has to be a JUST one – i.e. that the rich minority world who have caused the problem share most of the burden and not the majority in the developing world, while this just transition is also about protecting those on a low income and in fuel poverty in any transition to a renewable energy economy.

Are you more or less optimistic about real change than you were before the summit took place?

I remain unconvinced that we will see real change in tacking the issue of climate change until it is firmly linked to the related issues of peak oil and gas, and the need to decarbonise the economy.  Until governments admit to peak oil (as the International Energy Agency did finally in its November 2008 report), the debate and policy options in relation to climate change lack traction and plausibility.  Public support can be garnered for profound shifts in energy and the economy if governments around the world a) recognise the reality of peak oil and that we have around a decade or so to seriously begin to shift to a new energy economy and b) governments in the developed world recognise and communicate to citizens how utterly dependent they are on fossil fuels for everything from food, to transport, to electricity production, to heat.

Politicians are much better at short-term thinking but action on the environment requires a longer term perspective. Do you have any ideas about how this could be encouraged?

There are a number of ways in which this could be done – here I list a few:

  • Do as they’ve done in the UK and introduce a Climate Change Bill which commits the government to implementing progressive cuts in CO2 emissions and plans to decarbonise its economy.  The Republic, thanks to the Green Party, will introduce a similar act later this year.
  • Remove serious sustainability issues – such as those in relation to depletion of critical natural resources, climate change and energy – from the vagaries of one government repealing legislation or policy that a previous government implemented by placing these within a Constitutional setting.  Many Constitutions around the world now have environmental provisions, guaranteeing environmental and related rights for citizens and obligations on behalf of governments.
  • Mandatory sustainability training for ALL politicians, civil servants and policy makers.  If, as I firmly believe, the transition away from unsustainability is the challenge and opportunity of the 21st century facing all societies, then we need to develop the capacity and knowledge of our decision-makers for that.  At the moment it is patently clear most senior decision-makers have only a very basic grasp of the issues and even less grasp of the scale of what we need to do.
  • Mandatory sustainability proofing of ALL legislation and policy – perhaps along the lines of sector 75  Equality proofing we have here in Northern Ireland.
  • All public authorities to have a statutory duty to implement sustainable development – as in the Welsh Assembly.

Climate change denial is an attractive way to deal with the problem for those of us without power, isn’t it?

Denial is always attractive for those who have most to lose from acknowledging there is a serious problem.    And in my view its mostly those with power (and whose power is threatened by climate change policies and the transition to a low carbon and renewable energy economy) who are loudest in denying the scientific reality and evidence for climate change.  Climate change denial is being actively promoted by some corporations and right-wing economic interests, especially think tanks in the United States, for whom the regulation and state interference in the market which Climate Change requires is anathema.   It’s interesting to think that it’s (in my experience) only right-wing, free market zealots who seem to be pushing climate change denial.  Think of how in Ireland it’s only people like David Vance here in Northern Ireland (formerly of the UK Unionists and now senior member of the rejectionist Traditional Unionist Voice) who are in denial.  It’s also worrying that influential opinion formers such as the radio and TV presenter Pat Kenny in the Republic are also pushing and promoting a climate change denial agenda.

The related issues of climate change and peak oil – both of which heard the beginning of the end of the carbon-based economy (and indeed the capitalist  model upon which it is based) – are now within a ideological battle for ‘hearts and minds’, a battle that is getting increasingly dirty.

Northern Ireland Greens have achieved successful connections with Green parties in the Republic and in Britain. Could you outline how this works and the lessons for other parties?

There has been an all-island Green Party since December 2006, Northern Ireland is a regional council of this all-island Party.  Since all Green Parties of these islands (Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales) would have more or less the same policy commitments and shared values, we think of ourselves as a party of these islands.  We have strong East-West links, especially with the Scottish Greens: we have worked with them on common campaigns such as waste from North Down being sent to Scotland in violation of the EU proximity principle for waste disposal, and provided mutual help at election times. We’ve also joined with the England and Wales Green Party and the Scottish Greens on wider campaigns, such as anti-Trident and repeal of the Act of Settlement forbidding Catholics to the British throne. The latter should not be interpreted as the Green Party endorsing monarchy!  It was based on our shared analysis that the existence of this historical relic gives succour and rationale to sectarianism here in Northern Ireland as well as parts of Scotland.

The lessons for other parties would be to adopt an ‘islands’ perspective, or what I sometimes call an ‘archipelagic view’, and in particular to view Northern Ireland as ‘the place where the islands meet’.  This islands perspective is part of the Green analysis of Northern Ireland as being in large part a conflict based on the unfinished projects of two failed state-building processes in which both main communities appeal (explicitly and implicitly) to their respective ‘patron states’ for support and identity confirmation, but in a manner which reduces identity to a zero-sum game. Alternatively, an archipelagic view allows for overlapping and nested identities of Britishness, Irishness and other, as well as from a Green point of view focusing on other equally, if not more important, identities and interests as workers, parents, carers and so on.

We pragmatically accept that some people are British and want the union, some are Irish and seek a united Ireland. Unlike other parties like the Alliance we do not condemn or criticise this, but unlike all the other parties in Northern Ireland from Sinn Fein to the DUP, SDLP, UUP, PUP, we do not base our politics on this narrow ‘bi-nationalist’ foundation.  As part of an internationalist green movement and universal values, this would simply be impossible for us.

In my opinion, the Green Party fought an excellent European election campaign in Northern Ireland last summer, with a good candidate and a strong message. What is the Party’s strategy for increasing its support in future, at all levels of government?

Our strategy is based on a number of considerations ranging from targeting young voters and encouraging them to vote Green and not develop ‘bad habits’ of voting for sectarian or nationalist parties (here I include both Irish and British nationalist parties i.e. unionists).

Getting involved in grassroots movements such as Transition Towns, campaigns for a ‘Green New Deal’ and the creation of a ‘green collar’ economy and employment in Northern Ireland and the island as a whole which should appeal to everyone, especially trade unions and the wider labour movement. It’s also important to frame Green politics within the context of demands for greater equality, justice and democracy – and resist lazy media attempts to pigeon-hole us as narrow one-issue environmentalists. We are selectively targeting areas for seats, especially South Belfast, North Down, Derry/Donegal, Newry/Dundalk and South Down.

We are certainly living in politically ‘interesting times’ across these islands. What do you think will be the implications for Northern Ireland?

I think the current economic crisis has resulted in a potential for more progressive politics, and the crisis has created space for radical thinking. Who would have thought two years ago the UK and Ireland would part-nationalise the banking sector?  Of course the problem here is that what we’ve seen (so far) is the socialisation of risk not the socialisation of benefits from that sector and this is a major problem.  But I do think there is a great opportunity for parties such as the Greens and Labour in the Republic as well as elsewhere to draw a line under ‘business as usual’ and trenchantly dismiss those voices and interests for who the only strategy is for us to return to the economic model we had in 2007.  The neo-liberal, laissez-faire financial, export-led globalisation model is broken – and with it the neo-classical economics ideology which underpinned it.  The latter is something I’ve long criticised in my academic work and have continued this in the public realm through my postings and debates on the Taskforce for Action on Social Change (TASC) Progressive Economy website.

I think for Northern Ireland the implications of this shift in the global economy and economic strategy have yet to really take root, in part because the regional economy here is relatively protected from the worst excesses of the downturn because of the public sector. It is depressing to witness the stale economic debate here based as it is on the globalised, open, export-orientated model of the failed Celtic Tiger – but like so many aspects of public life in Northern Ireland the past has a necrophilic hold on the limited imaginations of our politicians and policy-makers. Northern Ireland, together with Scotland and the Republic, could become the ‘Saudi Arabia’ of off and on-shore wind energy, which through a European super grid and distributed, local ‘smart grids’ could showcase this island as an exemplar of a decarbonising, green, innovative economy.  Yet where we could and should be leading this ‘paradigm shift’, all the signs are (with the exception of some progress the Party has made in coalition government in the Republic) that the dead hand of ‘business as usual’ is still strong.

There has been talk of moving away from the current voting system in the NI Assembly, for example towards weighted majority voting. What is your view on this?

The current voting system is the outcome of a ‘peace process’ and therefore has to be seen in that context.  The requirement to designate as ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ or ‘other’ not only copper-fastens ethno-nationalist/sectarian politics, but offers no incentive to designate as ‘other’, as the Green Party in the Assembly does, since these votes count for nothing.   The Green Party was the only party who in advance of the 2007 Assembly elections did not pre-determine the designation of any elected Green MLA. We left that to the judgement of the person elected and the Party to decide, meaning we could have a situation of some Green MLAs designating as unionist and some as nationalist, some as other, perhaps depending on the balance of political forces within the Assembly – which really highlights how non-nationalist/sectarian the Green Party is.

I fully understand the legitimate reasons and rationale why we have the current Assembly voting and designation system, along with the ‘involuntary coalition’ feature of the Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland. However, I would like to think that over time as trust develops (or mistrust declines) between the nationalist and unionist communities, alongside the evolution of ‘post-conflict’ politics – such as the issues the Green Party raises about the economy, quality of life, public services, tackling socio-economic inequality and creating a new green, sustainable economy – that the Assembly will reform its voting, designation and government creation procedures.   But while this has to come from the people, there is a responsibility on parties, such as the Green Party, to lead that debate and hold open the possibility that the current system of governance in Northern Ireland where power is not shared but rather ‘shared out’ between the two biggest parties, is not fixed forever and can be (and indeed should be) reformed in the future.

You have a demanding job and a young family as well as a political life. How do you cope with all the demands on your time?

Well, I’m hyperactive, don’t need much sleep, can function well on a diet of coffee in daylight and beer and wine in the evenings!!  Above all else I am driven by the need to do all the things I do, I have a great sense of urgency,  whether it’s my chairing of the Management Council of my daughters’ Steiner school in Holywood and seeking to get it recognised and supported by the state, Holywood Transition Town and the all-island Transition Town network of working with and preparing communities for the inevitable transition away from oil and coping with climate change, my Green Party activism or my academic/scholarly work, all are related in many ways and this inter-connections means it’s usually time, rather than anything else, that constrains me.  While my two daughters are probably the most politically educated 11 and 5 year olds in Northern Ireland due to the fact I have brought them and occasionally still do bring them to political and other activist meetings and events, my full time job as a academic is thankfully flexible enough to allow me time with them. I’m also lucky enough to have an extremely supportive partner who understands the reasons why I’m out a couple of times a week in the evenings and all the other time commitments involved in being an engaged citizen.

Denis Healey famously said that all politicians should have a ‘hinterland’.  What’s yours?

Hmm…I listen to music a lot, all the time – on my bike as I cycle the 28 miles from where I live to Queen’s University – a great de-stressor in many ways and I enjoy whizzing past traffic jams in the morning!    I have been learning the tin whistle on and off for a couple of years and intend to master a couple of tunes good enough to do a turn at a session.   Most of my reading is work related or policy/politics/activism, so it’s non-fiction, but I do read poetry – with a busy life it’s quicker than a book.  A weekly treat is all the papers and lots of coffee on Saturday mornings – a household ritual – and my weekend would not be relaxing without the Guardian’s Review section which I devour each Saturday.   My hinterland if you call it that is people, all the people I interact with on a regular basis, but I try to reserve a special place for my family and home life and enjoy nothing better than ‘doing nothing’ with my daughters and partner.  I try as much as possible to follow the sage advice of that great philosopher Winnie the Pooh: “Sometimes I sits and thinks.  And sometimes I just sits”.

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Jenny Muir is a lecturer who lives and works in Belfast. You can also contact Jenny through e-mail: s.belfastATyahooDOTcoDOTuk

3 Responses

  1. Robert McCann.

    March 1, 2010 11:00 pm

    John Barry, during my time at Queens a couple of years ago introduced me to Brian Baxter,et al and of course the ‘great’ Robert Goodin and this has been a revelation and as he (Goodin) states, and in terms of a ‘green theory of value’ no amoumnt of ‘coping’ or ‘negoiating’ with nature, once we have disturbed it will restore its ‘value imparting property’…he goes on to say…

    …the more [we] succeed in bringing everything [in nature] under [our control] the less there is of a world that there is outside of and larger than ourselves in which we can set our life’s work…

    And therein lies the collective human challenge…how do we harness our natural resources in such way that they benefit not only the whole of this generation, but many hundreds of future generations? Baxter seems to argue that …in the course of meeting life needs, human beings will deplete the life suppport systems sooner or later…’

    And therfore is there as Barry argues ‘not only a practical duty, but also a moral duty to sustain and save our world…ecological stewardship is a moral tradition…

    Of course one persons (or countries) morality is anothers desperate need, and therefore to what extent does there exist a moral right to extract, harness, waste and deplete ‘rightfully’ owned natural resources…the Irish Government seems according to those in authority to have a constitutional and moral ‘right’ to allow Shell to extract oil from the west coast of Ireland…and sell it back to us for profit sure why not!!!…

    So maybe Heidegger was on to something when he observed;

    …that the world is darkening. The essential elements of this darkening are: the destruction of the earth, the standardisation of man, the pre-eminence of the mediocre…

    Though I am encourged by those wise people like Grandfather David Monongye from The Hopi who reminds us that

    The earth is your Mother, she holds you, the sky is your Father, he protects you. The rainbow is your sister she loves you. The wind is your brother he sings to you. Never a time was this not so Hoka-hey-ho.


    Note extracts from Barry J. (2008) Vulnerability & Virtue: Democracy, Dependency & Ecological Stewardship
    Baxter B. (1999) Ecologism & Introduction.
    Goodin R. (1992) Green Political Theory

  2. Pope Epopt

    March 3, 2010 12:14 pm

    Mr. Barry does seem to be part of a hopeful current in the UK Greens that sees the need for political economy in the Green movement and that this necessarily must be post-capitalist.

    If only some of this perspective could leak into the technocratic and ossified outlook of na Glasraí in government. Watching Eamon Ryan and John Gormley parrot the FF line on NAMA and fiscal contraction is just painful beyond endurance.

  3. Robert McC

    March 3, 2010 4:19 pm

    If you have’nt already; try and catch some of Barry’s publications…pragmatic green political thinking is not neccessarily a cop out, rather it is a real- politik, and this can mean having to share a tent with the pesky capitalists, but only to the extent that you get the chance to kick them in the ‘nuts’ (and yes most of our politicians are men wearing shiny arsed suits…)…at least you can enjoy making thier eyes water…though Dan Boyle seems to be the only member of the Green Party to have the cahjoonas to kick them in the cahjoonas…

    Dont know how to spell cahjoonas…anyway…