The Canada-EU trade agreement, formally known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) has been postponed by Green Party Teachtaí Dála (Members of Parliament) from being ratified in Ireland. Its Investor-State Court mechanism would favour the interests of foreign corporations and allow them to sue the host country’s government for losses in profit. I spoke to Green Party of Ireland TD Neasa Hourigan this Tuesday in a Global Green News original interview.

-Transcript of interview with Neasa Hourigan, Green Party of Ireland-

Hello, this is Sarah Cui from Global Green News. We are a new green media outlet based out of Montreal Canada. I want to welcome today the Green Party of Ireland TD Neasa Hourigan. Ms. Hourigan is the Green Party TD for Dublin Central, as well as the Green Party’s Finance & Health Spokesperson and Chair of the Policy Council. So honoured to have you here.

Hourigan: Thank you so much for having me.

So you were one of the major forces behind the postponement of a vote to ratify CETA in Ireland. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and European countries was originally to be voted on last December, and is now pending to be retabled in the Oireachtas in the new year. What were some of the responses from within the Green Party as of the latest discussion last week? And from what you’ve heard, is there a date on when CETA will be voted on in the Oireachtas?

Hourigan: Let me answer your second question first. I’ve been told that CETA will come before the Oireachtas again in February. So I’m obviously on high alert. And that’s as much as I know, I’m not sure if there’s an actual date.

I think that the party has obviously had a number of conversations. Now among the membership. We haven’t managed to organize a kind of a binding vote. Our party’s policy, let’s be clear, is to be fully against investor-state court mechanisms as they pertain to CETA. And to overturn that policy, you would need a vote by two thirds of the membership. So my position was as a chief negotiator to the coalition, which forms the government, that CETA and particularly the investor-state courts, which are not an EU competence, our domestic competence were not included in the programme for government that we negotiated. And we are also as a party against that particular mechanism in CETA and therefore, I would not be in a position to vote for the Oireachtas motion to ratify investor-state courts under CETA. That’s where we are right now.

I think for many of the membership, you know, CETA and in general global trade deals of this nature are very difficult to understand. They’re quite complex in their nature. And then on top of that the kind of legal ramifications of something like an investor-state court mechanism is even more hard to understand. And then on top of that, what I was trying to convey to people before Christmas, is not only the hard reality of investor-state court systems, which place you know, corporate welfare and corporate profits above the welfare of our citizens who we’re sworn to uphold, to protect and represent, but also the climate and nature – but that into the future, and for future generations,

these kinds of court mechanisms have a chilling effect on domestic legislation. So it’s not necessarily that they would change domestic legislation, but that they disincentivize national governments from being ambitious when it comes to climate change.

-NEASA HOURIGAN, GREEN PARTY OF IRELAND

Understood. Now, in mainstream media you may have been portrayed as one of the major opponents preventing this major trade agreement from going through. In your opinion, what is missing from mainstream discourse in Ireland on issues such as CETA on what it means for the environment?

Hourigan: I think Ireland suffers from a similar problem to every single country is that it’s incredibly difficult to communicate to the general public, how large macro issues around climate and trade and global finance and tax relate to the climate change that they see every day. So it’s very hard to explain to somebody who’s, for example, experiencing flooding, or is experiencing a milder winter than they’re used to, or a more severe winter that they’re used than they’re used to – why, for example, tax mechanisms in the EU is having an impact on our ability to implement climate action. That’s a very difficult thing to explain to people, I think.

My way of dealing with it is trying to bring it down to very simple things. The idea – that big corporations could sue the people of Ireland for their loss of profits, if the people of Ireland are trying to protect their climate, their natural habitat or in fact, our health – is wrong. In a very simplistic way, it’s wrong. Corporations should not be above domestic law, we should not have a court system that exists outside our domestic law, corporations should not have access to a different form of legality and legislation that everybody else does.

That is wrong, that is placing money and profit above people. And that will not solve the climate crisis.

-NEASA HOURIGAN, GREEN PARTY OF IRELAND

Agreed. In an interview in October of last year, you were asked to react on the fact that support for greens in the polls had fallen over 60%, among women and working class voters primarily. Are you concerned with the leader of your party, Eamon Ryan, aligning himself with center-right forces on subjects such as free trade and how that would impact the Green Party?

Hourigan: I think that we entered a coalition with two parties who were right of center. And that coalition agreement got a huge percentage of the membership support, it got 76%, I voted against that coalition. However, I’m very mindful that our members support it and believe that some climate action, some green agenda is better than no greenagenda. And I take that position very, very seriously.

However, I think that when you enter a government like that and, well for me anyway,

I’m a left-leaning politician, I would position myself on the left of the political spectrum, you’re constantly in a position of trying to represent that position in a way that makes sense, and that is true to the core principles of the green movement.

-NEASA HOURIGAN, GREEN PARTY OF IRELAND

For me, if climate action is to be enduring, you need to bring people with you. And that means that it’s, you know, more than anything, that it’s just for working class communities, that it’s well communicated, that it makes sense for people’s lives. If we don’t do that, then it becomes a surface exercise, it’s something that will not endure. And that’s the nub of it for me. It is very difficult to be in a center-right coalition as a center-left or left politician. And I think the dissent over CETA, and the fact that we managed to get it pushed back off the agenda, that is a prime example of why I’ve hung on in here.

I don’t know how much longer people like myself can hang on.

-NEASA HOURIGAN, GREEN PARTY OF IRELAND

But, CETA is a really good demonstration of, trying to put forward that sense of a global community of climate action, and how these particular systems link up to kind of force national governments’ best intentions. And it does feel right now, maybe that that that message doesn’t always get accepted by people at a higher level, but we have to keep on fighting, and hopefully I can keep fighting that fight.

Agreed, thank you for that. Last question: 3 of the top 10 investor-state dispute settlements, according to the Transnational Institute, are cases where a Canadian mining company is suing a host government for losses, be that Romania or Ecuador or Colombia. So what people don’t see is the years or even decades of pushback from grassroots movements, indigenous groups, people who risk having their drinking water contaminated. Now, if CETA is to go through in Ireland, what can be done still to hold foreign corporations – such as Canadian companies in Ireland – what do you propose can be done to hold them accountable? Can we invoke other international treaties or other regulatory tools to prevent foreign companies from exploiting the system?

Hourigan: I think if we push through CETA, that argument and that fight becomes immeasurably harder. I think if Ireland ratifies the investor-state court mechanism of CETA, there are 11 other countries who still haven’t actually put it through their Parliaments. I think Ireland is one of the few that has to have a parliamentary vote on us which makes it a very important kind of pressure point for CETA. I also think that Ireland is one of the few countries in the EU who has never in the past signed up to an investor-state court. And so we have a kind of a good reason and good argument for saying that we don’t want to do it this time.

And I guess the last point on that particular issue is that we know that you can renegotiate these deals. If we look at – and we can be as critical as we like over the Trump era – but the repudiation of NAFTA. (Which really, you know, the renegotiation of NAFTA didn’t amount to a whole lot. In the end, it was more of a renaming than anything). But one of the only things that it did achieve was to remove investor-state courts out of that agreement. And so it’s my position that if we did reject ratification of just this one aspect of CETA, not the entirety of CETA, just investor-state courts, I have no problem with trade in general, I think trade can actually be progressive. But investor-state courts are not progressive. And I think that we could repudiate that part of this and renegotiate investor-state courts out of the agreement.

So I’m not ready to say that it’s a done deal yet.

And I know that that’s something that within our domestic political sphere, that is part of the story they’re trying to tell: CETA is a done deal. Investor-state courts are a done deal. It’s not a done deal.

-NEASA HOURIGAN, GREEN PARTY OF IRELAND

Anything in politics that you have to vote on, is still a live issue. So first of all, I’m not giving up on CETA, and even if it goes through in Ireland, I think it should be fought at every single country, in all of those 11 countries, there needs to be a fight to stop investor-state courts and allow people the time to reconsider that issue.

But secondly, I think, the basic principle of having a separate court outside of domestic or even supranational law – because obviously, there’s a lot it within the EU, there’s a huge amount of legal mechanisms that sit above the National Court but within the EU framework. I think, once you set up an investor-state court that’s even beyond that, you’re into very, very difficult territory. I guess some of the things that we could do is explore how we could make it less of a one-sided system, because at the moment, it only allows for investor’s claims. And I don’t see why that would be. Why can’t we, as a nation, use the same system to sue corporations for the damage that they’ve done to our natural environment? I think that we could look to protect the right to regulate. So we could bring in further legislation within CETA to protect the right to regulate, I think that we could require that every single domestic legal remedy would be exhaustive before you would go to that mechanism.

And I think that you could bring in things around protecting smaller states, because the liability for a smaller state to be sued by a big corporation is much different. So if you’re Ireland, the investor-state court mechanism means something completely different than if you’re Germany, because you (Germany) have the means to argue your case against a huge corporation.

And then I guess the final thing is, if you were really going to try and – so if you had accepted that CETA was happening, which I don’t – the last thing would be to make sure that you get the actual tribunal members, and the staffing of that tribunal, and who is on it, and how that actually works, the mechanism of the court itself – right. I think that what’s in the CETA agreement right now is not right. It’s very questionable who is on that, and how they get appointed, and what the turnover would be there. So I think there’s a whole host of things that we could do after this particular fight. But I think the best thing to do is to continue to have energy for the fight we’re in right now.

Thank you so much for speaking out on this issue. And I just want to thank you so much again for your time today, Ms. Hourigan, it has been such a pleasure and hope to speak to you again in the future.

Hourigan: Sarah it was so nice of you to invite me and I really appreciate it and hopefully we can stay in touch.

Sarah Cui

Sarah Cui is in her fourth year of undergraduate studies in Environment, Resources and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo. Her background is intercultural, having grown up in both Ottawa and northwestern China. Her areas of interest include environmental politics, conservation and food sustainability. In her free time, Sarah enjoys connecting with friends, hiking, identifying plants and learning a new language.

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