They did the wrong thing: the Green Party made a big mistake in calling time on government and then backing down

NEXT December will mark the 30th anniversary of the emergence of the Green movement in Ireland. It should be a cause for celebration, given the progress made by what back then was called the Ecology Party of Ireland. But instead there is a very big question mark as to whether or not the Greens will have even one TD to preside over the event.

Politics is often a game of luck as much as anything else and the root of the party's current problems is its misfortune in getting into government just as the country was entering into its worst-ever recession.

But there is also a view that the Greens have added to their problems since their 22 November announcement that they were calling time on the government.

It certainly didn't help that, at that point, Green leader John Gormley insisted that the election should be in the second half of January, which was never remotely achievable if the party also wanted to see the finance bill passed by the Oireachtas. With the election now certain not to take place until March, the Greens have left themselves open to unfavourable comparisons with the PDs at the last general election.

Back in 2007 the PDs seemed poised to walk out of government over revelations about Bertie Ahern's finances but pulled back at the last minute. Rightly or wrong, what was dubbed the PDs' "Lanigan's Ball" (stepping out and then stepping back in again) approach was seen as a key factor in the party's general election hammering.

We won't know for some time whether the Greens will be similarly damaged. The opposition is certainly looking to increase the party's discomfort, never missing an opportunity to remind voters of the original January deadline and claiming that Fianna Fáil is running rings around the Greens.

There isn't much sympathy for the Greens among Fianna Fáil TDs either. The belief there is that the Greens panicked in November and that, if they had held their nerve, the government could comfortably have survived until autumn and possibly longer.

Noel Dempsey summed up the views of all Fianna Fáil TDs when he reportedly told Green ministers, who had been demanding that their legislative proposals be delivered, that they should have thought of that before withdrawing from government.

All sorts of conspiracy theories are doing the rounds suggesting that Green TD Paul Gogarty, backed up by the grassroots (and in some versions of events by former leader Trevor Sargent), insisted on the withdrawal from government and that Gormley wasn't strong enough to resist. There are also claims that the Greens are in "a bit of disarray", that there is effectively nobody in charge in the party, and that Gormley and fellow minister Eamon Ryan are at loggerheads.

Green sources dismiss all these suggestions out of hand. They admit the party erred in not saying on 22 November that the date for the election, rather than the election per se, should be announced in the second half of January. But apart from that, they say the party had no option but to do what it did.

"The debacle over communicating the IMF's intervention created enormous problems and had there not been political consequences of the IMF coming in, something would have been amiss. A deal [with the EU/IMF] had to be done and bringing through the budget and the finance bill was a natural consequence of that deal. But after that there was a need to go to the people for a fresh mandate and I'm not apologising for that," one member of the parliamentary party said last week.

There is also a strong view within the Greens that the party's decision to call time on the 30th Dáil succeeded in taking the heat out of a very volatile situation. One senior party figure told the Sunday Tribune that, at the parliamentary party meeting prior to the announcement, the view was expressed that some of the planned public demonstrations could turn violent, despite the best efforts of organisers, given the level of public hostility. The meeting was told that one Green minister was spat at on the street. And they say that once the Greens announced their decision to withdraw from government following the completion of the budgetary process, tensions eased considerably.

Talk of a grassroot Green revolt is also played down, while suggestions that a Paul Gogarty/Trevor Sargent axis is effectively calling the shots are described as ludicrous – the two TDs are said not to be close.

"Paul plays a great game of brinkmanship on education spending but he wasn't doing that this time," one senior Green said. "Trevor is the most pragmatic politician in the Greens. He also doesn't do sneaky plotting. He is totally straight," another insider said.

Party figures are unanimous that there is no sign of tensions between Gormley and Ryan, although some privately admit that Ryan's strong belief in the principle of the cabinet as a collective has frustrated the likes of Dan Boyle. It was Boyle, along with Gogarty and Niall Ó Brolcháin, who were apparently strongest in expressing the view that continuing in government was untenable.

Whether or not the decision will curry any favour with the electorate remains to be seen. On Tuesday, the Greens gather in Malahide for a think-in, part of a strategy to ensure the party's message is not drowned out in the upcoming election campaign.

It will help if the Greens succeed in getting key legislation – such as the ban on corporate donations, the climate change legislation and the Dublin mayoral bill – through before the Dáil is dissolved.

Ideally, Fianna Fáil would stall on the calling of an election, allowing the Greens to walk out of government in protest, but most people expect Cowen to seek the Dáil's dissolution once the finance bill is passed.

That means a general election on 10 or 11 March or a fortnight later, with the Greens clearly preferring the former and Fianna Fáil hoping for the latter.

Whenever it happens, it promises to be a long hard campaign for the Greens. The party may be convinced it did the right thing last November but there may well be times in the weeks and months ahead when it will wish it hadn't.