Eamon Ryan: the human mudguard who refuses to get bogged down
Depending on your point of view, Eamon Ryan is either the scourge of rural Ireland or its saviour from environmental vandalism.
f his critics are to be believed, the Green Party leader is determined to scare country dwellers away from their hearths and deny them the life-affirming warmth and gentle aroma of smouldering turf.
In this view, the salad-munching minister wants to pull country folk out of cars and remove farmers from their chemically fertilised land. And for all we know, he may achieve these aims by releasing wolves back into the wild.
His supporters, on the other hand, see him as a lonely crusader, Clonskeagh’s answer to Greta Thunberg on a five-minutes-to-midnight mission to save us as climate catastrophe threatens the planet.
No politician since the arrival of the tripartite coalition government has received quite so much flak as Ryan.
The criticisms have become most voluble since he announced last month that he was pressing ahead with plans to ban the commercial sale of turf from September.
Some of the loudest criticisms came from Ryan’s own coalition partners when he attended Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meetings. Former minister Michael Ring accused him of being “full of bluff” and reportedly described his proposals as “daft”.
The deputy chief whip, Fine Gael’s Brendan Griffin, accused Ryan of “destabilising the Government” with a measure that has, in fact, long been flagged, even before the Greens came into office.
The Rural Independent Group in the Dáil reacted furiously, labelling the plan “insane”. Mattie McGrath accused the Green Party of “living in cloud-cuckoo-land”.
It is just one of a number of occasions when Ryan has become the leading target. When a group of protesting truckers blocked roads around Dublin Port last month, it was not Micheál Martin’s head they were looking for, nor that of Leo Varadkar. They demanded the resignation of the Green bogeyman, Ryan.
A long-time friend, Dublin City University lecturer David Robbins, says: “He is very resilient and I am amazed at his temperament.”
Much of the criticism may be part of the normal cut and thrust of politics, but the attacks on Ryan seem to have gone beyond that.
“I have seen some of the horrific personal attacks on him on social media — and I feel worse reading them than he does as the target of the remarks,” Robbins adds.
Ryan met his wife, the journalist Victoria White, at a set-dancing event in west Cork in the mid-Nineties. They live in a retrofitted house in Clonskeagh with four grown-up children. She seems to have anticipated the barrage of criticism, having seen it all before during his previous stint in government and during his time as leader.
As he took on his latest ministerial job in July 2020, she suggested in an article in the Irish Examiner that successful politicians, be they good or bad, have to be less sensitive than the rest of us. “I have spent afternoons under a duvet just to get away from public criticism of my husband,” she wrote. “His ability to cope with it is part of what makes him able to do a job I would hate to do.”
While Ryan seems to let the brickbats bounce off him, Victoria has vehemently come to the defence of her husband.
To some of his admirers, Ryan is the eternal optimist, and that gave him the confidence to revive the Greens after the party’s near-death experience in 2011 election, when all of the party’s six TDs lost their seat after an ill-fated stint in government.
Starved of cash and personnel, Ryan soldiered on alone in the Green Party offices on Suffolk Street, firing off emails and calling contacts.
One former party colleague who defends his record tells Review: “He is a bit of a Polyanna” — a reference to the character in the eponymous novel with an unjustifiably cheery outlook.
For the moment, the turf issue has been kicked down the road, and the Taoiseach said there will be no ban this year. But Ryan is unlikely to give up on the issue and cutting of turf for commercial sale is still likely to be heavily restricted at some point.
Ryan might be seen as a convenient mudguard for a measure that is seen as inevitable, be it implemented by the Greens or other parties. There is a feeling within the Green movement that the leader has been left out to dry by some of his party colleagues on the turf issue, whether they be fellow cabinet ministers, backbench TDs or councillors.
Preventing air pollution from smoky fuels, including turf, is seen by Ryan as a crucial environmental policy. He also sees saving what remains of our bogs as vital in the battle against climate change. One former Green Party councillor tells Review: “This issue is central to the Green Party’s purpose, but where are the other Green politicians standing shoulder to shoulder with him and coming out in support of him. Where are the rest of them? It is as if they are embarrassed by the climate change agenda.”
This is not going to be the last battle between the Greens and those who purport to speak for rural Ireland. It is just one part of a long-term plan that has the potential to cause controversy and rows.
Backbenchers from the main parties are also irked by his policy of switching expenditure from roads to public transport and cycling infrastructure.
Ryan has been well prepared for stormy times in government, having served as minister for communications and energy in the Fianna Fáil-Green coalition from 2007-2011.
He took office in the Celtic Tiger era when Bertie Ahern’s boom was still getting “boomer”, but then the global economy careered off a cliff in 2008.
“He has been in government when the troika was knocking on the door and there were fears that the ATMs would not work,” Robbins says. “Once you have been through that, [the controversy over turf] doesn’t seem so significant.
“He must laugh at the Gods that every time the Greens get an opportunity to implement some of their policy, something comes along and crashes into them.”
With the formation of the Government in 2020, Ryan took on a job as a minister running two government departments with a demanding range of responsibilities including transport, energy, climate and communications.
“It’s an enormously challenging set of briefs and ever since he took on the job, it’s been a roller coaster,” one supporter says.
As well as trying to push climate change as far up the government agenda as possible and cutting the cost of public transport, he played a central role in the pandemic as he was responsible for travel restrictions.
As head of the department responsible for cybersecurity, he also had to deal with the cyberattack on the HSE.
No sooner had the pandemic receded in severity than Ryan was in the frontline of another crisis: the soaring energy costs, caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Even his supporters admit that he is an easy politician to lampoon with his pandemic suggestion that the public grow salads on their windowsills, the shots of him appearing to nod off in the Dáil and his call for the reintroduction of wolves.
He was also ridiculed for suggesting that the public could save energy by taking shorter showers, but his spokesperson says he never actually said it. But he did advise motorists to drive slower to save fuel.
“People think the Oliver Callan depiction of him is real,” says one environmental analyst. “But he is extremely energetic, and strategic in his thinking and he has all kinds of s*** thrown at him. But he always seems to bounce back from everything. One thing he is not good at is sticking to the script, because he tends to go off on tangents.”
In most political parties, it would be considered eccentric to try to depose a leader after his party achieved their highest-ever vote. But the Greens do things differently, and only three weeks after leading his party into government, Eamon Ryan faced a heave from Catherine Martin.
Ryan narrowly held on to the leadership with 994 of the 1,940 votes cast, or 51.2pc.
Party members say the atmosphere in the party at that time was “toxic” and “polarised”, and a lot of these divisions have not fully healed.
After achieving enormous gains with a vote of 7pc at the last general election, the party is now at about 4pc in opinion polls. A number of the party’s TDs face the threat of being unseated at the next election.
When the Greens first went into government with Fianna Fáil in 2007, party colleague Ciarán Cuffe said it would be a “deal with the devil”.
Traditionally, Green parties across Europe have been divided into “realos” and “fundies”. The “realos” see themselves as the realists, who are prepared to co-operate with other parties, while the “fundies” are fundamentalists, less willing to compromise.
Ryan has always been seen as a realo, who does not see any benefit in the Greens being just a fringe campaign group.
One former party adviser said: “He believes that if you are a real political party and you can get power, you should take it and try to implement some of your agenda.”
He is one of the few ministers to have acquired an electric car, but still prefers to travel by bike and public transport to his office and to ministerial functions.
Ryan is said to have developed an interest in environmental issues at the Jesuit private school Gonzaga, where he was a contemporary of Cuffe. Unusually, the school offered ecology as a subject, and this sparked young Ryan’s curiosity. He studied commerce at UCD, and a friend from that time said that he was quite “corporate and preppy” in his style.
After graduation, he went travelling around the world. When he returned, he was said to be “more alternative” in his outlook. He went on to marry his interests in sustainable transport with business when he set up a tourist firm Irish Cycling Safaris.
When Ryan started out as a prominent environmentalist in the Dublin Cycling Campaign, he was prepared to take an ostentatious approach to activism. Back in the 1990s, he dressed up as an angel on O’Connell Street and began thrashing a papier-mâché car driven by the devil.
The former adviser says that Ryan does not fit all the green stereotypes: he is a meat eater, pint drinker and sometime smoker.
In the 2000s when he was considering a run for the presidency, he told Marian Finucane on RTÉ that he had smoked the occasional cannabis joint and he added that, unlike Bill Clinton: “I did inhale, yeah.”
Asked if he enjoyed it, he replied: “Oh well, yeah. The difficulty, I think, is it can be very attractive. The concern I have is that it can have repercussions in terms of psychiatric illnesses.”
Some believe his rapport with Micheál Martin is warmer than that with Leo Varadkar. The Tánaiste hardly leapt to his support on the turf issue, reportedly suggesting to party colleagues at a meeting that telling those who cut and sell turf that they could no longer do so was “like telling the French they can’t drink wine or the Italians they can’t eat pasta”.
In Dáil exchanges, the Taoiseach was more defensive of his Green colleague.
When the backbench TD Michael Collins ridiculed Ryan for his comments about windowbox salads and for urging rural dwellers to cycle, Martin snapped back: “I don’t think it’s weird to enjoy a salad, I don’t think it’s weird to cycle either, for that matter.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/eamon-ryan-the-human-mudguard-who-refuses-to-get-bogged-down-41620646.html Eamon Ryan: the human mudguard who refuses to get bogged down