On the campaign trail with Eamon Ryan
Harry McGee catches up with the eternally optimistic Green Party leader
Some of the oncoming traffic see him up ahead and shift into fifth gear, and speed-walk past like impatient drivers accelerating on seeing an amber light. Some of the rejections are polite. Some are brusque. We have seen chuggers who have experienced more friendly greetings.
Ryan’s problem is simple and logistical one, that any experienced chugger could tell him. It has nothing to do with the standing of the Green Party among the electorate. It is this: he is standing in the wrong place. Too many people, too many tourists, too many of them moving too quickly. It’s just not possible to engage.
A few minutes later, he is on the more relaxed thoroughfare of Grafton Street, joined by a small swarm of volunteers (they are all volunteers in the Greens these days: the electoral wipeout in 2011 resulted in the party losing all State funding). There is an immediate change in dynamic and while the occasional cold shoulder presents itself, there is far more engagement.
Fianna Fáil has been on a public journey of renewal every since it was disgraced in the 2011 election - content to wear sackcloth and ashes (for a while anyway).
But the Greens were dealt a double whammy. Not only was the party humiliated in 2011, it was no longer on the radar. With only three councillors left it could hardly call on a national mandate. It reverted to a group of core loyalists, a mix of long-term Green diehards and young activists. Its national conferences were modest in venue and modest in numbers. To quote the great line of Con Houlihan’s about an Irish Press colleague who quit his job to become a famous writer: forgotten but not gone.
But the Greens are on a bit of a comeback trail and that much has been evident over the past six months. But it’s modest and soft. It’s likely to result in the party making some gains in local elections but success might be judged by it creeping into double figures.
It’s in the European arena, however, that the party might pull off something like a coup. In the past the Greens were particularly successful in European Parliament elections when it was just doing so-so in local and national politics. At one stage it had two MEPs.
Ryan has taken a big gamble by putting himself as leader of the party forward for the European elections (and without the safety net of a run for a council seat). If elected, he has committed to serve out his full term in Brussels, which means we will have an unusual situation where an Irish political party is led by an MEP. Will it work? It will be tricky.
As we stand there Ryan remembers the 2011 election campaign as a little like a World War One battlefield, everybody having to force themselves from the trenches and over the top. What the Greens experienced then, Labour is enduring now. Three years after that carnage, it’s clear that people are willing to listen to the Green Party leader and also willing to listen to his messages about climate change, about the Green New Deal, and how the EU parliament can become a vehicle of change.
Ryan attributes it to several reason. He contends people have now recognised that the Greens did what they did in government because it was in the national interest, and that that has been borne out by the Coalition continuing with much of its programme. He also says that climate and environmental issues have become priorities again - the storms of the winter served as a reminder for that.
Ryan is tall and striking but comes across as slightly bashful in public. It’s very low-key, a little apologetic, no gladhandling, no “howya horse” to all and sundry. And it all very sincere, sometimes painfully so, as he expounds at length the ideas he has for making a green transformation - you would almost need a PhD to follow some of the train of thought. He is also idealist and an eternal optimist - who sees a gold seam in every silver lining.
What if the gamble fails, if Ryan doesn’t get elected and he ends up with no mandate? He stresses the importance of putting your name up and paraphrases the Beckett line of fail, fail again but fail better.
And yet, he has a biddable chance of taking the last seat in Dublin. If The Irish Times poll is accurate, he will be vying with Fianna Fáil’s Mary Fitzpatrick for the last seat and could make up the gap between them with transfers. And the icing on the cake might come in the South constituency where Grace O’Sullivan could be the surprise dark horse of the election. If she continues her upward momentum she could be in with a real chance of dislodging Fine Gael for the fourth seat.
If both those happened, Ryan allows himself a moment to dream, it would be a great day for the party: two MEPs and a fresh bunch of Green councillors.
Certainly, the Green Party is on the road to recovery but maybe not travelling at quite the pace of those Westmoreland Street pedestrians.