Richie Ryan obituary: distinguished career in Dáil and EU

Fine Gael minister steered fiscal policy during 1970s turbulent economic period

Ritchie Ryan at the Fine Gael ardfheis in 1983. Photograph: Pat Langan

Ritchie Ryan at the Fine Gael ardfheis in 1983. Photograph: Pat Langan

 

Richie Ryan
Born: February 27th, 1929
Died: March 17th, 2019

Richie Ryan used his one term as minister for finance to reform an outdated taxation system but was unfairly dubbed “minister for hardship” as the 1973 Fine Gael-Labour coalition had to impose its version of austerity during the first oil crisis.

When the coalition was dumped out of office in 1977, by a Fianna Fáil pledged to abolish rates and car tax, Ryan was criticised during the election campaign for his hairshirt budgets although they had increased a range of social welfare payments and created new ones. This stigma ruined any chance he had of succeeding Liam Cosgrave as leader of Fine Gael. The successor, Garret FitzGerald, had no place for Ryan in the government he headed after the 1981 election much to Ryan’s disappointment.

Ryan then left domestic politics to concentrate on a new career in the European Parliament and later in the European Court of Auditors. He must have felt some bitterness at there being no room for him in Cabinet after long and devoted service to a party he joined as a 17-year-old schoolboy but he had never had a good relationship with FitzGerald who he suspected of heading a clique seeking to replace Cosgrave when in opposition.

He was lampooned on RTÉ’s satirical TV show Hall’s Pictorial Weekly as “Ritchie Ruin” and “Minister for Hardship.”

Richard Ryan was born on February 27th, 1929, in Dublin where his father was a successful solicitor living in Terenure. Richie, as he was to become universally known, was educated at Synge Street CBS. He later said that sharing benches with children from poorer areas of the city helped bring a social dimension into his politics.

He was brilliant student at University College Dublin where he took a first-class honours in politics and legal science. He showed his oratory skills as president of the Literary and Historical Society and later of the Solicitor Apprentices Debating Society, winning gold medals in both. After qualifying as a solicitor he served in the 1954 Fine Gael-Labour coalition as an assistant to the Labour minister for justice, James Everett. He also married Mairéad King whom he met through local Fine Gael politics.

He entered national politics when he was elected to the Dáil in 1959 in a byelection in Dublin South-West. He was re-elected in every subsequent general election up to February 1982 when he decided not to run but concentrate on the European parliament to which he had been elected in 1979 when he topped the poll in Dublin. He also served on Dublin Corporation from 1960 to 1973.

In opposition from 1961 until 1973 he was a frontbench spokesman for social welfare and later for foreign affairs and Northern Ireland as the Troubles there increased. He resented FitzGerald also getting involved in the North. When Fianna Fáil under Jack Lynch convincingly won the 1969 election, Ryan complained: “The Irish people have disgraced themselves again by their crass inability and cowardly unwillingness to use the ballot box to get rid of a government which most of them detested.”

He became noted for his at times waspish tongue, denouncing fellow MEPs Ian Paisley and John Taylor as “pathetic bigots” and describing the 1937 Constitution as “an abomination”.

When Fine Gael and Labour formed a coalition government in February 1973, he was surprised to be offered the finance portfolio by Cosgrave and tried to turn it down. It was assumed that FitzGerald as frontbench spokesman would be appointed but Cosgrave put him in foreign affairs and insisted Ryan take finance. It fell to him then to push through the controversial wealth tax in the coalition manifesto in spite of threats that it would cause a massive outflow of capital. Personally, Ryan did not approve of the tax which was to replace death duties but he earned Labour’s admiration for loyally throwing his weight behind it, also earning the sobriquet “Red Richie”.

He also introduced capital gains and capital acquisitions taxes and income tax for farmers.

But he was lampooned on RTÉ’s satirical TV show Hall’s Pictorial Weekly as “Ritchie Ruin” and “Minister for Hardship.” He professed not to mind the satire but some government colleagues wanted RTÉ to be censured as they regarded the programme as Fianna Fáil propaganda. Frank Hall the creator and driver of the satire never made any secret of his loyalty to Fianna Fáil. However, taoiseach Liam Cosgrave and Conor Cruise O’Brien, the minister with responsibility for broadcasting, refused the pleas of cabinet colleagues to interfere with RTÉ.

Ryan had little choice but to increase government borrowing as the effect of the 1973 oil crisis weakened the economy. He strove to protect the least well-off from the austerity measures but it leaked out in 1976 that he was considering cuts to children’s allowances, disability grants, school transport and food subsidies. Labour threatened to resign and the food subsidies were maintained and children’s allowances protected.

He unwisely got into a public spat with Ireland’s EEC commissioner for social affairs, Dr Patrick Hillery, over the commission’s insistence that Ireland introduce equal pay for equal work for women employed in the public sector. Ryan argued that the Irish public finances could not afford to implement the directive at that time but his attack on Hillery as a “Fianna Fáil appointee” was deeply resented in Brussels. The commission issued a rare public rebuke against Ryan’s attack.

An election was not due until 1978 but Cosgrave wanted to take advantage of the slowly improving economic situation and called one for June 1977. Ryan and other ministers argued to postpone it until the autumn when the electorate would be more aware of better times but Cosgrave stood firm and even made Ryan director of elections in spite of his intensive schedule. He had also been appointed chairman of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, a first-time honour for Ireland but a heavier workload and more travel for Ryan.

Amazingly, Cosgrave had decided on the election before seeing the results of a government private poll forecasting a disastrous result for the coalition. Ryan campaigned vigorously but Fianna Fáil won a record majority. Cosgrave resigned while Ryan was in the US on IMF business. He realised he would not have enough support to get elected leader and threw his weight behind Peter Barry to stop FitzGerald’s bid for the leadership. In the end Barry withdrew from the contest realising FitzGerald had it wrapped up and unwilling to increase divisions in the party.

After two years on the opposition benches as a spokesman for foreign affairs, Ryan in 1979 stood for the Dublin constituency in the first direct election to the European Parliament. He topped the poll after a campaign where Fine Gael placards proclaimed “Richie was right”. Under the dual mandate system of that time he was able to stand for re-election to the Dáil in June 1981 for Dublin South-East while remaining an MEP. He narrowly won a seat but FitzGerald did not offer him a place in Cabinet. He was hurt at being passed over and did not stand in February 1982 when the Fine Gael-Labour coalition fell after six months.

From then on Ryan concentrated on the European Parliament where he headed the Fine Gael group and was also elected one of the Quaestors, the group which oversees the body’s finances. He continued to speak out strongly in favour of Irish neutrality as moves were made to bring security into EEC affairs. He also kept a close eye on Northern Ireland but kept his distance from the two unionist MEPs, Ian Paisley and John Taylor.

He was re-elected to the European Parliament in 1984 but two years later accepted the government’s invitation to take over as Ireland’s representative on the EEC Court of Auditors and serve our the remainder of the term when the incumbent resigned early. Ryan resigned from Fine Gael to show his independence on the Luxembourg-based court which oversees the EU budget.

In 1988, Ryan was reappointed to the court for a full term by the Fianna Fáil taoiseach Charles Haughey. This caused surprise in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Ryan’s term of office concluded in 1994 and he retired to Dublin.

He was a Commissioner of Irish Lights for over 40 years, the longest ever serving commissioner in the lighthouse service. He also had an active role in the Irish Red Cross for a period but suffered a bad fall which left him with a serious back injury and restricted his ability to get out and about. He was a devout Catholic who played an active role in the life of his local church.

He was predeceased by his wife Mairéad, and is survived by five children, Declan, Cillian, Ultan, Aoife and Bláthnaid.