Evergreen optimism bolsters Ryan after year of party turbulence

Collegiality and trust have bonded Coalition partners amid crisis, Green Party leader says

Green Party leader, Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications and Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan: ‘The climate legislation we’re introducing is transformative by any measure or yardstick.’ Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Green Party leader, Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications and Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan: ‘The climate legislation we’re introducing is transformative by any measure or yardstick.’ Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

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Eamon Ryan does not do negative. From every cloud a silver lining. From every gutter a stargazing opportunity. From every coalition in crisis, a life-affirming consolation.

An assessment of the first year of the three-party Coalition depends on one’s perspective. Many see the jagged internal Green Party rows of the year as a huge drag that has damaged both Ryan and deputy leader Catherine Martin.

Not for Ryan, however. While he acknowledges the difficulties that have taken place, he argues that “history” will be generous, especially about the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 campaign.

“By any metric – lives lost, cases, hospitalisations, the level of uptake of vaccine, delivery of vaccine – while there were mistakes made we will be seen by international comparison as having done a good job.”

The three parties work well together: “There’s trust and there’s, there’s collegiality. There’s a good working relationship between the three leaders . . . I’ve been in two governments and this is one that does function well.”

The Green Party agenda has been central to the first year, he argues, citing the emergency economic measures brought in last year, last year’s budget and the European Union’s support that was “as green as can be”.

But what about all the difficulties and misunderstanding and mistakes of his party but also of the wider Government? “It’s fair comment,” he concedes, saying it has taken time for the Coalition to settle down.

But he defends going into the Coalition: “There’s a job to be done and you need to step up. If you were to walk away in this crisis, how can you be trusted to manage [a] crisis if you’re not willing to address the one that’s in front of you?”

The pandemic has changed everything: “It is changing people’s perception of place, their perception of community, the way we work. This is what we are about; [you cannot] walk away at this defining moment of change.”

There were difficult times over the last year where the Greens sagged at times under the weight of the choice it had made. “It was difficult for our party,” he accepts easily.

“I think a lot of people bought into the narrative that ‘we voted for change in the last election and Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are coming back and it’s not going to change’.

“It was a very difficult first few months internally. There were the aftershocks from the decision to go in. It has bedded down. It has not distracted us from doing our jobs.”

Delivery

During its last experience of government – with Fianna Fáil from 2007 – the Greens won big commitments on policy but little happened later. There was no delivery. So what about now?

“Legislation does matter,” says Ryan, who insists that it is different this time. “The climate legislation we’re introducing is transformative by any measure or yardstick.”

Minister of State Roderic O’ Gorman’s adoption-rights legislation is “truly historic”, he goes on, something that had been avoided for decades. “It’s been tricky in terms of the mother and baby home report but I thought he showed real strength,” says Ryan.

Meanwhile, his deputy leader and, at one point, leadership challenger Catherine Martin’s help for the arts during the pandemic “is well recognised and well understood”, he argues.

Some policies will take time to be felt – the €360 million to encourage walking and cycling, or the plan to shift two-thirds of transport capital spending on to public transport and away from roads.

He points to 250 new positions created in local authorities to design and deliver the new sustainable transport systems.

Transport Infrastructure Ireland changed the face of Ireland’s road network from the early 1990s, and a similar effort is now needed to create a network for cyclists.

The longer distances possible with ebikes will be a game-changer, he says. “Cycling will become a main form of travel. It will become a standard thing for work, school, shops, not just for tourism.

“Why would we not make Ireland like Holland and Denmark? If you are travelling 15 kilometres [on a bike or ebike] without stopping, with no traffic lights and guaranteed rights of way, why would you not use it?” he argues.

Last month, he announced plans for commuter trains for Cork. The same will happen for Galway, Limerick and Waterford, although he acknowledges they could take two decades to arrive.

Climate legislation

Ryan’s biggest achievement in 2021 was the climate legislation now going through the Oireachtas, which demands cuts of 7 per cent a year in carbon emissions.

Given the challenges of even getting a 2 per cent fall, are the targets possible? “It’s really challenging, there’s no two ways about it. No one has elsewhere delivered a halving of emissions in a decade.

“It’s doable. We will have a better economy with a competitive advantage, renewable power, particularly offshore wind. The retrofitting of people’s houses is the best public-health project we can do. It’s the best way of tackling fuel poverty, tackling inequality . . . it will create jobs that give people secure income for the next 30 years.

“So it’s not negative. In transport again the path to the best health outcome is to go to active travel.

“[There is] electrification. Why would we use power from Russia or Saudi Arabia when we can use our own?

“We will also need a modal shift towards cycling and public transport, and we will also need to reduce the volume of traffic.”

Remote working will help and will require a 25 per cent cut in transport, he says. “That’s not a negative, though. Getting stuck in traffic for two hours a day is no fun for anyone.”

Agriculture is the nettle everyone seems afraid to grasp. Big changes are facing farmers, including methane emissions and herd number cuts. “[However,] the current system is not working for Irish farmers,” Ryan argues.

“Our message to farmers is clear. We will increase your incomes as the emissions go down. And that’s what the Common Agricultural Policy reform is set towards.”

Financial markets will also dictate the direction of travel for Irish farming. “The Kerry Group and Glanbia and others cannot go into the next decade with their emissions curve rising,” he contends.

Ryan always wants the Greens to be in government, but the party must survive at the ballot box in the next election. If it gets wiped out, as happened in 2011, it becomes irrelevant.

So how can the Greens survive? Look to Green colleagues in Belgium and Germany, he suggests: “[They have found] improving people’s practical everyday lives gives you political longevity.”

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