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Two notices pinned up in a country pub offer an insight into the paradox of Eamon Ryan

Even those who don’t agree with or like the departing Green Party leader take him seriously

In the Dáil, Eamon Ryan has come to represent everything that some rural independent TDs dislike about being governed from Dublin – or indeed, being governed at all. Photograph: Alan Betson

The departure of Eamon Ryan as leader is a massive blow to the Green Party. As with Leo Varadkar, personal and political factors resulted in his departure; and although he may stay as a Cabinet Minister for the remainder of the Government’s lifetime – a new leader would be mad to demote him – his exit will deprive the Greens of their best-known figure and the chief proponent of the pragmatic approach through which the party has achieved substantial results on climate action for the first time in its history.

It is hard to imagine any of the potential successors commanding the same clout within Government, or authority outside it. Lots of people don’t agree with Ryan, of course. Some don’t like him. But they take him seriously. They know he is a consequential politician; he has earned that status.

True, Ryan has accumulated baggage in his years in Government, and he hasn’t always been the best communicator. He has also been targeted relentlessly and ruthlessly by climate sceptics, by political opponents, by rank opportunists and by those who simply saw an opportunity to prosper in his discomfort. In the Dáil, he has come to represent everything that some rural independent TDs dislike about being governed from Dublin – or indeed, being governed at all. A friend recalls seeing two notices pinned up in a country pub – one a sort of wanted poster, seeking Ryan’s arrest for crimes against rural Ireland, the other a timetable for the rural bus service he introduced.

My guess is that while the vilification has no doubt made some people who dislike Ryan (and some of them, including in the Dáil, seem to be somewhat unhinged by the extent of their antipathy) dislike him even more, among the core group of voters to whom the Greens are speaking, Ryan remains a figure of respect and significance. Last month’s Irish Times/Ipsos B&A poll gave him a satisfaction rating of 21 per cent – the lowest of the party leaders for sure, but for the leader of a party at 4 per cent in the polls, not bad at all.


Under Ryan, the Greens enjoyed political success as a small party in Government paralleled only by the Progressive Democrats between 1997 and 2007. What do we mean by success? The implementation of their policies in Government.

Yes – and the Greens won’t like this comparison – the PDs were eventually cast aside by the voters and the party wound up after the disastrous general election of 2007. But they could reasonably content themselves (and some of them did) with the knowledge that they had achieved the most important objectives they set themselves when they were formed 20-odd years previously: the “breaking of the mould” in Irish politics; lower taxes; economic transformation; and a more general social liberalisation.

These things the PDs did not achieve by themselves, of course. They went into government with larger partners and leveraged their power, through clear thinking and smart politics, into policy achievements.

That was the model that Ryan sought to follow. The Greens were scarred by the first, disastrous period in government with Fianna Fáil from 2007-2011, an administration that was utterly consumed by the financial crisis and the collapse in the public finances. But Ryan also learned from the experience. On the night the Greens lost all their seats in 2011, the RTÉ broadcaster John Bowman announced their demise but also predicted their return. The Greens are serious people, he said. And they will be back.

And so they were. It wasn’t easy, though. Ryan – without a job, remember – dedicated himself to the revival of the Greens, at one stage paying the rent on the party’s Suffolk St headquarters himself. He had help, of course – people who were as dedicated to the revival of the party and to the idea that climate action could become part of Government policy as he was. But Ryan was the essential figure. After a tentative return to the Dáil with just two seats, the 2020 election saw 12 TDs returned. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil edged towards a Coalition deal – but they needed help. Ryan was ready.

Clear-headed and cold-eyed pragmatism has marked Ryan’s approach to his second period in Government. Once he understood that he could negotiate substantial, legally-enforceable climate action measures in the programme for government with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, he used every political facility he could to first get the deal through, and then secondly to make sure that as much of it as possible was implemented.

That remains a work in progress. But it is hardly in doubt that the present Government, for all its faults, is far more focused on meaningful climate action than any of its predecessors. Ryan has changed Irish government and politics.

It reminds me of something the American commentator David Brooks once wrote about the movie Lincoln – about how it was possible to achieve great good in politics, but that often required people to compromise themselves to do it. “You can end slavery, open opportunity and fight poverty,” Brooks wrote. “But you can achieve these things only if you are willing to stain your own character in order to serve others – if you are willing to bamboozle, trim, compromise and be slippery and hypocritical.” It is an essential truth of politics; not many grasp it.

Expansion of climate actions urgently needed with world warming ‘quicker than anticipated’, says Eamon RyanOpens in new window ]

Ryan kept focused on his priorities and was prepared to accept lots of things he didn’t like in order to achieve them. He had the discipline to concentrate relentlessly on his core goals. He was prepared – as we see now – to make huge personal sacrifices in order to place climate action at the centre of government decision-making. Most decent people will wish him well. For his party, his departure leaves a void it will be near-impossible to fill.

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