The Irish Times view on Eamon Ryan’s political legacy: how a small party can set the agenda

Progress is too slow in addressing the climate change agenda, but would anyone seriously suggest that the advances of recent years would have occurred without the Greens in Government?

Leader of the Green Party Eamon Ryanspeaking to the media at Goverment buildings earlier this week after he announced he is stepping down as party leader. (Pic Stephen Collins/Collins Photos)

All political careers end in failure. Like all the best political clichés, this one is pithy, overworked – and wrong. Take Eamon Ryan. At the most superficial level, the leader of the Green Party will step down with his party at a low ebb, having just seen its two MEPs fail to win reelection and losing almost half of its council seats. But even that tells only part of the story. When Ryan became leader in 2011, the Green Party, emerging from a crisis-era government with Fianna Fáil, had just suffered a disastrous general election in which it failed to retain a single seat in the Dáil. It had three councillors. Its obituary was written.

From that inauspicious base, Ryan presided over a revival in the party’s fortunes. Within 10 years of that calamitous 2011 campaign, the Greens had 12 TDs, two MEPs and 49 councillors. It became a real force in Irish politics. The strongest evidence of its influence is the way in which the party, once derided by its opponents as hopelessly out of touch, forced our ecological crises to the top of the political agenda. Rivals who once mocked the party began to mimic it, adopting its rhetoric and sometimes – if not often enough – its policies. The Greens are not alone in making the case that a chronically short-termist system must take the longer view, but they are one of the most consistent advocates for that view.

Unlike others on the left, the Greens realised that to achieve real change, they had to be in power. Their record in government shows they were right. Their first term in coalition, following the 2007 general election, was overshadowed by the financial crash, though Ryan as energy minister did advance wind power policy.

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By the time the party returned to power in 2020, the climate action agenda was taking on a new urgency. The key contribution of the Green Party was to find ways to embed this across Government, making it a central component of State policies. Legally binding emissions targets are now in place under the Climate Change Act. From rural and urban transport to better provision for walkers and cyclists, green policy has made a difference.

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The green agenda is now in real trouble. Judged against the scale of the crisis, it is hard to characterise Ireland’s progress in decarbonising its economy and addressing the biodiversity crisis as anything other than a failure. Progress is far too slow. Politicians carry a good deal of the blame. But would anyone seriously suggest that the advances of recent years would have occurred without the Greens in Government?

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And in a political system so heavily populated by oversized egos, driven so often by win-at-all-costs clientelism, Ryan’s 30-year career in national politics is evidence that seriousness, sincerity and respect can be the foundation stones for a successful career.