Fine Gael’s eulogies to Richie Ryan reek of revisionism
Party grandees have conveniently forgotten how former minister was sidelined
Richie Ryan, Garret FitzGerald and Nuala Fennell at a Fine Gael press conference in June 1979. Photograph: Eddie Kelly
Sometimes you just have to smile wryly at eulogies and obituaries such is the level of revisionism they reveal. Following the death last week of Richie Ryan, the former Fine Gael minister for finance, former taoiseach and colleague John Bruton hailed him as a hero. He was, according to Bruton, “the most radical minister for finance ever. His commitment to social justice was realistic, rather than rhetorical. The changes he made in extending the tax base, through capital and other taxes, and his simultaneous widening of social welfare coverage, were not equalled by any other minister for finance.”
Funny, then, that Bruton worked himself into quite a lather when Ryan was preparing to introduce a modest wealth tax in 1974. The Fine Gael roof nearly caved in as well-heeled supporters of the party fulminated. FG TD John Kelly insisted “it will have to be pruned so radically as to be unrecognisable”, and he expressed concern that Ryan “is now so temperamentally committed to the proposal that he finds it hard to concede anything”.
He was lampooned on the satirical television programme Hall’s Pictorial Weekly as “Richie Ruin”
Bruton, then parliamentary secretary to the minister for education, was similarly perturbed; he was on the receiving end of protests from wealthy farmers in his Meath constituency and warned taoiseach Liam Cosgrave that the proposed tax had “fundamentally shaken the confidence of our supporters” and that it would damage his electoral prospects due to his strong family connections with the Irish Farmers’ Association, who, he wrote, “played no small part in my election to the Dáil”.
Ryan was unapologetic; indeed, in a letter to Cosgrave, he derided the “highly emotional reaction” to the idea of a wealth tax on property in excess of £50,000 at rates of from 1.5 to 2.5 per cent. The tax was introduced the following year, much watered down; it would be levelled at 1 per cent of the value of assets in excess of £100,000. The family home was exempt, as were bloodstock, livestock and pension rights.
Radical it was not (“a shadow of its socialist self”, as political commentator John Healy put it) and neither was Ryan, but such was the conservative nature of Irish politics that Ryan could be depicted as a screaming red; he was lampooned on the satirical television programme Hall’s Pictorial Weekly as “Richie Ruin” because of the new taxes and rampant inflation of the mid-1970s, but he also, hilariously, earned the label “Red Richie”. Political correspondent Dick Walsh later recalled “watching a fashionable crowd in their Sunday best harangue and harass Richie Ryan in a Dublin hotel, a wedge of farmers among them acting as if not even a window box would be safe from the Revenue men by the time he’d done”.
True, Ryan sanctioned wider social welfare coverage, but this was largely because Labour’s Frank Cluskey, junior minister with responsibility for social welfare, was determined to implement reforms in social benefit including allowances for deserted wives and unmarried mothers, and his demands led to fierce arguments with Ryan. Not that it did Labour much good; as Stephen Collins has recorded, after the coalition lost the general election of 1977, Cluskey met Ryan and said: “Jayzus Richie, you were right. You always said we’d get no fucking thanks for all the welfare increases.”
Ire of feminists
Ryan also earned the ire of some feminists; indeed Christina Murphy, women’s editor of this newspaper, awarded him the “Male Chauvinist of the Year Award” in 1975. Ryan’s wealth tax legislation made the husband responsible for making returns for both himself and his wife, even if she owned most of the property. Ryan also made a speech that year in New York: “We are particularly keen on getting industries with a high male skilled content. The reason is that it is among our men that unemployment has been highest and the consequences of unemployment socially and economically most upsetting.”
Ryan was a decent man, often spiky, independent-minded and funny
Radical he was not; he was pointedly wary of ideology. Regarded as loyal to Cosgrave and resentful of Garret FitzGerald and the “liberal faction” in FG, he fought constantly at cabinet to instil discipline, rein in out-of-control spending and get his colleagues to follow proper procedures. If FG grandees now seek to sing his praises they should also acknowledge how sidelined he became in his own party.
Ryan was a decent man, often spiky, independent-minded and funny, as is evident by some splenetic correspondence in the National Archives from his time as minister. Responding to a lengthy diatribe from one of his cabinet colleagues who was criticised by Ryan for not following cabinet procedures, Ryan wrote: “If the time wasted by the authors, stenographers, typists and copiers had been put to proper use you might have been able to comply with cabinet procedures. As the conscientious officers of my department have useful work to do, I have directed them not to dissipate their time and talents in replying to your department’s logorrhoea. A Happy Christmas to you.”