Eamon Ryan: ‘I will never forget seeing a really nasty comment about my father, who had just died. It has become worse since then’

The departing Green Party leader talks about corrosive social media abuse, his political legacy, and how the State is failing people with special needs

'I can put up a post online and 10 minutes later, 150 comments have been posted, all in a similar vein.' Above, Eamon Ryan in his Dáil office. Photograph: Alan Betson

It was a surprise that one of the big themes of Eamon Ryan’s carefully drafted resignation speech on Tuesday was a broadside against the baleful impact of social media on those involved in public life.

This was surprising because Ryan has always been one of the mildest and non-confrontational politicians in the business, who has responded to every snarl of invective hurled at him throughout his political career with a sanguine, turn-the-other-cheek chirpiness.

For example, before and after his resignation, Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary has hounded, and baited, Ryan on social media with relentless personalised attacks. The Ryanair account gleefully posted the infamous photograph of the Green Party leader asleep during a Dáil debate in the National Convention Centre during Covid. And then it followed it up with a series of mocked-up pictures depicting Ryan wearing a Dunce’s hat. Ryan has not replied.

Eamon Ryan profile: Despite the ‘moonshots’, the Greens leader was a realist at heartOpens in new window ]

“I don’t think that reflects well on Ryanair, or Michael O’Leary,” says Ryan in an interview two days after he announced his resignation. “That’s his decision to follow that approach but in my mind the public will look at that and say: ‘It’s not a great indication of values in Ryanair.’”


His issue with social media is more general than that. For some years now, Ryan has noticed an increase in the volume of polarised, divisive and aggressive online attacks.

“I ignored that for a long while,” he says, but adds that it “reached a stage” where he couldn’t ignore it.

There was one particular person who was ever-present on Ryan’s timeline.

“I didn’t know him from Adam, but whenever I posted he literally spent his entire day posting really nasty invective back,” he says.

It came to a head soon after Ryan’s father, Bob Ryan, died in 2017.

“I never forget one morning waking up and looking at my phone and seeing a really nasty comment about my father, who just died,” says Ryan. “I think he is the only person I’ve ever blocked personally. I could not believe that he had knowingly made such hard comments. It was dispiriting.

“It has become worse since then. It is co-ordinated. I can put up a post and 10 minutes later, 150 comments have been posted, all in a similar vein.”

Personally he tries not to be bothered by it. His concern lies, however, with the potential of actors to sabotage, intimidate, and distort public discourse.

“I do think it poisons the well of public thinking around our agenda. If we allow it to go unchecked, it really would bring in divisive and antagonistic politics in Ireland,” he says.

His solution is not to try to curb or ban such posts because it would restrict freedom of expression and would also be difficult to achieve.

He was involved with politicians from many countries in an international committee on disinformation and fake news in 2018. The best suggestion at the hearings, he said, came from broadcaster and Storyful founder Áine Kerr, who said that local and national media – bedrocks of democracy – needed to be funded adequately to provide a fact-checked antidote to evidence-free online claims.

“Conspiracy theories start to grow – mad stuff, QAnon stuff and it is out there,” he says, referring to the American conspiracy theory that has gripped some online (and offline) in the US.

“The only antidote to that is our trusted intermediaries, independent analysis, which comes from good journalism, good media.”

Eamon Ryan on changes in Ireland: 'I didn’t know my best friend was gay ... We didn’t know what special needs were 40 years ago.' Photograph: Alan Betson

Anyone familiar with Ryan will know how close he was with his father, an approachable, laid-back man who was head of the press office in AIB. Bob had another life after banking as a serious artist. One of his works, a bright abstract landscape, hangs behind Ryan’s desk in his office in Government Buildings where the interview takes place.

Ryan, who has been leader of the Green Party since 2011 and a Dublin TD for 17 of the last 22 years, has described the recent election as “bittersweet” but insists the recent local and European elections are not a prelude to another 2011 electoral meltdown for his party. Green TDs and Senators are unanimous about taking one more spin on the merry-go-round, he says.

“We should try to go into Government. This is not a time for us to be on the bench or sitting on the fence. There’s an ecological imperative in making that change. And also we think we can work with any Government. We’re used to it now,” he says.

He admits that he was surprised when Catherine Martin, the party’s deputy leader and the Minister for Arts, said she would not stand for the leader’s position.

“I think it’s understandable for probably similar reasons for myself. Thirteen years is a long time, and she has done a really good job,” he says.

Green Party leadership contenders offer different selling pointsOpens in new window ]

Roderic O’Gorman says he is not running to be ‘interim leader’ of Green Party after remarks by Catherine MartinOpens in new window ]

In his resignation speech Ryan talked about spending more time with his wife, Victoria White, and their four children, one of whom, a son, has additional needs.

Does he think the Ireland of now is a better place for his son than it was 15 years ago, that his needs are being better addressed?

“Our son is on the autism spectrum and has intellectual disabilities, or what Grace O’Sullivan calls special abilities. No one could argue with parents in those circumstances that our country is satisfactorily providing those services for those families,” says the 60-year-old politician.

“The Cabinet had a big discussion on the issue [on Tuesday], and all three parties agreed that the current system is not serving our young people with special abilities.

“Access to services is not what it should be. The connection between the health system and the education system is not good enough. And even the ability of the health system to provide basic healthcare to people with autism is not, in my mind, adequate.”

After his period in government, Eamon Ryan thinks all Ireland’s cities and towns are on the cusp of huge change in transport. Photograph: Alan Betson

He accepts people see him as irrepressibly optimistic, a Pollyanna. He proves it in the next sentence by saying he loved growing up in Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. The counterpoint, he adds, is that he and other people were unknowing and ignorant of anybody who was different.

“I didn’t know my best friend was gay ... We didn’t know what special needs were 40 years ago. I remember kids in the class who were a bit slower, and the butt of jokes. They actually had disabilities and we didn’t know it,” he says.

“I think this upcoming generation is far more informed and considerate, particularly on diversity, and their insistence on a more equal approach.”

He concedes that the services from the State “need to improve, but the actual culture for people with disabilities, or people from diverse backgrounds, makes it a better place to live now”.

Ryan has often quoted a line from playwright Samuel Beckett when describing the Green experience in politics and the ebbs and flows of its electoral fortunes: “Fail. Fail again. Fail better.”

What has he failed best at during his 30-year career? He homes in on transport. “When I came into politics I was a chairman of the Dublin Cycling campaign. And in the early 1990s, when I looked at my own local environment and asked what was wrong, it was traffic and transport and the lack of safety,” he says.

How the Green Party leadership contest worksOpens in new window ]

On the road with Eamon Ryan: ‘You realise we are not as bad as we seem on social media to each other’Opens in new window ]

After his period in government, he thinks all Ireland’s cities and towns are on the cusp of huge change in transport, because of the substantial investment in active and sustainable transport, and the two-to-one ratio of spending on public transport.

“I believe our time in government, particularly these last four years, has fundamentally changed the future direction of transport, energy, agriculture and land use,” he says. “I believe this has been a transformative government. We have set the country on a course that I don’t think will be reversed.”

What's behind Eamon Ryan's shock resignation?

Listen | 17:42