Eamon Ryan interviewed by Michael Smith
I meet Eamon Ryan in the restaurant under the Village Office. He is early. As usual he is metrosexually thoughtful, wry, good-natured and very well-informed, though he is strangely unapologetic and rarely truly philosophical. He recently celebrated his fiftieth birthday with an enormous party reflecting his widespread personal popularity. Growing up in Dundrum and Dartry, he did a commerce degree in UCD and finished up teaching on its marketing course. He played a bit of rugby, joining this interviewer on many occasions in an untypically progressive second row for UCD elevenths. Like a lot of people he emigrated in the eighties; he came back and was unemployed, exploring a hippyish side which we have both strategically forgotten. He set up Irish Cycling Safaris (the name itself a marketing triumph). He chaired the Dublin Cycling Campaign. He became a Dublin City Councillor, a TD, and then a Minister. The last few years he has been working in London on climate affairs for E3G, an environmental not-for-profit and in the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) on digital and energy policy. He works three days a week unpaid for the Greens. Contrary to his (serially inaccurate) Wikipedia entry – environmentalists can be vindictive – his pension is €40,000, split between Dáil and Ministerial; severance pay he’ll get back to me about. As he said he would, he’s effectively using it to pay for his work for the Green Party.
I recall that in a previous interview in this magazine he had said he had a libertarian orientation. He tells me his political philosophy was set when he was 15. He did a course in ecology in Gonzaga College, instead of the inter cert, which evoked the inter-connectedness of the world, social and physical/environmental, that everyone’s security is a function of everyone else’s. He’s a Green Christian social democrat. He’s a radical AND a conservative, probably. Christ was radical. Protecting things for the next generation isn’t conservative. Equality isn’t an overarching concern, though he’d prefer a slightly more balanced society. He doesn’t have any less interest in equality than anyone else.
If he is elected to the European Parliament he’ll serve the full five years as it‘s not a launching pad for the Dáil. He’ll stay leader of the Greens if elected, though it will be reviewed after the election. The party is recovering and rebuilding: people see the need for a Green party. Membership has declined from 2000 to 8-900. If the German and Belgian experience is replicated it may take ten years before they are ready to serve in government again.
Greens in Government
He considers the biggest three achievements of the Greens in government would be: if we’ve avoided complete financial collapse, that would be the most important issue; being a major part of the energy transition, not just here but in Europe – influencing climate and renewables directives; and thirdly (and somewhat elusively) certain things they did in government to develop the internet.
The biggest three failures were the first budget after they went into government when they didn’t identify the risk of the crash quickly enough; the loss of public confidence in the government was a failing on their part.; and… he falters and I suggest we can come back to it. “Being within two weeks of getting a Dublin Lord Mayor”. He thinks current Minister Hogan’s heart isn’t in the mayor project – having no position ten weeks before the plebiscite, because Hogan prefers the current Tammany Hall system and the new system of regional authorites – where all the big decisions will be taken – will almost guarantee that Fine Gael is one of the two members who serve on it.
Since he left government he’s done a lot of work on climate gatherings and the lesson is to stop preaching, to get the farming community on board as they know more than we do about. I suggest the future is not about getting public support since the climate can’t wait, and he says “not the entire country but a good 30 or 30%”. And focusing on stag hunting alienated rural Ireland. I suggest climate change and planning might be regrets. Also the fact they only implemented the half of the Kenny report that penalised speculation, not the one that allowed local authorities to buy land at agricultural prices and zone it for development, so promoting plan-led rather than owner/developer-led planning. As to emissions they went down in the Greens time, though they’re up in the last year under the new government. I suggest this was due to the economy not policy. He says the retrofit in buildings, energy, renewables development all contributed. We’ve massively decarbonised industrial production over the last twenty years. According to the Breakthrough Institute, Ireland and Sweden are rare examples of this. There’s no advantage in selling ourselves short as it’s unfair, unnecessarily demoralises and worst underplays the exemplary value of at least some of our practices.
There are two things the Greens get away with that I’m keen to pin him on. First, I ask if he has evidence the Greens genuinely called the unsustainability of the boom. Before they went into government in 2007 he and Dan Boyle went into the Bankers Federation with the sole purpose of drawing its attention to its overexposure to commercial loans. That’s something they should trumpet. He said the same to AIB whose CEO told him he didn’t understand that what AIB lacked was “risk opportunities”. I say that the need for a bank guarantee is often fudged and that the problem was not with the principle but the detail. Obviously he’s reflected on this: “without doubt junior subordinated debt shouldn’t have been included (even thought here wasn’t that much of it) and you’d prefer not to include senior debt and maybe that the guarantee should only have been about future deposits, though it was indeed limited to two years”. He notes the ECB and US Treasury refused to countenance writing off senior debt which legally has to be treated pari passu with deposits. I put it to him that he was ideally placed with his particular stature in the Green Party to have unravelled the agreement. He says he wasn’t centrally involved: he wasn’t talking to David McWilliams. Brian Lenihan was on top of it (people forget he’d lectured in banking law) and he was impressed by the fact former finance ministers Fitzgerald, Dukes, McSharry, Bruton were supportive of the guarantee. He notes that the UK government is going to put €20bn into the Irish economy and AIB and Bank of Ireland will give us back €15bn. The simple maths of risk dictates you look at what the cost of borrowing would be now if there had been no guarantee. He doesn’t stay awake worrying about it, he makes it clear. He says he’s no fan of finance or of the culture of the Department of Finance (even still). I wonder what his attitude was in 2008 and he admits you learn from experience in government.
Second, as to his own achievements in government, I’m a little bewildered as to how good the news on renewables from his tenure as Minister for Energy was and is. He’s bullish. The EU targets for renewables in Ireland are 16% of overall energy and 40% of electricity by 2020. Electricity will be ok – it is already now at over 20%. Transport has increased from 3-4% to 6-7% and the target is 10%. The problem is land use (ie our c 20 gigatonne annual emissions from agriculture) and he feels that we can move to being carbon neutral on that across Europe rather than in Ireland where we’ve a disproportionate amount of cattle. The longer future is electricity running transport and energy as it is the only way to hit zero carbon emissions (because of course electricity is the easiest way to deploy renewables). The ESB’s Strategic Framework to 2020 envisaged expenditure of €4bn in renewable energy projects and €6.5bn “facilitating” renewables including through smart metering and smart networks. It intended raising between €1 billion and €1.5 billion from the capital markets. But much of this has slipped. “Bord Gais and the ESB read the political tea leaves” with government ambivalence to the likes of the opposition to the midlands windfarms just that day contributing to George Osborne’s decisions to delay agreement on €2bn annual sales of renewables to Britain, which he says was a big part of the future. Ryan hasn’t really argued against the government’s weakness on the issue, believing it’s divisive approach to communities is largely responsible for the mess. He doesn’t demur, mind, when I suggest the future is cross-continental transfer of vast-scale Irish wind and wave, Saharan solar and Icelandic geothermal. He demonstrates the new cabling possibilities that can facilitate that, to me with some enthusiasm. Nuclear is twice the price of renewables. Solar has come down by 75% over the last five years, while oil and gas have dramatically increased.
Ryan says electric vehicles is one of the successes, though charging points are still far-flung. I note that in his time the target for electric vehicles was 230,000 by 2020. While there is some improvement on the way, only a paltry 64 electric vehicles were registered in the first ten months of 2013. Perhaps the Greens need to realise that plans, binding – legal – targets and monitoring are what delivers results – not aspirations.
He says the renewables project will win in the end but I wonder if the climate will be so lucky. I ask if we will manage to avoid runaway climate change by keeping warming to 2 degrees. Ryan concedes sorrowfully, No. He used to think Ireland would escape the worst of it but this winter he’s worried for the midlands with flooding. He’s not sure how posterity will judge this generation of environmental policy makers. As to civil disobedience in the cause of climate change he’s not impressed. We need a revolution, but it’s one in everyone’s home, he considers confidently.
Though it hasn’t really registered, the current government has pulled back from many environmental initiatives which it doesn’t see as part of its core mission. Last week 13 countries signed up to a green growth strategy. Only two governments didn’t – one was Ireland. This government pulled the Metro and the incineration levy, halved the retrofit subsidy, handing state energy assets back to the market. “Every day there are decisions I would do differently”. He was surprised by the Labour party agreeing to undo so many green measures and to privatisations such as Irish Water. But he couldn’t have put a legal bind on the Greens’ achievements. I wonder if the Greens could have just focused on environmental issues and left social and economic issues to Fianna Fail but he is scathing seeing them as essentially linked.
On planning I suggest it’s important to look not at legislation but at its effect – in development on the ground. He notes that it’s difficult to tell the effect of the 2010 Act brought in by John Gormley as the construction industry was dead for five years. The 2010 act was a good one. When John Gormley stepped in in Monaghan and elsewhere to seek compliance by local authorities with regional guidelines it was a game-changer.
I suggest a system should have been introduced that rezonings were assessed – at the point of creation – for compliance with a policy hierarchy including the spatial strategy whose quiet demise he laments. By a High Court judge or someone appointed the way the chair of An Bord Pleanala is appointed. Otherwise it’s left – and is still left under the 2010 Act – to third parties – reluctant ministers loth to interfere with local-authority democracy, or NGOs, to seek implementation of official policy. “In fairness to John, he set up five inquiries and the new government came in and scrapped them”. He suggests I come from a legal background and he comes from an implementation background. The problem is people don’t vote for environmental parties and policies. You can try to run rings around the political system but he’s a democrat not a lawyer.
On Communications he considers the Broadcasting Act is the major achievement. It introduced standards, quality and a right of reply. Even a ban on advertising fatty foods to children. He doesn’t agree with the US abolition of the fairness doctrine and disagrees with fashionable attempts to remove the prohibition on broadcasting “offensive” material here. On Pantigate he wishes those who sue had instead used the right of reply provisions.
As to the government I wonder if history will forgive it the policy of austerity. He blames Europe where the policy originates and the EPP who’d a majority on the Council of Ministers. When Sarkozy and Merkel came out at Deauville and said the peripheral countries’ bonds would no longer be valued after 2015 it completely screwed the European economy. The ECB refused to do pump money into the economy. So the correction was excessive in Ireland. The US pumped $85bn of bonds into the economy every month while we lost our nerve. Draghi’s backstopping somewhat rescued it. I’m wondering if people will give the government credit for a turnaround and forgive or forget the social and environmental downsides. He says it’s too soon to tell.
I ask him about Phil Hogan and he says he’s not into details, he’s into politics not policy. He seems to prefer the Local Government side of his brief to the Environment side. His decision to ignore the site-value tax which the previous government had teed up and which was in the programme for government was a fundamental mistake.
He thinks Labour are being rolled over by Fine Gael: they’re fixated on the machinations of the coalition not the direction of the country. They’ve been in coalition so many times it’s like a bad marriage.
He regrets the climate bill. It’s coming in at a time when we can’t even build a grid. The only thing the Irish government says in Europe is we want to protect agriculture. I suggest his own bill lacked binding legal targets but, oblivious, he suggest it had targets – of 40% by 2030 – the bill was a mess of “have regard to” overlapping with “comply”. I note if we were serious about guaranteeing a reduction in emissions a bill could have provided for legally binding targets for different sectors with penalties for breaches. He says with some irritation that we shouldn’t be worrying about whether their bill is better than ours. But it seems to me that this is the point: neither bill was up to the task. Ryan believes the current government doesn’t really care about climate change so any bill would be an achievement. I murmur something to the effect that beyond worthy-looking measures and rhetoric the only thing that matters is results: good planning, reduced emissions, a better environment and quality of life.
EU Parliament election
He believes he’s a suitable candidate because of his applicable experience in climate/energy, digital technology and the internet and in banking regulation. He’s experience in how Dublin works, in government, in the Council of Ministers and with E3G over the last three years. He’s ready to go. He’s pro-Europe and believes of all the Treaties he only voted against Maastricht and the first Nice (because of militarisation). He does not feel the Parliament is a talking shop. The legislative process gives it much greater engagement than the Dáil, through the ‘trialogue’ with the Council and Commission. Most of our laws come from Europe. [ed’s note:this isn’t actually true]. A Rapporteur in the Parliament on a major Directive has as much power as any Minister. Green MEPs changed SOPA for example.
Finally I ask him for his political heroes. Silence. Green Political Heroes? Nothing. John Moriarty, writer. “He’s a Green philosopher, the brightest man I ever met. Amazing, thoughtful, radically, mind-blowingly creative”.