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Eamon Ryan arriving to the Dáil on his bicycle in 2007 after being elected for the first time Mark Stedman/

What will Eamon Ryan's legacy be?

As Eamon Ryan steps down as Green Party leader, we look at how his time will be remembered.

THE GREEN PARTY in Ireland walks a tricky electoral tightrope – trying to rouse support from voters who may be less interested in environmental issues (and not be ‘too green’ to the point of putting them off) while also vying for votes from leftists and environmentalists who, in the face of the climate crisis, may see the Greens as still not green enough.

It’s been a quest of ups and downs. There was the first go at being a Government party in 2007. The wipeout of 2011. The clawing back of two Dáil seats in 2016. And then, in 2020, Eamon Ryan steered the party to its best ever result in a general election, securing 12 seats and a pathway to the current Government coalition.

But the recent local and European elections were a disappointment for the party as it lost seats around the country, most notably its two MEPs.

It’s in the wake of that loss that Eamon Ryan announced his resignation as leader of the Green Party, a role he has held since 2011. He said, however, that the decision was months in the making and that he will hand over to a “new generation”.

As he does so, what legacy will he leave behind him?

When Ryan became leader thirteen years ago, the party held no seats in the Dáil, having suffered from its role in the coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats.

That was the government in charge at the time of the financial collapse and the recession. By the time the 2011 election came, there was significant negative sentiment from the public towards the parties in government, and while Fianna Fáil was large enough to partly weather the storm, the Greens were not.

Ryan spoke to The Journal in our offices in 2015 to look back on the party’s time in government. He said he wished it had been stronger in the first Budget of that coalition: “The fundamental problem was that for ten years, we had a politics which was based on low tax and high spend, which is fundamentally unsustainable in the long-run… I think we should have been stronger in the first year in office and said, hang on lads, let’s look at what the real economic situation is.”

In the February 2020 election, Ryan was re-elected in the Dublin Bay South constituency, where he topped the poll with 22% of first preferences. He was joined by 11 other Green TDs, making up the party’s largest ever contingent in the Dáil.

Covid-19 hadn’t been a particular point of discussion in that campaign cycle, but within weeks of voters going to the ballot boxes, daily life in Ireland had changed dramatically as the dangerous virus spread.

As the pandemic wore on, fringe groups of conspiracy theorists were making concerted efforts to spread anti-science messaging. The networks developed in far-right spaces during the pandemic were a breeding ground for other disinformation sprees that spilled over since to other areas, like climate denial. Ryan himself has been the subject of some vitriol – including, he told media after announcing his resignation, hurtful comments made about his late father who passed away in 2017.

249Energy Summit_90683394 Eamon Ryan and former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking at an energy summit in Government Buildings in July 2023 Sam Boal / Sam Boal / /

After more than a hundred days of negotiations, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and the Green Party settled on forming a government together. The Programme for Government they developed was not a magnum opus for climate action but it did contain some important plans for how Ireland would play its part in tackling climate change – like ending the issuing of new licenses for exploring and extracting gas -that may not have been on the table if not for the Greens’ involvement.

It was also around this time that Eamon Ryan and Deputy Party Leader Catherine Martin went head-to-head in a leadership contest that Ryan narrowly won – 51.2% to 48.8%.

As Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar – and later Simon Harris – swapped around the roles of Taoiseach and Tánaiste, Ryan sat in Cabinet as Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications and Minister for Transport.

He was at the centre of the passing of Ireland’s Climate Act and the legally binding carbon budgets, as well as the annual Climate Action Plans.

In the long-term, getting the development of infrastructure for offshore wind off the ground will be one of the most impactful moves for Ireland that he oversaw. Likewise, public and active transport options – while still leaving plenty to be desired – are better now than they were five or ten years ago.

It is on the international stage, though, where he perhaps had the most impact.

At the global COP27 climate conference in Egypt in 2022, the EU made him lead negotiator for the bloc on “loss and damage” – that is, how rich, heavy-emitting nations would support countries like small Pacific islands that are already suffering due to the climate crisis. It was the first time loss and damage made it onto a COP agenda and the most closely watched negotiations of the conference, which ended with an agreement to create a dedicated fund. Eamon Ryan played an important role in that.

He was the co-chair of the North Seas Energy Co-Operation in 2022 and was elected as the co-chair of the International Energy Agency for 2024.

And just yesterday, he saw the fruits of another international labour – EU environment ministers passed the Nature Restoration Law after considerable political push and pull over the last two years. Ryan and Green Party colleague Malcolm Noonan had written to reluctant member states to urge them to vote in favour of the law to get it over the line. 

“I love the fact that a small country like Ireland can still have a big voice and use it,” he said in his resigning remarks this afternoon.

There is, however, the matter of Ireland’s emissions. They are not dropping nearly quickly enough to keep the country on track to reach our target of cutting them in half by 2030 compared to 2018 levels. That’s something expert bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Climate Change Advisory Council have warned the government about time and time again but is still not hitting the mark.

Additionally, the implementation of the annual Climate Action Plans has seen lots of actions taken but also plenty of delays. In Q3 of 2022, for instance, the Department of Environment (Ryan’s responsibility) completed only 41% of actions assigned to it on time – the worst of any government department in that period.

While Ryan was at the helm of climate policy, the government was years late submitting its long-term climate strategy to the EU and intervened in a European Court of Human Rights case by elderly Swiss women fighting for states to ramp up climate action. 

As Ryan steps down as Green Party leader, it remains to be seen whether he will stay on as Minister for Climate for the rest of this Government – he indicated he would be happy to stay on but said it will be a decision for the next leader.

With a general election looming and Ryan ruling himself out of another run, one way or another, someone else will need to take up the mantle of leading the government’s climate policy. And certainly, the magnitude of the climate crisis means that they will need to do it with even more haste.

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