As sure as night follows day, one of the inevitabilities of political life is not being able to live up to lofty promises made during election campaigns — but Green Party leader Eamon Ryan is adamant that his junior Government party has achieved plenty.
Bearing the brunt of public ire for seemingly propping up the once unthinkable Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael partnership, the smaller party is invariably the punching bag for political opponents and supporters alike.
Has the Green Party actually been successful since its unexpected electoral surge in 2020? Exploring social media in recent months, with Mr Ryan in the crosshairs, would tell you it’s been a big letdown.
Drilling down into actual detail will tell a wholly different story, the minister insists.
“From my perspective, there are so many achievements. First, it was an achievement in agreeing a Programme for Government that is very green and very ambitious. My colleague in Europe, Philippe Lambert of the Greens–European Free Alliance, he looked at the Programme for Government and said it was the greenest programme he had seen. Negotiating that was the first real achievement,” Mr Ryan said.
What are the signature achievements then, theasks — not aspirational things, but what is tangible?
“I’m thinking of recent weeks — what Roderic O’Gorman did with adoption rights, the right to know who your parents are, was transformative. What Catherine Martin is doing on basic income for artists and how she helped the artist community through the very difficult Covid period, that support is significant.”
He held up reduced transport fares, improved financial resources for the National Parks and Wildlife Service, and a deposit refund scheme for plastic bottles too.
“On my own side, the introduction of the national retrofit programme. The 80% grants we are providing for people to put in emergency attic and wall insulation in response to the crisis. I could keep going on,” Mr Ryan said.
According to the official guidance, “grants for cavity wall and attic insulation will more than triple as part of the Government’s response to the current exceptionally high energy prices”.
The Departments of Environment and of the Taoiseach say: “For instance, in the case of a semi-detached home, the attic insulation grant will increase from €400 to €1,300 and the cavity wall insulation grant will increase from €400 to €1,200. These are highly cost-effective upgrade measures that can be deployed rapidly and at scale this year. It is expected that these works will pay back in one to two years in most houses.”
The new grant rates will cover approximately 80% of the typical cost of these measures and will be available to all homeowners, the Departments add.
The criticism of many of these schemes, though, has been that often those most in need of the savings will not be in a position to cover the upfront cost needed for the initial works.
Mr Ryan insists that the investment will start to be repaid immediately through energy savings.
“It is not so expensive. It is not the €30,000 to €50,000 job, it is a few thousand euro. With an 80% grant and a credit union loan to make the balance, that’s a very credible pathway to cutting bills.”
When it comes to agriculture, there is no bigger bogeyman than Eamon Ryan for some farmers.
What does an academic type from leafy Dublin know about what is good for farmers in rural Ireland?
The Environment Minister insists he is there to help farmers, despite resistance from lobby groups to the suggested changes to agriculture.
“It is a change to the system, and change is never easy. We are going to have to change to address this climate challenge.”
Mr Ryan says he will listen to people and insists he won’t tell them what to do, but stresses that agriculture will, in his opinion, be “better off in a lower carbon future”.
Methane is seen as one of Ireland’s biggest elephants in the room, and must be tackled if we are to get serious about overall emissions reduction, according to environmental scientists.
Saying so is not an attack on farmers and their traditions, according to Mr Ryan.
Sustainable farming will mean a thriving future for Irish agriculture rather than clinging to unsustainable ways, he adds.
“There are various examples of why I think that will be the case. Firstly, if you look particularly at the moment, the price of fertilisers, the price of diesel, the cost inputs, the price of imported grain. All are really expensive and it is unlikely that they will switch back even if the Ukrainian war concludes. So we are exposed to high input costs.
“The advantage of the more sustainable farming system is particularly I think, as we move towards mixed-sward grasslands. We are naturally by nature and tradition and so on very good at growing grass. But we are currently growing grass with this very high cost and input cost fertiliser, single rye grass type system, monoculture.
“The benefit of switching to the multi-sward system — where you might plant up to about 12 different varieties and including legumes and herbs and clover as well as different grass varieties — is firstly, you’ve a huge reduction in fertiliser use, which saves you money. What I hear from the farms that are starting to switch to this is that you have a better output in terms of better health, quicker gain in weight in animals, and better gains, but also you have a much more climate-resilient grassland system. Because with that multigrass sward, you have very deep root systems, and that means if you have a drought like you had in 2018, or if you have floods like we have had every second or third year like in recent years, the grass system is much more resilient.”
Climate change has already struck farmers in Ireland, and adaptation to its reality is crucial for not only agriculture’s survival, but its growth, Mr Ryan says.
“If you look at what we produce and sell, be in dairy or beef or sheep export market, we trade on Origin Green brand. It’s absolutely clear now that if you try and trade on Origin Green but you aren’t doing it in reality, you risk either the consumer market or the financial markets at some point saying to you, sorry, we can’t but your product, or we won’t pay the price, because we’re not certain that you are heading in the sustainable direction.
“What are the implications of that? For the large coops and producers, processors, and retailers, that means that those who are dependent on those financial markets, they’re out doing the marketing, they will have to pay a better price to the primary producer to make sure that they are sustainable in everything that they do.
“It’s not just CAP that is going in that direction. It’s not just government funding, but the private market goes in that direction, because the markets we sell into Germany and Britain and France and America and China, they all want environmental standards. Why would we continue with a system where we have very high pollution in our waterways? We have lost our biodiversity, we have lost a huge amount over 50 years, and we will reverse that,” he said.
For all of the Green Party’s achievements in Government that Eamon Ryan will tout, there have been areas of criticism that it cannot ignore.
The Green Party was against the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) in the past, with Mr Ryan at the forefront of vociferous criticism against it in 2017.
According to environmental campaigners, CETA is beholden to big business, with the perception that settling disputes between international companies and national governments could allow firms to sue a state for damages if a government introduces new laws or policies that the company thinks will reduce its future profits.
Mr Ryan himself called it a “bad deal” in 2017, but the Green Party in Government agreed with its partners that it would support CETA. Mr Ryan himself said in 2020 that he had changed his mind about CETA and that he would be urging his party colleagues to vote for ratification.
In mid-2022, Mr Ryan reflects on the u-turn when asked if it is a scar on the Green Party.
“It is important you do have a sense of trust and they have a sense of trust in you. On CETA and liquid natural gas (LNG), on the trade issues, there is a recognition that this country does benefit from being an open trading country.
“We’re not going to shut the door or go back to pre-Lemass eras. It wouldn’t work for us, especially in this climate world, in the transition we have to make. We need to be able to trade, and my emphasis would be on things that we can impact upon. Things like CETA are done and dusted long ago, and so far down the track that it’s not the easiest thing to change. But can we change the trade agreements that are coming up? I think we can in Government, and that’s something we can really steer. You focus on where you can affect real change,” he said.
LNG is “something we have to look at”, according to Mr Ryan.
“The world is in a unique crisis because of the Ukraine war and the price of gas being so high. We have a series of reports looking into this, an energy security review looking at what our approach is, which has to be completed by the end of the year. A hydrogen strategy by the end of the year has to be completed, because they are connected. Thirdly, a Shannon estuary taskforce – one vision is to build the likes of an LNG terminal and a data centre and a power station beside it, and it is self-contained almost.”
The other vision is Ireland goes towards hydrogen, Mr Ryan said.
Green hydrogen produces energy through the electrolysis of water, while eliminating emissions by using renewable energy.
Its supporters say it could completely revolutionise clean energy, while its detractors say it is too cumbersome and costly to achieve on a mass scale.
However, some detractors have now come completely around to it as costs come down and its viability becomes clearer.
Mr Ryan said: “That’s where the ESB want us to go. When I am out at international conferences and talking to the leading experts and colleagues in other governments, I ask the question if you were in a system like Ireland, where we’re not dependent on Russian gas, where we’re not connected to that system – we’re connected to the UK and Norwegian system, which is very different – would you go hydrogen or would you go gas?
“Most of the leading experts say to me that hydrogen is coming at a speed where it would be the clever investment. We’ll look at that and by the end of the year, come to a conclusion. What will help in hydrogen is the scale. There isn’t green hydrogen at scale really yet, but everyone is investing in it. I expect it to come. Large-scale global manufacturing of power generation equipment is now hydrogen compatible.
“There is a quote from Bill Gates that I always liked – people overestimate what you can do in a year, but underestimate what you can do in a decade. I think it’s true. We think everything will change in a year, but it won’t. But in a decade, where do I think hydrogen power will be? I think it will be mainstream.”
By the time the Green Party has finished its term in Government, Eamon Ryan wants regional rebalance to have begun in earnest.
That means time is of the essence, and he has ramped up pressure on local authorities to get signature projects completed in swift fashion — that means new bus and cycling and walking routes done and dusted within a year or two.
He said there is “too much development” in Dublin and air traffic, port traffic, and housing is all concentrated around the city.
“Dublin needs Cork, Limerick, Galway, Waterford and towns and villages around the country to rise. It’s not happening yet. I can look out of the window in my office and see cranes everywhere. When I go down to Cork or Limerick or Waterford or Galway, I don’t see half as many cranes. I want that kickstarted by the time I finish in this Government.
It is time to weave aspirational projects into significant deliveries in regional Ireland, he said.
“If you look at Cork, people have been talking about this for decades, but the docks either side of the river — the south socks near the old Dunlop’s site all the way to Mahon, that has to be the most attractive, stunning development within walking distance to the town, open and very large land areas.
“We’ve been talking about it for long enough, we need to sort it out. Part of that can be providing the bus connections, providing the active travel connections, so that you could live there and cycle up and down the Lee and get in and out of town, and get out to UCC. That would make it a really attractive place.
“Similarly, on the other side, take Tivoli on the other sides, we’re currently building out the new metropolitan rail system in Cork from Midleton to Mallow. The works are ongoing at Kent Station to allow trains to run straight through. I’m meeting the Port of Cork shortly and I will be saying to them that on either side of the river, we need you to move. We need you to help us deliver those sorts of sites as development sites for housing in the centre of Cork.
“By putting a train station in Tivoli, you’ll make it an incredibly attractive place — a 10-minute train service for that sort of line, and it’s cheap because it doesn’t require difficult planning. Those stations are not expensive to build when you think of existing infrastructure, existing railway lines. You can put in new train stations at relatively low cost. But the benefit is for every developer then says I’ll go to Tivoli because that’s a big site, it’s a huge land area. It’s currently used to store containers — why not make that a new community? Those are the kind of projects to be accelerated.”
It is not just Cork, but Limerick and Waterford and Galway that the Transport Minister wants quick wins, he says.
“In the European Recovery Resilience Fund, what was the transport project that got priority and funding? It was the Cork metropolitan rail network, starting that upgrade and twin tracking and pass through systems. The same in Limerick, existing lines are underused. We need to reopen the Foynes line, we need a station in the likes of Moyross or Ballysimon on the other side of the city. We need to look at the Ballybrophy line as a kind of opportunity to get a really high quality community rail system into Limerick.
“What I am saying to Irish Rail is can we deliver that station in Moyross in the next three years? It’s not expensive, it’s a single track line at the moment. What Irish Rail said to me is that we could do that very quickly. Reopening the Foynes line — yes, you need a certain amount of restoration but it’s not impossible. At least to Foynes, which is a port that is going to be massively developed as we develop offshore energy, so that makes strategic sense. This is not aspirational, it is very real and achievable.
“Same in Galway, if you take Oranmore station or upgrading Athenry to Galway line, that would have huge benefit for a city that is clogged with traffic. I’ll be signing the contract for that in the next couple of weeks. If you take Waterford, we’re about to go to tender for a new pedestrian bridge across the Suir, and moving the train station in Waterford from just outside the city centre down the quays to the north bank of the Suir. That would open those development lands in the same way like Tivoli.
“Those lands which are vacant at the moment on the Ferrybank side in Waterford, and with a new pedestrian bridge across, you’re right in the city centre, you’d have a train service right to your door. It’s not expensive and difficult to plan. Those are some of the most important projects I want to deliver during our time in Government.”