“We are sinners beyond compare,” said Eamon Ryan during his ministerial speech to College staff and students for Green Week 2023. He was referring to Ireland having the highest emission rates per capita in the European Union, but these pre-written words carried an unintended weight. They were uttered mere minutes after a group of student activists were forcibly removed from the lecture hall for protesting his presence there. These protestors came from several groups, namely Students4Change, but also Extinction Rebellion TCD, Time to Act TCD, Connolly Youth Movement, and Trinity People Before Profit. TCDSU President-Elect László Molnárfi and several other students directly addressed Minister Ryan, demanding answers not only on his party’s controversial support for ending the eviction ban but also on how his Green Party’s position in government has meant that they have abandoned the working class in Ireland.
“Since entering into a coalition government with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, it must seem to supporters of the Green Party that many of their core principles have been abandoned.”
These protests came on the back of a bad few weeks (or, more accurately, a bad few years) for the Green Party’s PR. Social media posts from Green Party TDs at a 2018 protest against the government’s housing policies have been unearthed in light of the eviction ban vote. Notably, promises made in their 2020 Election Manifesto have been abandoned, such as working “towards ending Direct Provision”. Considering there are still over 20,000 people in the Direct Provision system, a fifth of them children, it is safe to say that the Green Party has failed on this front. Since entering into a coalition government with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, it must seem to supporters of the Green Party that many of their core principles have been abandoned. Indeed, Eamon Ryan’s recent comments that free public transport would “increase the level of unnecessary trips” seem antithetical to their Green values.
Whilst some good has been done within the transport sector under Ryan’s watch, such as the public transport fare reductions and the introduction of the young adult leap card, the Green Party’s failures in government ring louder than their successes. Ryan’s latest remark about “unnecessary trips” generated much controversy in the media and online, and for a good reason. He did not specify where his research came from when he said that “active travel” would not increase due to free fees. His overarching argument seemed to be that by making public transport free, the increased usage of these services would not mean lower car usage, but merely an increase in the so-called “unnecessary trips” from people who would use public transport anyway. Alongside the cost of implementing such measures, Ryan has clearly not deemed it feasible. This argument, however, holds little weight when we look at other countries. Luxembourg and Malta have free public transport, and other European countries, such as Estonia and Belgium, have zero fares in specific cities. Therefore, it is possible to implement these policies.
Even still, some people may argue Ireland has a far larger population than these countries and cities. This point is where the example of Germany comes in. In the summer of 2022, Germany implemented their €9 ticket for all public transport, including trains, buses, trams and underground systems. The ticket entitled the buyer to a month’s public transport anywhere in the country. This three-month project saw 52 million people avail of the cheap ticket, and according to the World Economic Forum, carbon dioxide emissions were cut by 1.8 million tonnes. In addition, air pollution fell by 7%, and public transport use increased by 10%. Surely this can only be lauded as a success? There are increased demands from German lobby groups to re-implement this cheap fare ticket.
During Eamon Ryan’s visit to College, after his speech (interrupted by protests), and Q&A session (with pre-submitted questions) I got the opportunity to talk to him. I asked him whether Ireland was considering something akin to the German project, whether that be free fees or dramatically reduced fees. Ryan informed me that implementing free fees would cost “600 to 700 million euro” (he told the Dáil 540 million). He also said that although public transport use increased in Germany, traffic was only reduced by 3%, and footfall and cycling levels decreased further. Minister Ryan seemed to think this ended the argument, but I disagreed. Unfortunately, he was soon shuffled out the back door of the JM Synge Lecture Theatre to avoid the protestors outside (who were now joined by the Postgraduate Workers Organisation).
“Unprecedented and radical increases in funding for rural transport routes are needed if the Green Party intends to wean the Irish public off car dependency.”
Since I could not respond to his claims there, I will do so here. Firstly, reducing traffic levels is an entirely separate issue to free public transport. Before taking cars off the road, public transport must be rendered accessible to those who rely on their cars. Particularly outside of Dublin, rural public transport simply does not have the infrastructure to replace the convenience of the car. Unprecedented and radical increases in funding for rural transport routes are needed if the Green Party intends to wean the Irish public off car dependency. Secondly, the decrease in footfall and cycling is irrelevant to the climate emergency. Germany’s 9-euro-ticket saw an astronomical reduction in emissions, and yet Minister Ryan seems to think that fewer people in cycle lanes is a valid reason not to at least try a low-fare or zero-fare scheme.
And anyway, who cares if there is an increase in “unnecessary trips”? Why must every action we take be a small cog in a larger system motivated only by profit? Why can’t we travel for travel’s sake more sustainably? Unfortunately, it seems that the Green Party does not want this. Nor do they want to safeguard the eviction ban. Nor do they want to push to abolish Direct Provision.
Is it any wonder that “Eamon Out” chants reverberated around College when the Minister came to speak?