I became involved in politics out of urgency

We continue our series of interviews with Cork women who are vying for a European Parliament seat. COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to Eilis Ryan
I became involved in politics out of urgency
Cllr. Eilis Ryan during an announcement by The Workers' Party That Eilis Ryan she is to be their candidate for the European Parliament elections in Buswells Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

GROWING up in Cork as the daughter of former Senator, Brendan Ryan, Eilis Ryan was used to political debate, the airing of issues and going to demonstrations and protests.

Both her father and mother, Claire O’Connell, brought Eilis and her two siblings up to respect everybody and to be aware of the struggles people go through. Eilis, 35, who has a keen sense of social justice, has followed in her father’s footsteps.

A Workers’ Party councillor who represents the Dublin north inner city area, Eilis is a candidate in both the local elections and the European elections. She works part-time with an organisation called Financial Justice Ireland, which campaigns to resolve the debt crises in Africa and Latin America. She has previously worked in human rights in East Timor and Peru.

Surprisingly perhaps, Eilis says she is not ambitious.

“In a lot of ways, I don’t think I’m suited to politics. I’m not competitive but I do understand the urgency of the situation that we face.

“I think for most young people like myself, the future doesn’t look that great. There’s climate change and there’s the fact that none of us are looking forward to stable pensions. Most young people have very precarious jobs so the future looks a bit bleak. I think, then, that people get involved in politics not out of ambition but out of urgency.”

Eilis says she has never been interested in politics as a career.

“I’m interested in doing whatever is necessary to make the world a better place. So I first got involved in NGOs. But I would have realised that we need to be able to fight back within the system that’s there. As a result, I knew I needed to join a political party.

“While I’d be very happy if someone else was doing the running for election, I think it’s very important to be involved in political organisations.”

Initially, Eilis joined the Labour party.

“I knew I was to the left of Labour. I consider myself a socialist. But when I was in my mid-twenties, there wasn’t a big socialist organisation around. I wasn’t interested in the ideological debates that were going on. I just thought the sensible thing was to join a trade union party. So I joined the Labour party. But I guess as soon as they went into government, I saw the policies they were pursuing and realised it wasn’t the party for me. So I joined the Workers’ Party four years ago. Their ideas make a lot of sense. The things they propose, such as the right of people to have housing and the idea that the economy should be run for ordinary people instead of investors, are very ordinary ideas and not extremist at all. It’s the people who want to build a world on profit and keep the economy going, even though we have so much homelessness, that’s what should be considered extremist.”

Eilis was involved in the establishment of the Dublin 7 Housing Action Campaign.

“We primarily focused on O’Devaney Gardens which was used for public housing. The housing was knocked down and instead of building new public housing, 70% of the new homes there are going to be private housing. Unfortunately, we didn’t succeed in our campaign that the site be used to house ordinary people rather than have investors make money out of it. But we did draw attention to the idea of public housing on public land. I think that has had an impact on other sites in the city whereby they’ll be developed for 100% public housing.”

A feminist, Eilis, who is single and doesn’t have children, feels that feminism isn’t always about equality. “There are many women who have an awful lot of power and privilege in our society. Sometimes I think that feminism, as adopted by the likes of Fine Gael, really just means that the couple of women at the top get equality and ordinary women continue to face the same challenges they’ve always faced.

“For feminism to be meaningful, it should be for all women. You really have to integrate it with left wing politics. You’re talking about things like workers’ rights for women and housing rather than just having a woman on the board of a company.”

Eilis, who attended St Angela’s secondary school in Cork, is a graduate of NUI Galway where she studied history and Italian.

After her sojourn in Peru and East Timor, she realised that she wanted to be involved in politics rather than charity. She was looking for a way to get back to Ireland when she spotted an ad on the internet looking for a manager at the hostel on Inishbofin island, off Galway. It was an idyllic post. Eilis, who is very musical, got involved in sessions in the pub. She likes folk music and bluegrass, plays the violin and guitar, and has a good singing voice. She spent six months on Inishbofin, playing a lot of music and practising her Irish.

“I nearly considered staying on there. I loved living there and I’d be delighted to live in the middle of nowhere.”

In Dublin, where Eilis ended up for work reasons, she enjoys attending local history gatherings.

“Local history has become a big draw for people,” she says.

The concentration of jobs in Dublin, she says, “needs to change so that people aren’t so dependent on living in the city.

“It’s not really sustainable. And I think it’s important that we put a focus on developing other cities around the country and creating new cities so that some of the pressure is taken off Dublin. That would be in the interests of Dublin people as well.”

On the subject of Brexit, Eilis thinks the state of politics in the UK has “very little to do with Brexit”.

She explained: “You have this Conservative government and they have no interest in ordinary workers. It’s more to do with the Conservative ideology which is very right wing. It’s interesting that in defence and in the financial sector, deals have been done on the side. It’s in the areas that affect workers that deals haven’t been done.

“When you look at Jeremy Corbyn, he is putting forward credible ideas around Brexit but he hasn’t been involved in the conversation. I think it would be in our interest if there was a general election there and a change of government.”

It has been said that Corbyn is not leadership material. But Eilis says he has “mobilised huge numbers of young people. There is this urgency. Young people really don’t have the luxury of taking more of the same. They can see it’s taking the world to a very dangerous place so they are willing to look at more radical options and certainly, Jeremy Corbyn represents radicalism.”

Her father, Brendan Ryan, now retired, started out as an independent senator before joining the Labour party. He comes to Dublin to lend a hand canvassing for his daughter’s campaign. Eilis is particularly worried about climate change.

“People in the likes of Fine Gael try to suggest that you can just give industry tax breaks and that will solve the problem. But there is a need for massive public investment in new technologies and free public transport. None of that is happening. Our government is just not interested in anything that requires public investment. If that continues to be the ideology of government, then climate change is going to get worse.”

Eilis has developed a Dublin accent but says as soon as her mother talks to her on the phone, her Cork accent returns. She doesn’t come back to Cork as much as she would like — she tends to go to Kerry where her parents spend their holidays. An instinctive politician rather than a careerist one, she says she is daunted by the European elections but excited at the same time.

“We have big challenges facing us which have to be dealt with at a global level,” she concludes.

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