In the classic BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius”, there is a wonderful scene where the title character ascends to the position of Roman Emperor in middle age.
Born with a crippling stutter, and a deformity which gave him a life-long limp, the man known to history as Emperor Claudius was considered an embarrassment to the Imperial family. He was barred from most public appearances, and public office. He was denied any miltary commissions. He was condemned to be the butt of mockery from the Roman elite, and the plebs, alike.
But he had an advantage: his perceived harmlessness leads him to be consistently overlooked. Where members of his family suffered mysterious accidents and illnesses, one at a time, Claudius pottered on, nobody taking care to worry about him. When his nephew, Caligula, was murdered in 41AD, Claudius suddenly found himself the oldest living male in the remnants of the Imperial Family. The Praetorian Guard crowned him there and then.
In the BBC series, there then follows a scene where the Senate comes to the palace to protest the election of a “half wit”. Claudius’s riposte is as follows:
“It is true that I am hard of hearing, and that some say I am besides a half wit. But I ask you: How is it that I have survived to rude middle age with half my wits, when thousands have died with all of theirs intact!”
Whether that was a simple observation, or a confession that his life had been a performance, is left up to the viewer to decide. “Play the fool, Claudius”, urges a friend in an earlier episode. “Play the fool and never let them know how dangerous you are”. In the end, Claudius goes on to be one of the greatest Roman Emperors, and we never find out whether it was luck, or cunning, that got him there. Whether this line is a fictional embellishment or not, the BBC Claudius lines up fairly closely with what we know of the real man.
It is to Claudius that I think it is useful to turn when thinking about a historic allegory for Eamon Ryan. And I thought of it particularly yesterday when reading Ben’s report on this:
In addition to this, parking charges could be raised by 400% from 2016 levels. In addition, the modelling proposes reducing the speed limit on national roads by 20 km/h, in an effort to slow vehicles down and make car travel less efficient.
This would be done in conjunction with halving public transport fares, so that as car travel becomes extremely expensive and cumbersome, bus and train travel is made more attractive. The projected end result is a drop in car ownership in cities and towns by anywhere from 10% to 14%.
Transport Minister Eamon Ryan is reportedly set to present a memo to Cabinet on Tuesday laying out the plan to reduce car usage nationally by 2030.
Eamon Ryan is often portrayed in the media as something of a hapless, harmless, sleepy, watercress munching comic sideshow. And yet, he is probably the single most powerful and effective politician in Ireland. If, as many expect, the Greens get obliterated at the next election, it will not be because Eamon Ryan has broken his promises. It will be because he has delivered on them. Spectacularly.
Indeed, on issue after issue, he has run rings around Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. When it comes to compromises between their rural voters, and his urban base, he has triumphed basically every time. In key areas of Government, the Green Agenda, not the FF or FG agenda (to the extent that such a thing exists in the case of those two parties) dominates. Take the biggest issues of the day: Ireland has a Green Minister setting the agenda on refugees. A Green Minister setting the agenda on Energy. A Green Minister keeping the media in line. Green planning regulations dominate the housing policy area, if quietly, while a Fianna Fáil Minister takes the rap.
It is only really in areas where the Greens have no specific agenda, like health, where their influence is not obvious.
And Eamon Ryan has accomplished all this while being portrayed, and indeed widely perceived, as a bit of a daydreamer, to put it kindly.
It also misses the point substantially, I think, to talk about the likely downturn in Green fortunes at the next election. Because I promise you: Eamon Ryan does not care. To be sure, he might prefer if the party increased its vote share and seats, relative to the alternative, but that is not the point. Other parties – especially those two with whom he shares power, care about the next election. Eamon Ryan does not. He would happily trade the permanent transformation of the country in five years for a hiding from the voters.
This is doubly true because of where those votes will go: Remember, people who voted Green at the last election have not exactly come to see the error of their ways. What they have instead discovered is that while the Greens have good intentions, their ideas are simply being implemented in a way that hurts them. And well, that nice Holly Cairns will fix it. Ryan knows well that Green voters are not converted away from Green ideas – they’re just converted to someone else who pledges to implement them slightly differently. He might lose, but he’ll still win.
What we have here folks is no buffoon, but arguably the most successful and influential Irish politician of the 2020s. He has served as a Minister twice. He has seen his party obliterated already, and led it back. He has implemented more of his policy than any other politician of his era. And he has done it all while half the country or more sees him as a slightly harmless eejit.
Play the fool, Claudius. Play the fool indeed.