STEVEN DOWNES attempts to pay tribute to Gerry Ryan
It was Gerry Ryan’s 57th birthday yesterday. That, by any measure, is too young an age at which to die, but after many months suffering a debilitating form of cancer, finally, the Selhurst councillor could fight no more.
At times like this, platitudes come too easily. The sense of loss which Gerry’s wife, Jackie, and their sons, Lee and Daniel, will be feeling cannot be underestimated. Our sympathies go out to them and the rest of Gerry’s family and friends.
But the loss will also be felt by Ryan’s colleagues in the Labour group at Croydon Council, who will miss him more than they might guess. His death will also be felt by his fellow members of the Communications Workers’ Union, and by the residents of the council ward which he served with pride, energy and distinction for two decades until his untimely death.
Among some of the first tributes paid to Gerry Ryan was one from another Labour Party activist, who described him as the hardest working campaigner he had ever known. And, within Labour, that is some tribute indeed. But it was well deserved: Gerry Ryan even distributed Labour leaflets on his hospital ward when receiving treatment for cancer last year.
Gerry Ryan was earnest and honest, an old-school Labour union man who took pride in his work, his neighbourhood and his family. Brought up in Croydon, employed as a telephone engineer with BT and a union rep, Ryan was not a career politician for whom personal ambition might come first, last and everywhere in between. He was a regular working man who wanted to make things better in his community.
Ryan joined the Labour Party to get things done. “I could see the Conservative Government was destroying our communities,” he said, speaking of the Conservative Government of Thatcher, Keith Joseph and Nigel Lawson, rather than the present batch of Cameron, Osbourne and Gove.
“It came to a point where I knew I had to join Labour, get active… to do my bit.” For Gerry Ryan, “a stronger, fairer society” was what mattered.
Politically, Ryan was clearly highly regarded, his convictions earning wide respect. But he twice missed out on higher elected office.
Ryan was selected as the parliamentary candidate for Croydon South in 2001, never a winnable proposition, but then in 2007 he won selection for Croydon Central. Two years before, the Tories, through Andrew Pelling, had snatched the seat from Labour’s Geraint Davies by just 75 votes.
Ryan’s fate had handed him the chance of a parliamentary seat when his party was at a 15-year low-point in their popularity, but a split in local Tory ranks saw Pelling decide to stand as an independent against Conservative candidate Gavin Barwell. This offered the Labour councillor an outside chance of electoral success in 2010. In the end, the impact of the global financial crash on Gordon Brown’s outgoing government was too much for him to overcome, and Barwell won by fewer than 3,000 votes.
An all-woman selection for Croydon Central for the 2015 General Election denied Ryan any prospect of offering continuity to Labour supporters in the constituency, but like the loyal party man that he was, he did not stint in his efforts to help his successor as candidate, Sarah Jones, from trying to succeed where he had been thwarted.
“Gerry Ryan spent his life fighting for the values and the people he believed in,” Jones said last night. “He helped me so much during my selection as Labour candidate and was always there with advice and support. I will miss having him to turn to. And Croydon will miss a great man.”
Among other tributes, Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, offered this: “Very sad news that Gerry Ryan has died. A committed and genuine trade unionist, councillor and Labour activist who was widely liked and respected.”
A dedicated Crystal Palace football fan, with the club based in his ward, Ryan used his position to help the Supporters’ Trust and to secure the club’s future when it was under threat of going out of business. Alan Palmer, the chairman of the Crystal Palace Supporters’ Trust, said, “ I got to know Gerry well over many years. He was a passionate Palace fan and also gave CPST great support over the years.
“He was incredibly resolute and determined, typified by the way he fought his illness. He made it to the last Trust AGM in September despite having had a bout of chemotherapy earlier that day. I spoke to him on Christmas Eve and he remained positive and upbeat despite everything he was going through. We discussed all things Palace and it’s difficult to accept that we won’t be doing that again.”
By the time of the most recent Croydon Central selection, Ryan was already beginning to suffer the debilitating effects of his illness. The chemo treatments often meant that he was unable to attend meetings or take his place in the Town Hall chamber.
But he refused to allow the illness to prevent him from canvassing enthusiastically to help win Waddon ward in May 2014 and raising funds through the CWU towards Jones’s election campaign.
“He was at the London Labour Party conference on November 30, and he kept up his campaigning activities right to the end despite his very serious illness,” David White, the secretary of the Croydon Central branch, told Inside Croydon.
“My main memories of Gerry are his enthusiasm and commitment to the Labour and trade union movement.
“He was an example of the type of Labour politician who is becoming too rare these days – someone from a working class background who stays true to his roots and fights for a better deal for working people.”
Next month, the Mayor of Croydon is staging a concert where one of the benefiting charities is the MacMillan Cancer Support fund. It may be a fitting occasion and cause at which to raise funds in memory of Gerry Ryan, the working class councillor and champion for Selhurst who fought for a better deal for working people.
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