Lowdown on a shy spin doctor who crossed the Irish Sea and chose to stay

May 1, 1998

THES reporters assess the impact of Labour's first year of government on higher and further education and unravel how they have sold their policies to the country

BACK WHEN Ireland's economy was less admired than it is now, Conor Ryan was profiled in a newspaper feature on the young graduates forced to emigrate in pursuit of a decent living.

Now Ireland has taken on a fresh identity as the Celtic Tiger, but in his mid-thirties Mr Ryan is still this side of the Irish Sea as a special adviser at the Department for Education and Employment. Mr Ryan joined as policy assistant five years ago, when Mr Blunkett was health spokesman, and in government he is one of the group with direct access to him.

While Mr Blunkett was leader of Sheffield City Council, Mr Ryan was a press officer with the Inner London Education Authority. Local government was a formative experience for both. "ILEA was a tough schooling and you needed to know where the minefields were," said one former colleague.

Much of this political nous had doubtless already been acquired back home, where he was involved in the reformist Labour Left group - which mixed leftish views with an impatience with the baggage of traditional nationalism - around Irish Labour leader Dick Spring. In Britain he has chaired the Mitcham and Morden constituency Labour Party and sat on the executive of the Labour Coordinating Committee, a group that has shifted progressively from soft leftism to hard Blairism. Like his boss, he maintained links to the left, writing for the New Statesman and Tribune.

Accounts of the ILEA days abound in the adjectives still applied to him today - professional, organised, reserved and, above all, discreet. He firmly declined to be photographed for this article.

A Quaker, he subverts most Irish stereotypes: "A pleasant enough colleague, but there's a definite reserve about him. He's not one for a riotous evening out." He is far more likely to be found reading Irish history, a passionate interest, or watching Radio Telefis Eireann via satellite.

The style is very different from higher-profile spin doctors. "He isn't an enforcer, you can't imagine him trying to overrule a member of the ministerial team."

But this may makes him more effective. "Charlie Whelan's prospects of a chat show may be improved by all the publicity he gets, but it isn't at all clear that it does Gordon Brown much good. One of Conor's achievements has been to have kept out of the limelight."

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