Obituary: George Ryan, city councillor

Popular Glasgow City councillor who was a passionate campaigner for social justice
Popular Glasgow City councillor who was a passionate campaigner for social justice
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Born: 9 February, 1963, in Glasgow. Died: 5 October, 2013, in Glasgow, aged 50

George Ryan was a popular Glasgow City councillor who served on the council’s executive in numerous key roles for 18 years. He was a staunch socialist, union activist and passionate advocate of social justice. An apparent heart attack on Saturday prevented the father of three from completing his latest five-year term, due to end in 2017. A keen Celtic fan, he was reportedly on his way home from their 2-0 victory over Motherwell at Parkhead on Saturday when he died.

From 1995, Ryan was a Labour councillor for Glasgow’s Shettleston ward, often described as the poorest council ward in Britain, where his twice-a-month “surgery” at Eastbank Academy became a haven for constituents seeking his advice or simply to have an often-justified moan about council policies.

During his 18 years in the City Chambers on Glasgow’s George Square, Ryan served in numerous executive posts, latterly as executive member for business and the economy, with responsibility for economic investment, tourism, housing, social regeneration and building control.

In 2008, citing “family reasons”, he turned down the chance to run in a by-election as a Labour candidate for Glasgow East at Westminster.

The SNP went on to win the seat – a major setback for struggling prime minister Gordon Brown – although in the general elections of 2010 it returned to Labour and is now held by Margaret Curran, former MSP for Glasgow Baillieston and the current shadow secretary of state for Scotland.

During his tenure at the City Chambers, Ryan was praised for helping push through the so-called Glasgow Living Wage in 2009, committing the council to paying a minimum wage of £7 an hour to its employees and thereby throwing down a challenge not only to other Scottish councils but to employers in general.

Also in 2009, he was a driving force behind the Commonwealth Apprenticeship Initiative (CAI) to help Glasgow school leavers get into two-year “time-served” apprenticeships by offering financial incentives to businesses in return for creating new vacancies. The scheme, originally known as Modern Apprenticeships, was aimed at helping school-leavers reap some of the economic benefits of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in the city.

He was particularly proud, in 2009, of seeing 15 young apprentices work on the five-mile extension link between the M74 and the M8.

“I am proud of the role we played – along with Interlink, the Glasgow East Regeneration Agency and our local government partners – in establishing the M74 Employment Partnership,” he said.

“The project has given these young people the skills and opportunity to secure apprenticeships on the biggest engineering project in the country… and successful careers in a great industry.”

Motorists, of course, were less enamoured after the extension link work caused major delays and forced long detours until it was opened by Transport Scotland in June 2011.

Safety was close to Ryan’s heart. While serving in the City Chambers, he also held down a professional career in health and safety.

George Ryan was born in Rottenrow hospital, Glasgow, not far from his parents’ home in Carntyne. His father, also George, was a machine operator at Albion Motors, later British Leyland, and heavily involved in trade unions, which gave young George a lifelong passion for supporting the working man and the underdog.

His grandfather and uncle were both miners. After the family moved to the Cranhill district of Glasgow, he went to St Modan’s primary school and St Gregory’s secondary before serving an apprenticeship as a car mechanic with Arnold Clark Motors.

He joined the Transport and General Workers’ Union straight out of school and remained a staunch unionist throughout his life, including within the city council.

He would later get a degree in Social Sciences from Glasgow Caledonian University and did a postgraduate course in Risk and Occupational Health and Safety at the University of Strathclyde.

He became a health and safety officer for South Lanarkshire and retained that job after joining Glasgow City Council.

While in the city council, Ryan was also a board member of the Glasgow-based Wise Group, a commercial but social enterprise which helps people gain new skills to get them off benefits and into work.

He was also a board member of Clyde Gateway, the urban regeneration company based at Glasgow’s Bridgeton Cross which works in co-operation with the city council, South Lankarshire council and Scottish Enterprise, with funding from the Scottish Government, and aims to create a legacy for the east end of Glasgow after the Commonwealth Games.

In recent years, he was a key figure behind saving the famous Lighthouse building in Glasgow’s Mitchell Lane, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and turning it into Scotland’s National Centre for Architecture and Design.

As part of the territory as a councillor, Ryan did not escape criticism during his career.

In 2008, he was seen as a shoo-in to be Labour candidate for Glasgow East at Westminster – and therefore what seemed like an almost certain MP – when he abruptly and shockingly withdrew his candidacy for the by-election.

It was a massive blow to Gordon Brown, whose tenure at Number 10 was becoming increasingly at risk. “He has dropped us right in it,” one local party official said.

And as things turned out, the SNP’s John Mason won the by-election in what had been considered a safe labour seat, defeating Labour’s Margaret Curran. (She won the seat back for Labour at the 2010 general election). Ryan also faced criticism from lovers of Glasgow’s historic Paddy’s Market after he and the council voted to close it down and re-develop it.

He also suffered somewhat from his close ties to Steven Purcell, who, as leader of the Glasgow council, was his immediate boss from 2005 but was forced to resign in 2010 amid reports of erratic behaviour he put down to “stress and exhaustiom”.

Media reports had spoken of drugs and alcohol abuse although Purcell and his lawyers denied this. Purcell, councillor for Drumchapel and Anniesland, had been a rising star in the Labour Party.

George Ryan is survived by his longtime partner Linda Croker, originally from Liverpool, his children Christopher, Deborah and Sophie, his father George, his brother Marcus and sister Anne.