He, along with TK Whitaker were seminal contributors to the first and second Programmes for Economic Expansion in the late 1950s-60s, that broke with the de Valera-esque model of economic autarky that Fianna Fail followed in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, decisively setting the Republic on a path that reflected acceptance by policymakers of its potential as a small open economy, and which laid foundations still evident in the Republic’s continued top position in global GDP growth tables.
Ryan and Whitaker’s plan saw Ireland dropping its tariffs in the 1960s, restrictions on ownership of businesses by non nationals, and joining the EEC. This reflected an understanding that as a small open economy, Ireland was a ‘price taker’ that could not set its own prices, taxes or tariffs, and that it could do best in a free trade world by competing on its own terms by having competitive taxes, costs, and business conditions. Their model has not been challenged for credibility in the intervening 60 years since they published ‘Economic Development’, the title of the First Programme, published in 1958.
A native of Co Down, like his friend Whitaker, although of different religious backgrounds, (Whitaker Catholic, Ryan Protestant), Ryan was appointed Professor of Economics at Trinity College Dublin in the 1960s. His academic magnum opus was Price Theory, which served as a widely studied economics textbook in British and Irish universities in the 1960s and 70s in particular.
Price Theory applied Marshallian economics, in the empirical Trinity College economics tradition that includes Francis Ysidro Edgeworth, first editor of the Economic Journal, Berkeley, Swift, Burke, and Dublin-dwelling Sir William Petty, and Francis Hutcheson, the Co Down-born philosophical mentor of Adam Smith.
As economics professor he was respected by students and lecturers as pursuing a tolerant and open approach to the conduct of the faculty, which he ran with a wry sense of humour. He was always open to encouraging new entrants from non traditional avenues to the university, with regard to both social background, and age. He was tolerant of contrasting political outlooks also, a strength of his faculty in the 1970s for example, when radical political views surfaced to challenge the orthodoxy in his economics department, commenting once that the Department’s gold prize medal awards to first class students might be renamed the ‘Von Mises’ prize for those winners of a markedly left wing persuasion, after the Austrian libertarian economist Ludwig Von Mises.
Ryan too was one of the most influential economists in the monetary and financial sphere in Ireland. The ‘Report of the Committee on an Irish Money Market’, which he chaired, set out the initial steps that would be needed for the Central Bank and Government to set the stage for the establishment, if needed, for an independent Irish currency.
The report, published in 1968, encouraged the establishment of an Irish money market, with its own framework of bid-offer rates, and considered even a commercial discount market (never actually realised).
Its recommendations were gradually followed through in the 1970s and 1980s, guided by Whitaker, as Governor of the Central Bank until the time eventually did come when the Government needed to be able to push the button, break the historical symbiosis of the Irish and London money markets, break the parity link between the Irish and British pounds and join the European Monetary System, (EMS), the forerunner of the single market currency, the euro.
Ryan's monetary economics interest was followed up with his acceptance of the position of Governor of the Bank of Ireland, in the years 1985 to 1991, completing a cycle that began with the establishment of that bank in 1783 under an Irish Parliament whose existence ended in 1800, and who's bicameral parliament building became, first, the headquarters and then a branch of the same institution that faces across College Green in Dublin to the old office of the economics department at No 6 Regent House in TCD, where professor Ryan held sway for over forty years.