Farm politics in Ireland is in chaos; that is the sad reality.

Farmers don’t know where to look, who to trust, or what lies ahead; which makes this unacceptable situation all the more vexing.

It is our only indigenous sector – the backbone of the economy – and the industry that dragged Ireland out of the depths of its financial depression just a few short years ago.

Yet, it is arguably more vulnerable now than at any time in its history.

At a global level the threats are manyfold: climate change; Brexit; trade wars; a reduction in the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget; the vegan lobby; animal welfare activism; environmental concerns; changing consumer trends; the propagation of misleading and untrue information; and, of course, rural depopulation.

National level

At a national level we can add others to the list: the crisis in the beef sector; disproportionate collateral damage as a result of dairy sector expansion; succession challenges; and steadily declining farm incomes.

While the Government and opposition parties constantly proclaim to “have farmers’ backs”, at farm-gate level many primary producers feel “rejected” by political leaders – which begs the question whether this Government believes the farming vote of today carries the weight that it did in years past?

But the undeniable issue that now adds further salt to open, raw wounds is the fractured and decidedly chaotic state of Irish farm politics.

There is evidently a lack of strong, effective and influential leadership – leadership that is sorely needed to steer the ship to safety…out of the grip of a perilous storm.

Instead of focusing minds, energies and discussions on the construction of unified, workable (policy) solutions – to embolden the sector with new and well-founded confidence – disillusionment and anger prevails.

That it has gotten to this point might well be described as folly – perhaps, in some quarters, a disgrace.

Who’s to blame?

Four years ago, the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) – the largest farm lobby group in the country with a (then) membership of circa 85,000 – was rocked to the core by a controversy involving the salaries of senior figures.

The fallout from the damaging revelations that followed culminated in a major backlash by the association’s grassroots membership, eventually leading to the resignation of secretary general Pat Smith and president Eddie Downey – during a tumultuous period in November 2015.

The election of the IFA’s 15th president followed suit – a campaign in which farmers were promised an “anti-establishment” leader that would “restore and reform” the entity’s sullied reputation.

The figure that emerged victorious – Joe Healy – was a dairy and beef farmer from Athenry, Co. Galway.

Healy’s landslide win might well have been characterised as a “kick in the teeth” for the association’s surviving ‘old guard’ – a cohort that might also be described as an ‘inner sanctum’. What was especially pertinent was that Healy had never held a senior post within the association.

Lofty perch

Well-intentioned as Healy was at the outset of his tenure, judging by the turnout, mood and mandates presented at current IFA presidential hustings, it is evident that this farm lobby goliath has fallen (some distance at least) from its lofty perch.

This must surely represent a failure of leadership within the organisation – beyond the relative confines of the role of presidency.

A core theme of the well-rehearsed speeches rattled off by the new tranche of presidential candidates – John Coughlan; Tim Cullinan; and Angus Woods – is the need for “farmer unity” to fuse the “disconnect” between the association’s Farm Centre headquarters in Dublin and its members – dotted all over the country.

Yet, specific details of how they intend to achieve such an objective are scant.

Below is a sample of the pressing questions – posed repeatedly from the floor at hustings over recent weeks:
  • ‘Why wasn’t the IFA on the picket lines with beef farmers?’
  • ‘How could the IFA let beef sector incomes drop so low?’
  • ‘What is the IFA going to do about its declining membership?’
  • ‘How will the IFA remain relevant with so many other lobby groups now also representing farmers?’

Many would say that these views have been shaped and compounded by the emergence of Beef Plan Movement – the ‘new kid on the block’ that formed late last year within a veritable vacuum of farmer frustration.

Veritable vacuum of farmer frustration

In their view, the IFA had ignored their cry for help, thus creating a space for Beef Plan Movement to bring the issue – in a rumble of thunder – into the public’s consciousness last summer. Thousands of farmers journeyed to Leinster House to pile their idle wellies at the seat of power.

“No longer needed” was the humble message emblazoned across the mound of boots.

Having amassed a (claimed) support base of more than 20,000 members over the previous six months – some of whom were crestfallen or frustrated IFA foot-soldiers; others had never previously involved themselves in farm politics – the movement mounted a series of nationwide protests outside dozens of meat processing plants.

They came out in their hundreds at some factory gates; in the main, they camped peacefully day and night. They circled slowly – permissible by law under the proviso of ‘freedom of expression’ – in the hope that they might precipitate or, more pointedly, force change.

Spirits were buttressed by the kindness of neighbours and strangers, who filled horseboxes and trailers with no-nonsense sandwiches and frappuccino-free flasks.

Consumers and citizens at large (many generations, in some cases, removed from front-line farming) started to ask questions: ‘What is the four-movement rule?”; ‘What is the 30-month age limit?’.

Many other farm organisations rowed in behind too – the Irish Cattle Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA); the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA); the Irish Natura Hill Farmers’ Association (INHFA) – but the IFA’s absence (certainly in an official capacity) was ever more apparent.

Days and weeks passed; yet farmers continued to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in their resolve, keeping their vigil as the headline story on hourly national bulletins. The whole country was talking ‘beef’.

But the processors came out swinging – unleashing a backlash of fury. They pointed to dramatic impacts for their business – citing declines in kill-line activity, staff morale and reputational standing. They also warned that major international contracts were in peril.

While Gardaí appeared to have the situation under control, matters escalated at some plants. There were altercations and threats. Camera phones and solicitors letters became the weapons of choice. Some protests were subsequently stood down; others lingered.

Alas, the one parameter that didn’t move was the fundamental (beef) base price.

Hats at the door

Protesters put their trust in the movement; they listened to its leaders – albeit at times they did not agree. They waited in the wings, while ‘stakeholders’ gathered for the independently-chaired beef sector reform talks at the offices of the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine.

Here the unions could not be splintered; their hats had to be left at the door.

It was their duty to represent all beef farmers – to articulate and communicate in no uncertain terms the gravity of the situation. Their collective mandate was to demand answers and action – from Meat Industry Ireland (MII), Bord Bia, Teagasc and – not least – the Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed.

Talking to those that were inside the room, it’s understood that – after some teething issues – a united front did emerge. They needed strength in numbers.

The resultant Irish Beef Sector Agreement was reached on September 15, 2019.

It was far from perfect; many of the groups around the table privately admit that. Other farmers have rejected it in its entirety. They, it appears, are prepared to return to the picket-lines.

Indeed, some have already taken such action; a snap protest outside Agriculture House (on Kildare Street in Dublin) collapsed the first meeting of the much-anticipated Beef Market Taskforce, before it even commenced.

Much like heifer and steer prices since mid-July, the situation has now stagnated. The silence from the department, MII and the various state agencies is deafening.

Farmers deserve better than this.

Yet again, they are being sidelined and the pot is being stirred once more.

Frustrations are building

Frustrations are building over the lack of progress on setting a new date for the taskforce to meet; there are concerns over the implementation (or lack thereof) of some agreed action points.

The backlog of ‘protest cattle’ in the system is now taking a severe toll. Costs are ratcheting up; winter is closing in.

While most farm unions are supportive of the establishment of the two independent beef producer organisations – aimed at improving primary producers’ negotiating power on price – some are choosing to undermine this initiative.

Aside, concerns are mounting over the pressure that dairy-origin calves will put on the already fragile beef system next spring. Of course, the prospect of the UK exiting the EU still looms menacingly on the horizon.

So, instead of protecting and building upon farmer unity, these lowly buds of solidarity might now rot where they lie – much like the bulk of this year’s potato crop.

If farmers ever needed competent and strong leadership to navigate through dangerous waters, it is right now. That applies to all and sundry – be it the IFA, Beef Plan Movement, ICSA, ICMSA, INHFA, Macra na Feirme or others.

Is it time for a merger or a super group?

Despite what some Dublin-centric politicians may espose, the agriculture sector is simply too important to the wider country, the national economy and rural communities to be ignored.

Nor can it be represented by a fray of fragmented voices with partisan agendas – at this crucial juncture.

When push came to shove last September, they were capable of settling on a ‘common denominator’ – even a shared identity.

The consensus reached in the Irish Beef Sector Agreement is testament to that.

So who is going to step up to the plate?

Some might claim that Beef Plan Movement took charge when it gathered hundreds of farmers in marts and hotels rooms – across the length and breath of the country (prior to the protests). They spoke of revolution.

And, while the road is long and change takes time, many are also asking: ‘Where is Beef Plan Movement now’?

Meanwhile, one of the most unnerving messages filtering through from the IFA’s presidential hustings is the notion of “radically reforming” the association by “bringing it back” to its apparent glory days of the 1980s and 1990s. However, chasing ideals from the distant past won’t hold sway with farmers facing a daunting future.

Should a ‘super group’ approach be embraced? This, of course, will sound like an abhorrence to card-carrying hardliners. But now more than ever – together it stands; divided it falls.