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Independent.ie

Thursday 8 December 2016

Penrose flies the farming flag for the Labour Party at Leinster House

Downing on politics

Published 27/10/2016 | 07:30

Willie Penrose. Pic Tom Burke
Willie Penrose. Pic Tom Burke

"Farmers rarely 'vote Labour' - but that is not to say that Labour candidates don't get farmer votes."

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That summation by a Labour veteran at Leinster House came to mind in recent weeks as I watched Willie Penrose in action at the Oireachtas agriculture committee.

The Westmeath man is Labour to the core. But it is estimated that one third of his vote comes from the farming community.

His agricultural background was confirmed last week when EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, came to Leinster House, accompanied by two university contemporaries of Penrose.

Gerry Kiely, previously the IFA lobbyist in Brussels in the 1980s, and who now heads the EU Dublin office, was in Penrose's agricultural science class at UCD.

Kilkenny man Tom Tynan, the Commissioner's key adviser, was a year behind that pair in the same UCD faculty.

It is often overlooked that Willie Penrose holds BA and MA degrees in agricultural science. It is also forgotten that NFA firebrand Richard Deasy stood for Labour in the 1969 general election. That was just after the big farmer protests in 1966.

But Mr Deasy got the sum total of 517 votes. It showed that Labour's insistence that "the 1970s will be socialist" did not resonate at farm level.

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Of course Willie Penrose's rural vote is largely personal and a function of his local constituency work. There have been others before him - but not too many.

Penrose's penchant for plain speaking is a help when dealing with country people. His focus on the local came across in recent days when he denounced the Budget for its failure to help mushroom producers.

This Budget was well received but Government claims that it would "Brexit-proof" the economy was longer on rhetoric than reality.

Penrose argues that mushrooms are often produced in places where not much else is happening.

It is also an important income top-up for a lot of rural workers. He believes the Finance Department has an "ideological block" on giving business help in coping with the consequences of Sterling fluctuations.

The devastation in the mushroom sector has been well documented in these pages. Penrose argues that the longer tangible supports are delayed the greater the risk that it will be all too late. There is a sinking feeling that we will hear far more about this before long. Brexit is just a series of headaches.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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