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Thursday 8 December 2016

Keep an eye on the dark horses in the Ag House chase

John Downing profiles some of the likely contenders for the top job in agriculture after the forthcoming General Election

Published 06/01/2016 | 02:30

Simon Coveney
Simon Coveney
Andrew Doyle
Martin Heydon
Eamon O Cuiv

Dr Michael Woods seemed a most unlikely Agriculture Minister when a very pressurised Charlie Haughey appointed him to the post in November 1991. Haughey had just sacked three Ministers as he fended off yet another heave, so Woods's appointment looked like an afterthought.

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But these things are not always what they seem. True, Woods was a native of Bray and represented the extremely urban Dublin North-East.

But he did have farming credentials with degrees in agricultural science up to PhD level. (Round Leinster House he was called the "tomato doctor" because of his PhD specialism.)

He was also one of the most studious people ever to enter Dáil Éireann. While other ministers in Brussels might sample a gourmet meal, Dr Woods was in his hotel room surrounded by CAP documents.

More usually, the appointment of Agriculture Minister is clearly evident from way out. It is always an important appointment - even for a Taoiseach with minimal interest in matters agricultural.

Every seasoned political leader knows the Government need to keep the rural lobby, if not happy, then at least reasonably contented.

They know rural communities have a much higher voter turnout, that the farm unions pack a punch.

Simon Coveney, then aged 38, was one of Fine Gael's young Turks when he was appointed on March 9, 2011. The need for an experienced person who knew Irish farming in practice and academically, helped the Cork South Central TD overcome being on the wrong side in the botched June 2010 leadership heave against Enda Kenny.

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Assuming that Kenny can make it back to Government Buildings - a big assumption just yet - Coveney, who is tipped as a potential future Taoiseach, would undoubtedly like to broaden his canvass.

A heavy-duty economic ministry would help his CV - but that may be grounds enough for Kenny to keep Coveney in Agriculture. So, don't rule out Simon Coveney being kept "down on the farm."

Otherwise, Fine Gael has a large number of people who could make a strong case. A dark horse could be Kildare South TD, Martin Heydon, a farmer from Colbinstown, south of Kilcullen, who is a former student at Kildalton Agricultural College in Kilkenny.

He has quietly impressed as an organised and disciplined operator during his first Dáil term.

Other Fine Gael deputies may feel their case is even stronger. These include Wicklow's Andrew Doyle; Carlow's Pat Deering; and Cork East's Tom Barry.

All have identified closely with their farmer colleagues and enhanced their understanding of the business through good work on the Dáil agriculture committee.

Few farmers ever vote Labour - though mind you many's the rural Labour candidate got farmer votes on a personal basis. Still, agriculture is at best a long-shot for James Connolly's party and would require an extraordinary and unforeseen train of events.

But if you want to speculate on Labour, have a look at Michael McNamara - assuming he can overcome a huge constituency battle in Clare. He is off a farm in Scariff and is no stranger to marts and fairs. Willie Penrose from Westmeath could also stake a claim.

Back closer to the real world, if Fianna Fáil could get their act together to lead a coalition they would not be short of likely agriculture ministers.

We are headed into a very unpredictable election in which some kind of rainbow, or mosaic-like, interparty coalition, could yet emerge as it did back in 1948.

In Fianna Fáil there is the redoubtable Éamon Ó Cúiv, aka "Dev Óg".

Eamon de Valera's grandson has burnished his rural credentials over five decades of activism in Galway West, much of it closely linked to farming and rural development.

Ó Cúiv is a very seasoned politician with junior and senior ministerial experience.

But his heart beats to the west and the small farmer, and his biggest task would be to convince mainstream Irish farming and agribusiness that he was not against them.

'Multi-talented'

Willie O'Dea is most identified with urban Limerick but this multi-talented politician is from a farm in Kilteely and never lost touch with the sector.

Brendan Smith from Cavan is vastly experienced and has the additional benefit of having held the post in the recent past.

And don't rule out Michael Moynihan from Cork North-West, who is also a farmer.

Perhaps worse than Labour, and Ó Cúiv, the prospect of a Sinn Féin agriculture minister would scare mainstream Irish farming and agribusiness.

Veteran ex-IRA prisoner Martin Ferris is off a small farm near Fenit, Co Kerry, and could be in the frame. Others, such as Senator Trevor Ó Clothartaigh of Galway West would rate a mention.

The earlier reference to 1948 brings us neatly to the prospect of an Independent being appointed to Agriculture House. James Dillon, then an Independent deputy, was named as Agriculture Minister in that so-called Interparty Government and performed with style and panache.

The urbane Shane Ross is an unlikely Agriculture Minister. But some colleagues in his Independent Alliance could at least look the part. Michael Fitzmaurice from Galway-Roscommon is a farmer - though as with some others already mentioned - he would need to reassure big farming interests that he was not against them.

It's still early days and the "shadow campaign" or "phoney war" is still playing out. But already it is clear that, whoever wins or loses, there will be utterly no shortage of pretenders for the job of Minister for Agriculture.

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