Thursday 28 May 2015

Darragh McCullough: Impressive show of strength but farmers’ goal is much less clear

Published 09/10/2012 | 16:57

Thousands of farmers protest outside Leinster House in Dublin
Thousands of farmers protest outside Leinster House in Dublin

IT WAS quite the sight. Filling Kildare Street end to end were 15,000 farmers, according to garda estimates.

This was despite the fact that the IFA cheerleaders repeatedly told the crowd from the stage outside the Dail that they were to be congratulated for bringing 20,000 of themselves to Dublin for the ‘Day of Action’.

But then, the IFA were never ones to under-estimate themselves.

In terms of effective lobbying, it’s arguable that nobody does it better.

Streets were cordoned off around Merrion Square since 6 o’clock on Monday evening.

At least 10,000 pack lunches to keep the troops fuelled and colourful posters were distributed as over 200 coaches unloaded IFA members from each of vast 947-strong branch network around the country.

“Sure it is only a three and a half hour spin up these days,” remarked one veteran of farm protests from Tralee. “With a bit of luck, I’ll still be home to milk the cows.”

Everything was for a reason. As soon as you entered the Dame Street end of Kildare Street, a wall of farmers and posters greeted baffled urbanites. “We were told to fill up the street to the end,” winked a lean-looking man from Kilteagen. Sure enough, a few yards in, crowd thinned out.

There was a big screen mounted at the end of the road to keep the farmers engaged with the speeches, which were still going over an hour and a half after they started around 1pm.

But all around me, farmers chatted among themselves and on the phone about work back home, the weather, the price of stock, fodder and fuel. Not unlike Croke Park on summer Sunday, parts of the crowd began to drift off as the ultimate speaker, IFA president John Bryan, implored Government leaders to back the farm sector.

By 3pm, the street was empty, the stage already half dismantled and wheelie bins overflowing with posters.

What will it have achieved? Well, the IFA have once again shown the power of numbers that they can muster for any given cause.

Ah, but what was the cause? That’s a little less clear.

Obviously, farmers want to protect their incomes. But the slogans emblazoned on the posters only served to illustrate the number of issues that the farm organisation is attempting to highlight. ‘No CAP cuts, no farm cuts, no more costs, regulate the retailers, fight for the future of family farming’ were the multifaceted messages on every poster.

However, the IFA knows that now is as good a time as any before a Budget that has the potential to throw up controversies for much more vulnerable sectors of society than farmers.

The policy gurus at the Farm Centre in Bluebell also know to that this was possibly a last throw of the dice before the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, goes into CAP negotiations with his EU ministerial counterparts in the run-up to Christmas.

In January the presidency of the EU passes to Ireland for six months, and Minister Coveney will be forced to adopt a less partisan approach in his role as chairman of the farm minister meetings.

It’s a double-edged sword in that Minister Coveney will have a key role in securing any eventual deal but he may be more limited in how much he can push the Irish agenda.

Farmers also know deep down that Europe is where their real battle lies. The upcoming reform of the Common Agricultural Policy has the potential to cause a seismic shift in the way the €1.6bn of EU farm payments are divvied up here. The IFA have reduced the complex proposals to the overly simplistic notion that it will decimate output on Ireland’s most productive farms.

Those attending the protest today probably agree with that statement. What they were less certain about was Europe’s willingness to keep the total amount of subsidies flowing to the same extent. Maybe that was the real motivator for what has been described as one of the biggest farm demonstrations here since 2000. As one farmer put it simply, “if we don’t show a face, they’ll think we don’t really want it.”

In terms of faces shown, it was a mission accomplished. Whether it will yield the desired result remains to be seen.

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