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Saturday 20 April 2019

John Downing: Farm leaders have a fine tradition of cutting it on the political frontline

John Comer on his dairy and beef farm in Ballyvary, Co. Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan
John Comer on his dairy and beef farm in Ballyvary, Co. Mayo. Photo: Keith Heneghan
John Downing

John Downing

John Comer, the former ICMSA president from Mayo, has joined a long line of farm union leaders having a shot at national politics.

On Friday in Longford, Fianna Fáil delegates from the sprawling constituency of Midlands North West will choose their candidate for the forthcoming European Parliament elections on May 24. This constituency is some beast of a creation. It comprises Connacht, the three Republic counties of Ulster, and a chunk of North Leinster.

Fianna Fáil's original thinking was that sitting TDs would not stand in this Euro contest. Now that idea has gone by the wayside as former Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith of Cavan, Galway East TD Anne Rabbitte and former Donegal TD Niall Blaney, are all cited as potential candidates.

That makes things difficult for Mr Comer, the first Connacht farm leader to head the ICMSA. But we hear he's holding tough and he has pitched his case in terms of rural and provincial Ireland, on grounds that the strong towns all across this swathe of country are interlinked with the farmlands both socially and economically.

"I was never a quitter and I believe voters should have the widest available choice in any political contest," he told the Farming Independent.

Comer, like most Irish farm leaders, already knows his way around the EU machine. He has maintained contact with Brussels via membership of the Economic and Social Committee which groups employers, unions, farmers and social organisations, and meets frequently in the EU capital, offering a huge volume of information to its members.

Farm union leaders down the years have played a strong role in Irish political life dating back to this State's foundation when they had their own political party.

More recently, TJ Maher was an Independent MEP for the old Munster Constituency from 1979 until 1994. He was a very high-profile president of the IFA from the late 1960s. But like John Comer, his pitch was also towards rural communities and small town dwellers.

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In many ways TJ Maher, who died in 2002 just days short of his 80th birthday, blazed a trail for a new generation of farm activists turned politicians.

In 1989 he was joined by another former IFA president, Paddy Lane, who came from the Limerick-Clare border and sported the Fianna Fáil colours, serving one term in the European Parliament.

He was followed in the Brussels/Strasbourg assembly by a third IFA leader, Alan Gillis of Kildare/Wicklow, who represented Fine Gael from 1994 until 1999. Alan Gillis led the IFA in difficult years from 1990 until 1994 which saw huge CAP changes.

Soon after he was followed into national politics by another IFA man, Tom Parlon of Offaly, who won a seat for the Progressive Democrats in 2002 and was junior minister responsible for the OPW. These days he lobbies for the builders' organisation, CIF.

Most farm leaders turned politicians have been IFA people. But we're not forgetting Jackie Cahill, a former ICMSA president, now a dogged Fianna Fáil TD for Tipperary, and a predecessor of John Comer's.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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