Farm Ireland

Monday 19 February 2018

Opinion: 'City boy Leo knows between zero and zilch about matters agricultural'

All smiles: Leo Varadkar Picture: Frank McGrath
All smiles: Leo Varadkar Picture: Frank McGrath
John Downing

John Downing

Yes, barring some extraordinary development, the next Taoiseach will be Leo Varadkar.

And again, yes, he knows somewhere between zero and zilch about matters agricultural.

Stand by for tales of summers down on his uncle's farm near Dungarvan. Like the bulk of us townies, there is usually a near enough relative in the family tree who can be cited in extremis to give us some 'culchie cred' when it's needed for political cover. But let's not be too mean here. Above all, let's be realistic.

Walking the corridors of the Department of Agriculture in Kildare Street, and later the European Commission, I was often struck by how urban everything was. The key people may or may not have started life on windswept acres - the point was that they were happy with an indoor job which was clean and did not involve any heavy lifting. The key point is about professionalism and attitude. The politics and economics of farming can be learned in much the same way as most other things.

Much will depend on who Leo Varadkar chooses as Agriculture Minister. Less visible, but equally important, will be who he chooses to advise him on farming and agribusiness issues - especially in this perilous era of Brexit.

Agriculture occupies a curious space in the Irish political landscape. On the one hand, politicians know they must be solicitous of farmers because they can relied upon to go and vote.

Against that, there is sometimes a view that the issue is on a kind of autopilot, something akin to the giant unmanned combine harvesters on the great plains in the American midwest or Canada. That lazy theory has it that EU farm policy, fixed in seven-year budgetary blocs, dictates all and that the Agriculture Department in Dublin is little more than a cheque-issuing agency.

Well that it is a dangerously bogus world view. Events frequently remind us that, while fads and fashions come and go, everybody needs to eat, and farming is at the heart of our social and economic life.

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Varadkar is an urbane city boy from a middle-class Dublin suburb, and he is wise enough to know that he cannot hide that reality. "I was born in Dublin, I grew up in Dublin so I'm a city boy," he told the Farming Independent at the National Ploughing Championships last autumn. "But I think most people in Ireland are just one generation from the farm. My mum used to own a farm, she inherited it from her grandfather in west Waterford. She sold it," he continued.

Like many of us with childhood memories of time in the country, he still fondly remembers packing his bag and heading off to the broad acres of the Déise. "I have a lot of cousins around the same age so they would spend a month in Dublin, and I would spend a month in Waterford. I liked the machinery. My grandfather had a combine harvester and we'd go out cutting in August if the weather was decent. I was really impressed by it all," he said.

All well and good we hear you say. But what is he going to do for farming and country people? Well, there are some hints that he can be prevailed upon to learn. He has spoken a deal about the need to give a better deal on taxation and welfare to the self-employed and has emphasised that he includes farmers in this category.

There were some changes to PRSI for farmers and changes to the Farm Assist and Rural Social schemes in last October's Budget. He will need to do more.

Winning compensation and special EU funding to cushion the effects of Brexit will be crucial.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

'Each week on the Floating Voter, INM's political team discuss the main issues affecting Irish politics, bursting the bubble that surrounds Leinster House.'

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