Cormac McQuinn: 'Taoiseach risking claims of cynicism amid Fine Gael's rocky year with beef farmers'
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's relationship with farmers in 2019 has been rocky to say the least and it all began with an off-the-cuff remark on his efforts to protect the environment.
His now infamous comment on how he was cutting back on eating meat in a bid to reduce his carbon footprint sparked fury among beef farmers.
Opposition politicians were quick to capitalise on a Dublin Taoiseach's apparent lack of consideration for the plight of struggling farmers. It wasn't long before Mr Varadkar was forced to tell the Dáil he enjoyed a "very nice Hereford steak" the previous night, while defending his own personal contribution to the fight against climate change.
Farmers have had a tough year amid a squeeze on beef prices that has caused widespread protests outside processing plants in recent weeks.
And in May - even before the Mercosur deal was reached between the EU and four South American countries - the Government faced a rally of angry farmers outside its away-day Cabinet meeting in Cork. The Taoiseach was heckled with a jibe of "Where's the beef, ya vegan?", showing farmers had not forgotten his remarks from January.
Add Brexit into the mix and Fine Gael is under serious pressure from the farming lobby, which feels under siege from environmentalists, the big meat processors and Brexit despite a €100m aid package.
So what to make of Mr Varadkar's intervention on the Mercosur trade deal and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest? He didn't get to where he is today without being a shrewd political operator.
The burning of the rainforest should be of concern to everyone on the planet, and has been cited by farming organisations opposed to Mercosur.
The issue is a clear instance of where the concerns of environmentalists coincide with those of farmers who fear an extra 100,000 tonnes of cheap Brazilian beef entering the EU market once the deal is ratified.
Why wouldn't the Taoiseach grasp the opportunity to be on the side of two lobbies that are often at loggerheads?
As a bonus, it's a chance to show Fine Gael's environmental credentials in the wake of the surge in support for the Green Party at the local and European elections.
Mr Varadkar's warning that Ireland will seek to block the deal if Brazil doesn't live up to commitments to protect the environment is a political no-brainer. Many will believe it is the right thing to do.
It also leaves him open to claims of cynicism when Fine Gael is not at the top of farmers' Christmas card list.
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