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Hugh O'Connell: 'Leo spared farmers' beef, only to run into kitchen sink drama'

Hugh O'Connell


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In market for votes: Oliver Manley, from Glenville, Co Cork, talks to Leo Varadkar at Fermoy Mart, as local Fine Gael candidate Pa O’Driscoll looks on. Photo: Douglas O’Connor

In market for votes: Oliver Manley, from Glenville, Co Cork, talks to Leo Varadkar at Fermoy Mart, as local Fine Gael candidate Pa O’Driscoll looks on. Photo: Douglas O’Connor

In market for votes: Oliver Manley, from Glenville, Co Cork, talks to Leo Varadkar at Fermoy Mart, as local Fine Gael candidate Pa O’Driscoll looks on. Photo: Douglas O’Connor

As he moved through the large cattle mart on the outskirts of Fermoy there was little evidence that the Taoiseach is as unpopular as the polls suggest he has become in recent months.

Leo Varadkar on the campaign trail can be a mixed bag of shy and awkward, but he tries hard. He shook hands, posed for pictures, smiled and listened intently as farmers engaged with him.

At one point he even waved at the cattle. No votes there, unfortunately.

By contrast, Tánaiste Simon Coveney, a former agriculture minister, appeared more sure-footed and engaged as he spoke with two young volunteers fundraising for victims of Chernobyl, while the Taoiseach stood silently to the side of the group.

But in a building packed with farmers, there was little evidence of the fury they have vented on the streets of Dublin and at beef factories in recent times.

Those that were irate preferred to engage the current Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, who got an earful from one farmer who told him: "There's no point in trying to say that €4 [per kilo of beef] is going to be any good - waste of time!"

The Taoiseach had skedaddled elsewhere by that stage.

When it came to launching Fine Gael's agriculture policy itself, it was more of an impromptu doorstep with the media than a formal launch. The Taoiseach pledged to secure a tariff-free, quota-free post-Brexit trade deal, a new CAP deal in Europe and a level-playing field for farmers on environmental standards.

Mr Coveney then launched into an impassioned plea to farmers for their votes, becoming emotional as he spoke of how much Fine Gael cares about the sector. "Farming will always be a priority for Fine Gael," he said. "We are steeped in it and always have been."

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar batted away questions about how unpopular he has become, with his standard line of how awful a Fianna Fáil government would be, noting the Greens "walked out" on the party in government, as did Labour in the 1990s.

Then he declared himself happy to take part in a three-way debate involving Micheál Martin and the increasingly popular Sinn Féin leader, Mary Lou McDonald. He would not, however, take part in a two-way coalition government with Ms McDonald. "It's not a normal party," he said of Sinn Féin.

Arriving in Fermoy town a short time later, Mr Varadkar was greeted by pupils from Coláiste Cholmáin. "You're double-parked," the schoolboys told him before telling him about their "rat-infested" sports facilities. Mr Varadkar launched into a spiel about all of the great plans Fine Gael has under Project Ireland 2040. The young men seemed happy enough with his response.

As he walked down the town, a group of younger and far more excited schoolboys launched into a spontaneous: "Leo! Leo! Leo!" A delighted Taoiseach was brought back down to earth a short time later by Gillian O'Hara who shouted "There's the president!" before she was corrected by local Fine Gael candidate Pa O'Driscoll. Undeterred, she told Mr Varadkar: "The council won't fix my kitchen for me."

Mr Varadkar then headed for the butcher's to once again seek to dispel the notion that he's a vegan by purchasing six sausages.

In the local clothes shop, he had his wallet out again to buy a new tie, but not before he regaled us with the story of Shane Ross's wardrobe malfunction last year when the Transport Minister was pictured with his tie poking out of his fly.

The Taoiseach also informed us that his new brown overcoat was in fact borrowed as his staff felt his usual black number was "funereal". This slightly jarred with his earlier claim that "all of these allegations of control freakery and spin are made up by Fianna Fáil-ers". Still, his appearance was a talking point in Mallow where a local auctioneer gushed: "You look way better in the flesh."

But another young man upbraided the Taoiseach over cuts to disability allowance. "Your Tory boy policies have absolutely ruined it. So I think you're the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher, good luck and thanks."

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