Margaret Donnelly: 'Hard work in agri-food sector during lean times was soon forgotten'

Farmers taking part in the protest on Merrion Square. Pic Steve Humphreys
Farmers taking part in the protest on Merrion Square. Pic Steve Humphreys
Margaret Donnelly

Margaret Donnelly

The anger among farmers who have protested over the past two days in Dublin is very real and has been building toward breaking point over the past six months.

The sight of hundreds of tractors appearing out of nowhere to blockade the streets was a bolt from the blue for most. But a protest of this nature and scale has been on the cards since the summer when farmers picketed meat factories for close on two months to highlight the collapse in prices.

The uncertainly around our main export market for beef, the UK, is one factor in the beef price collapse. An EU trade agreement that will allow more South American beef into the EU in the coming years was the final straw for beef farmers who eventually took to the streets this July.

Roll on four months and nothing has changed for these farmers when it comes to their bottom line. The reality is that beef farming - with the exception of the 'ranchers' and meat factory feedlots - is unsustainable at those prices and farmers are relying on EU payments and off-farm wages to keep afloat.

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And when farmers look at the healthy profits of the supermarket chains and the meat-processing industry they feel they are being played for fools not just on price but on the very nature of their livelihood.

There's a reason the number of farmers here is declining. It's a tough life and one made tougher when you're not making an actual living.

The Celtic Tiger passed by much of rural Ireland. There was no boom for farm produce and incomes remained low compared with other sectors. Then the recession came and it was farming and the agri-food sector that provided some stability, employment and economic backbone as the country was bailed out by the International Monetary Fund.

Back then, the Government lauded the agri-food sector for playing an integral part in Ireland's economic recovery and no plan to get Ireland working again would have been complete without strong supports for an industry that accounts for 170,000 jobs.

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But as the economic good times return, the hard times and hard work of the farming sector in the austerity years seems to be eaten bread soon forgotten for our political leaders.

The main farming organisations have stood by and let them protest unsupported, a point the Taoiseach highlighted, saying that with no clear leadership it is difficult to engage with the protesters.

But that doesn't make their points less valid. In fact, their disillusion with the main farming organisations is fundamental to their protest - they feel disenfranchised by organisations they would argue have failed to deliver for the grassroots. And when they departed Dublin in their tractors yesterday, they were far from appeased.

They left with a stark warning that they would be back if they don't see changes.

And the Government should be under no illusion - many people living in rural areas feel they have been abandoned by Dublin-centred policies. A trip to the polls might just highlight that in a more tangible way for those in power.

Irish Independent

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