Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 March 2018

Opinion: Farmers have long punched above their weight in the political ring

Downing on politics...

Simon Coveney
Simon Coveney
John Downing

John Downing

Farmer action and links to elected politics reach back to the era of Daniel O'Connell and the gradual introduction of democracy from the mid-19th century onwards.

It has seen the farming community in Ireland repeatedly make their mark upon the nation's politics.

The Land League was interwoven with the old Irish Parliamentary Party and the league's founder, Michael Davitt, was elected on three occasions to the House of Commons.

The land agitation wrought huge social change in Ireland which was unique among the four countries which made up the United Kingdom.

The scale of the change wrought by farmers' agitation and political lobbying is too often forgotten and/or overlooked.

In 1870, some 19,000 landlords, many of them absentees, had a stranglehold on Irish land ownership. There were over half a million farmers suffering grave injustices on the land and fewer than a third of these had tenancy rights.

Within a generation, a new power emerged with farmer owners becoming the norm thanks to a series of land acts which were won by political agitation by Irish farmers. These land acts, ranging from 1870 until 1903, proved a huge social game-changer all across provincial Ireland.

The very first piece of legislation enacted by the new Irish State in 1923 concerned farming and land ownership. The Farmers' Party also made an impact in the early days of the Irish State.

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This grew out of the old Irish Farmers' Union which catered for larger operators.

At one stage it had a total of 15 TDs, but it waned in the late 1920s, reformed as the Centre Party and eventually merged into the reconstituted Fine Gael, formed in 1933.

Clann na Talmhan, formed in 1939, was the first totally new political party formed in the independent Ireland.

Its brave visionary policies for balanced rural development have too long been overlooked. The Clann's eventual end in 1965, in part due to continued rural depopulation, is a tale of heartbreak.

But needless to say farmers also played a strong role in the two big parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Both parties remain very solicitous of the farmer vote and are keenly aware that farmers generally go out and vote, keeping their political impact despite declining numbers.

Some of the heaviest hitters in Irish politics, who were national household names in their day, have held the prestigious post of Agriculture Minister.

Reaching back randomly we can name Charlie Haughey, Mark Clinton, Neil Blaney, James Dillon, Brian Lenihan Senior, Austin Deasy, Joe Walsh and Simon Coveney.

The rural organisations, Macra na Feirme, the IFA, ICMSA and others proved a pathway for many people into elected politics.

When Ireland joined the then-EEC in 1973, it was only natural that the IFA registered a strong presence in Brussels. After all, the Common Agriculture Policy was for many years the only fully-developed EU policy.

The IFA's representative office in the EU capital was first run by Alan Dukes, who went on to become Finance Minister and later led Fine Gael.

The office has continued to be a very effective listening post and lobbying centre which is envied by many organisations.

Ireland also has the distinction of having two EU Agriculture Commissioners, Ray MacSharry, and the current Commissioner Phil Hogan.

Three IFA presidents - TJ Maher, Paddy Lane and Alan Gillis - served with distinction in the European Parliament.

Other IFA presidents who succeeded these, including Joe Rae and John Donnellan, were frequent visitors to Brussels and proved to be a strong voice there for Irish farmers.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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