Farm Ireland

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Hopefully Higgins's time on the farm will serve the country well

John Shirley

The race for our new president is run and the remarkable Michael Daniel Higgins has the job. Michael D's long list of life experiences includes a farming connection. Our president-elect was born in Limerick, but at the age of five he and his four-year-old brother were sent to live with an unmarried uncle and aunt on a farm near Newmarket-on-Fergus, Co Clare.

Sean Gallagher, runner-up in the race to the Aras, also has farming credentials. He attended Ballyhaise Agricultural College and bought a small farm in Cavan in the 1980s.

According to one poll, Mr Gallagher was the favoured presidential candidate among farmers. Indeed, he could have made an interesting president for farming.

While it can be argued that the office has little to do with farming, the country badly needs entrepreneurial leadership from any source, and having a business head in the Aras can only be good for Ireland.

In any event, Martin McGuinness's intervention on RTE's Frontline show scuppered Gallagher's big chance. In delivering the knockout blow, McGuinness certainly didn't adhere to the proverb about "people in glass houses not throwing stones".

OK, when he was growing up in Derry, nationalists certainly had grievances, but John Hume grew up in the same city and he fought for his people without shedding a drop of blood. That said, McGuinness's conversion to the democratic politics is most welcome.

Michael D Higgins, too, has a family background of involvement in the Irish War of Independence but he himself is utterly a man of peace. While he can speak in flowery riddles, if you listen closely, his ideals are noble and his vision is wide.

Hopefully, president-elect Higgins's sojourn on the farm in Clare has given him an empathy with the industry and he will be a good ambassador for Irish farming and Irish food over the next seven challenging years. It would be a pity if his only involvement in Irish farming is the cursory visit to the National Ploughing Championships.

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I strongly believe that people who grow up on family farms are fortunate. I also believe that people who grow up on farms generally make good citizens and have a head-start when it comes to seeking jobs.

From the start, they are imbued with a good work ethic. Staff on a modern farm have to be flexible and multi-skilled. They have to know about machinery, welding, building, etc. They need to be computer literate, good at finance and, above all, have the will and ability to keep records. They need veterinary expertise, a knowledge of nutrition and an awareness of market trends. They cannot be clock watchers.

In modern speak, they are trained to be all-round team players and carry this common sense ethos right through their life and career.

During the 1940s and 1950s, when our president-elect was growing up in Clare, farms were very different, but I'm sure that there were plenty of tasks for him and his brother.

Certainly, Michael D has displayed a fine work ethic all through his long career.

Some years ago, when I lived in Dublin, our estate got snowed in. I urged my neighbours to get together with shovels and dig out an exit route for cars, only to be told that this was the job of the county council. And yet these were all decent good neighbours.

In my opinion, they got it too easy growing up.

During the big freeze of last December and January, it was the farmers who kept all the side roads open once they got the all-clear from the councils on insurance.

Now, at a time when our country faces huge challenges, our Government and people need to get back to basics. Nobody owes us a living. The country should be run as if it were a well-managed farm. Nourish the core production. Eliminate waste and unload the freeloaders. Only pay yourself what the business can afford. Cut back spending to what can be afforded. Prioritise investment into that which will give the best return. Allocate the limited resources according to the family needs, taking into account the vulnerable and the aged.

Shortly, our Taoiseach is to give a state-of-the-nation address. This is good. But the budget deficit for this year is a frightening €22bn -- half of it has been buried in insolvent banks.

This is greater than the total income tax take for the year.

To a small extent, there can be an excuse for the bad governance during the Celtic Tiger days. We all, including Opposition politicians, bought into the myth that we could afford the profligacy of benchmarking.

But, today, there is no such excuse for continuing waste. Today, the awful economic reality is totally transparent. The Taoiseach still has a measure of goodwill behind him if he has the courage to take the right steps.

I believe that Michael D Higgins will also support what is best for Ireland.

Indo Farming