Ireland’s first female Agriculture Minister recalls the prejudice she faced when she was appointed in 2004 and explains how some ‘quite vociferous language’ made sure she wasn’t ‘walked over’ as she continues her quest to get more recognition for women in farming
When Mary Coughlan was appointed as Ireland’s first female Minister for Agriculture, ‘shockwaves’ are said to have been sent through the oldest and, at that time, mostly male-orientated Department in government and through the farm organisations, described as “bastions of all that is male”.
Appointed to succeed Joe Walsh after Bertie Ahern’s reshuffle in 2004, Ms Coughlan set her stall out early in her tenure to address what she saw as an imbalance in the recognition of women’s role on farms.
Despite her efforts and the passage of 18 years, that lack of recognition continues in Irish agriculture, she tells the Farming Independent as she spearheads the latest efforts to shake up what remains a male-dominated industry.
She will chair the upcoming National Conference on Women in Agriculture which she hopes will find ways to increase the visibility and status of women in agriculture.
While female farmers officially make up just 12pc of the managers of Ireland’s 137,100 family farms in the country, Ms Coughlan says: “Behind that there’s still a huge number of women who are in farming and an equally a huge number of women in the agri-food industry.”
“There may be a way in which some of those who are more silent in the sector may be brought to the forefront of farming, and then it’s about getting more women to be farmers,” she says.
The traditional patriarchal succession system of passing farms from father to son has been identified as a huge barrier to women’s access to land.
“It’s about empowering women in decision making and creating an acceptance within a family that there are competent people, both men and women, in the household,” says Ms Coughlan.
“I attended the first Women in Dairy conference. It was very interesting and one of the biggest things was this inter-generational relationship issue. People felt that their role was downplayed, and they weren’t given any recognition for the role that they played.”
Access to agricultural education for women is also an issue that Ms Coughlan believes may need to be addressed.
“Online courses have been very helpful, but if you’re having courses and farm walks during the day, that doesn’t suit a lot of women. They may have a part-time job, or they may have small kids,” she says.
Ms Coughlan is aware that there is an alternative view that there are no barriers for women in agriculture nowadays, and that woman must be more proactive in seeking to get involved on farms.
“There are women that have an alternative view. I parallel that in politics,” she says. “I would have been very against quotas. My view was that a woman became a politician and elected on the basis of their ability as opposed to whether they were a man or woman.
I’m still a great believer in that, but that’s easy for me to say because I had a springboard to get into political life, whereas I can see that there are quite a lot of women who need that type of support.”
Born into a political family, Ms Coughlan won a seat in the Dáil for Fianna Fáil at the age 21 in the 1987 general election to represent Donegal South-West — after her father Cathal died in office in June 1986.
She went on to become Minister for Social and Family Affairs and Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands before taking the hot-seat in Ag House.
She hit the headlines early in her tenure when she told a farmer to f*** off after he reportedly quizzed her on whether she knew the difference between liquid milk and creamery milk.
Asked whether she agrees with the comments of other women in agriculture that felt they are always being tested by men in the sector over their knowledge, she says: “They’d be right. I certainly would have had that bit of bother for a while.
“I knew coming from Donegal, people in the larger enterprises, and particularly those in the south of Ireland, would say ‘that women knows nothing about dairy in particular’.
“While it wouldn’t have been my forte, of course, I knew about dairying — sure we had Donegal Creameries here.
“There was a perception that I would know nothing, and that I would be very anti the bigger person and more towards the smaller farmer.
“We supported the small farmers… that is not to say we were against any large enterprise. It took me a bit of time to go out and meet everybody.
“I also had a group of people around me that were embedded in the industry whom I could rely on to talk to. So it took a bit of time. It took a lot of hard work.”
She has taken plenty of criticism over her 35-year career in politics — dubbed ‘Calamity Coughlan’, ‘Contrary Mary’ and ‘Brian Cowen in a dress’ at times by the media during her time as Minister and Tánaiste, while more recently she was compared to Sarah Palin by the now Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
When asked if she agreed with journalist Alison O’Connor’s assessment that there was “more than a hint of misogyny” in the coverage of her career, she says, “yes, without a doubt” but points out that things have got very difficult now for all politicians.
“Years ago, if you were mad about something, you’d sleep on it. You wouldn’t be Twittering away like hell,” she says. “Sometimes, the mouth is away before the brain gets into action. So some of it is just awful nowadays.
“You have to have a bit of a thick skin in politics because you will have good days, and you will have bad days.
“I would have been known to be quite vociferous too with some of my language, apparently, but I stood up for myself too; I don’t want to be walked over."
Having lost her seat in the 2011 election, Ms Coughlan returned to the agricultural brief as a consultant and registered lobbyist.
She suffered tragedy the year after losing her seat when her husband David died. She said his death at the age of just 48 was “very tough”, describing him as the “backbone of her career”.
She sums up that political career by saying: “I can sit here hand on heart and say that whatever I did, I did to the best of my ability, and on behalf of the people that elected me over the years.”
“I can sit here hand on heart and say that whatever I did, I did to the best of my ability, and on behalf of the people that elected me over the years.”
Mary Coughlan was Tánaiste during the economic crisis and says Ireland learned a lesson during that time that there was no support from Europe.
Echoing the comments of the former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, she says the crash was “an international crisis”, emphasising “it wasn’t just a crisis in Ireland”.
She also says the government was not fully informed of “everything that was going on”.
“Whether things would have been changed, and decisions different, I’m not sure, but at least if we had been fully informed we would have had a greater breadth of what was happening, and a longer time perhaps, to look at it.
“If you look back at much of the actions taken, they were as considered as they could be... they were huge decisions,” she says.
Looking back, Ms Coughlan is extremely critical of the European Union’s response to the crisis.
“The European support was awful. There was no support and that was a lesson learned, but a very sorry lesson. We are still committed as Europeans, but we did not get that reciprocity that we needed at the time,” she says.
“Whether there was an inevitability that IMF were going to come in or not… I may not be the person to answer that, but as a government... we worked day and night, and night and day, on those big-picture items, and at the same time trying to see what we could do to support vulnerable industries.”
Ms Coughlan said cabinet ministers were aware that many of the decisions they were forced to take would cost them their careers.
“We had great leadership in Brian Cowen. He took decisions in the best interest of the country, and not necessarily his own best interest, or the best interest of the party and we all supported him in that,” she says.
Mary Coughlan’s tenure as Minister for Agriculture (2004-08) was amid a time of great change in the sector.
She oversaw the introduction of decoupling, which saw EU subsidies moved away from production and centred on the Single Farm Payment.
She also oversaw the introduction of many of the nitrates and animal welfare regulations that farmers are familiar with today.
However, for many farmers, her tenure will always be synonymous with the collapse of the sugar industry here after the EU removed many of the protections to the sector in Europe.
“It was very difficult and stressful,” she recalls. “There were a couple of tight meetings and I got some rare abuse down in the areas affected. They are still sore.”
She remains convinced she did everything possible given the circumstances.
“If the farmers were prepared to grow sugar beet at the price, we would still be producing sugar,” she says.
“We negotiated to such an extent that we got a price that should have been acceptable, but the farmers… said they weren’t going be able to sustain what they had on that price. So the inevitability was that they weren’t going to grow sugar.
“Europe made the call on the basis that we had an oversupply of sugar, and it was an industry that wasn’t doing well.
“The sugar crop was an additional crop to a lot of our farmers, perhaps not all but a lot.
“The Commission’s decision was not to close the industry in Ireland — the decision was that the price was going to be ‘x’. The farmers said they couldn’t produce.
“Then we looked at the best compensation package we conceivably could give in order to compensate the farmers and consequently, the contractors. We did our utmost in the context of what was possible.”