How history is repeating itself as farmers picket Minister's office

Padraig McCaul (13) from Canningstown Cavan whose father Seamus is a Beef farmer protesting on Merrion Square. Pic Steve Humphreys
Padraig McCaul (13) from Canningstown Cavan whose father Seamus is a Beef farmer protesting on Merrion Square. Pic Steve Humphreys

Margaret Donnelly and Declan O'Brien

When 2,500 farmers last marched on Leinster House on July 10 this year, their main gripe was the Mercosur Deal, an international trade agreement they said was the ‘last straw’ for the beef sector.

Two weeks later beef farmers had mobilised to start protesting at meat factory gates, protests that would last until nearly the end of September. The weeks of protests were among the most widespread and bitter of farmer protests, but it’s not the first time farmers have taken to the streets over the prices they receive for their produce.

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This week's protest, which is not being led by any single group, aims to highlight the plight of rural Ireland and how a demise of agriculture directly adversely affects rural communities throughout Ireland.

They say the farming community is consistently used as the scapegoat for environmental issues and yet it is never acknowledged for all the work undertaken to be proactive in climate action and awareness.

The protesters also are looking for farmers to receive a price for their produce that allows family farms to make a living from farming.

And it's poor commodity prices that are invariably the root cause of farmer protests - as is the case today - while the altercations often spawn or act as a rite of passage for new farm organisations.

This is certainly true for the summer protests, which started out as an initiative of the Beef Plan Movement and subsequently acted as a catalyst for the formation of the Independent Farmers of Ireland group.

It was the fledgling Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) which initially illustrated the power of organised farmer action when it forced the Fine Gael-led coalition government of John A Costello into a humiliating climb-down on proposed milk price reductions in the early 1950s.

The success of the ICMSA's campaign, which saw milk prices rise to 16 pence a gallon rather than fall to 12 pence a gallon between 1950 and 1952, cemented the new organisation's position and arguably convinced Macra na Feirme members to form the National Farmers' Association (NFA) in 1955.

It was the NFA's turn to take on the Government a decade later when the association launched the Farmers' Rights campaign in 1966 following a serious collapse in cattle prices. The NFA demanded the right to negotiate with the Government on farm supports and its leader, Rickard Deasy, led members on the 'Farmers' Rights March' from Bantry to Dublin in October 1966 to highlight their grievances.

A bitter three-year campaign of civil disobedience by farmers followed the march, which included further protests, a rates strike and road blockades. This resulted in hundreds of NFA members being imprisoned and the confiscation of farm assets, before Jack Lynch's Fianna Fáil government eventually conceded limited negotiating rights to NFA.

Ireland's entry into the EEC in 1973 brought an end to the serious discord between the farm organisations and successive governments, as Brussels took over from Dublin as the primary source of farm funding and agricultural policy.

Levies

However, if lobbying in Brussels became the main focus of the farm organisations during the last quarter of the 20th century, battles on beef prices emerged as a burning issue as the new millennium dawned.

Farmers accused the factories of fixing cattle prices at close to 80pc of the EU average through the autumn of 1999, so when the processors sought to unilaterally double the cost of compulsory levies in January 2000, the IFA launched a blockade of the meat plants.

Farmers demanded a beef price increase and the levy proposal to be abandoned.

The stakes in the dispute sky-rocketed when the factory bosses secured an injunction against the IFA, which was led by Tom Parlon and general secretary Michael Berkery, with the association facing fines of €100,000 a day if the blockades stayed in place. This prompted the mass 'resignation' of the IFA's leaders, but the protesters stayed in place.

A stand-off between the two sides followed, but the beef barons eventually gave way. The farmers got their beef price rise and the levy proposal was dropped.

Almost two decades later, farmers are once again protesting at gates. This time farmers are back waiting at the Minister’s gates for a response.

Online Editors