Opinion: Fitzmaurice is developing his own brand of rural politics
Downing on politics
Michael Fitzmaurice says 50pc of his constituency workload is about farmer issues. He gets calls from far beyond the bounds of his Roscommon-Galway constituency.
"I deal with people all over the west of Ireland, from Mayo up to Donegal. I've been busier since getting the national spotlight last May with the Programme for Government talks," he says.
The Independent rural TD insists he was serious about going into government back then. But at the end he could not because of a dispute about planning and access to bogs.
"Opposition is easier but you have an obligation to try to get into government and find solutions. At the end I would have betrayed every principle I ever stood for and you cannot do that," he sums up.
The farmer-cum-agricultural contractor is proud that the current Dáil has a strong rural flavour. "In the first 10 months of a parliament, you're not going to flick a switch and turnaround 30 years of neglect and decline. But we're keeping a focus on things," he says.
He took an unusual route into politics as a founder member and chairman of the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association. Elected to Galway County Council in May 2014 with 1,200 votes over the quota, he arrived at the Dáil the following October in a by-election caused by the move of Luke 'Ming' Flanagan to the European Parliament.
He maintains some contact with 'Ming', speaking to him about once a month on EU issues. But one gets a sense that he has been developing his own brand of politics.
Soon after being elected a TD, he joined the Independent Alliance along with Shane Ross, Finian McGrath and others. But when he opted against joining government on May 6 last, he reverted to being an independent. He also maintains his link to farming, owning 65 acres, and renting a similar amount of all-round "average land" on which he raises sheep and sucklers.
Fitzmaurice speaks positively about some of the current government ministers and their work, notably Simon Coveney and Heather Humphreys. But he remains genuinely worried about the rural age structure. "We just have to improve the infrastructure if we are to get young people to stay. What people lived on one time, they won't live on now," he says simply.
Fitzmaurice has always had an ambiguous attitude to the EU. He does not take EU grants and is concerned that big farmers get too much in subsidies to the detriment of small operators. "We know 20pc of farmers get 80pc of the money. We have to share the cake better than that if we are to get young people back on the land. I believe nobody should get more than €50,000 per year," he says.
Now, in the wake of Brexit, and the threat of a return of the "hard Border," he believes Ireland may need to reappraise its EU status if that happens. "It may be time for a different take on our EU membership - time for a new conversation on things," he argues.
In the event of a "hard Brexit", he advocates looking at the model of EU relations adopted by Norway, Switzerland and others. "We are now net contributors and should not fear about grants. We'll be able to pay our farmers."
Fitzmaurice is equally passionate about the need for a "vibrant live cattle export business" to keep a floor under cattle prices. He's determined to lobby for this.
John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent
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