As Brendan Behan said, the first item on the agenda of any Irish political party is the split.
Well, that might be rewritten soon. Get ready for a twist as something new is threatened, namely, a divide in a political movement even before it starts as Ireland’s crowded political party scene may become more packed with speculation that we are going to get not one, not two, but three farmers’ parties. It promises a whole new level of rural chaos with not just the cows multiplying in the countryside.
The catalyst for all this speculation is the new populist party that has emerged in the Netherlands. The Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB), riding a wave of rural dissatisfaction, emerged as a major political player following provincial Senate elections in March that saw the party win 20 percent of the vote, making it the largest party in the Dutch upper house of Parliament.
It was an astonishing result for a party less than four years in existence and puts them in pole position for a major say in the formation of a government come the next general election which is due, at the latest, in early 2025.
The first condition, then, for a successful new Irish movement is in place, namely dissatisfaction with current policies and plans that stem from a perceived Dublin-centric focus in government, creating a growing divide between urban and rural areas.
This tone was set early in the lifetime of the administration when Environment Minister Eamon Ryan called for carpooling in Irish villages, a particularly ridiculous and unworkable proposal. His further suggestion that we should all grow lettuce on window sills – but only if they are south facing – also subjected him to ridicule.
However, the adoption of stricter policy stances on banning turf cutting, culling the national herd, and the restoration of wetlands have faced increased scrutiny and provoked stern opposition among the farming community.
As a result, the Farmers’ Alliance in Ireland was set up in April with the inaugural meeting addressed by the leader of the BBB via video link. With a clear mission to address the challenges and opportunities facing the agricultural sector, the alliance aims to bring together farmers, agri-businesses, rural communities and other stakeholders, to work towards a more sustainable and prosperous farming community. Plans to contest the next local elections in June of next year are being hatched too.
“Farming is the social fabric of Ireland. There is a huge divide between urban and rural dwellers. Farmers’ Alliance hopes to bridge this gap by forming an all-inclusive political movement/party, to bring representation and fairness to both farmers and consumers everywhere,” the alliance said in a recent statement.
But they’re not the only game in town, or should that be not the only game in the countryside? Respected rural TD Michael Fitzmaurice is also actively setting up a political party.
So far, according to himself, he has spoken to over 25 elected local councilors and has a team of people drawing up a political manifesto. Top of his agenda are the EU climate action proposals, the Nature Restoration Law (NRL), which he claims will devastate rural life over the next 30 years.
The restoration of wetlands has him particularly animated. This refers to the process of returning degraded or drained wetland areas to their natural state, often involving measures to enhance their ecological functions and biodiversity.
It is generally recognized as beneficial for various environmental reasons. For instance, it increases the variety of plants and animals living there. However, the proposal before the EU which will impact on Ireland brings into play land use conflicts.
In particular, wetlands restoration projects will require the repurposing of land that is currently used for agriculture use with inevitable clashes between stakeholders who have competing interests in the land. The NRL also proposes increased forestation which Fitzmaurice has called a gigantic EU land grab. He says that the west of Ireland will be decimated and left with “nothing but wind turbines and theme parks.”
So there you have two competing political movements appealing to farmers, but there is a third. Three Independent rural TDs are driving the plan for a farmers’ party, and so far they say they are close to lining up as many as 20 independent rural candidates, under a new party or group banner, to contest the next Dail election.
The first thing to say is that it is easy to start a political party. There currently are over 24 parties registered in Ireland. One TD or 350 signatures is all that is required.
But then the hard work begins. For a party to take off nationally, it will require a leader to traverse the constituencies building support and setting up structures. Given the golden rule that all politics is local, that’s asking a lot for a presumably independent TD to do. A lot of time away from their home base.
There is also the question of finances. Not just the amount of funds it will take to start a party, but the loss of income for individual TDs if they ran as members of a political party. Ireland has a very generous allowance of €37,000 for every independent TD.
Amidst all the political maneuvering and grand plans for new parties, skepticism looms over the feasibility of these ventures and the smart money is betting against a plethora of new parties.
Perhaps we may see a number of independent farmer-endorsed candidates in the next local and European elections. Europe, after all, is where most of the environmental proposals are emanating from.
As the dust settles, it remains to be seen whether these envisioned political movements will become a force to be reckoned with or simply fade away, leaving the status quo largely intact. Is it bravado talk, an empty call to action or will this all lead to concrete action?
Only time will tell if the winds of change will truly sweep through Ireland's political landscape or if, as some rather unkindly put it, in rural Ireland, this wind is merely a case of hot air emissions emanating from both cattle and politicians.
*This column first appeared in the June 14 edition f the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral. Michael O'Dowd is brothers with Niall O'Dowd, founder of the Irish Voice and IrishCentral.