With Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris poised to become the next leader of Fine Gael unopposed, we take a look back at some of outgoing-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s dalliances into the world of farming far removed from his constituency base of Dublin West.

“When I became party leader and Taoiseach back in June 2017, I knew that one part of leadership is knowing when the time has come to pass on the baton to someone else. And then having the courage to do it. That time is now,” he said on announcing his resignation this week.

So what had he to say on farming, from speculation he would be going vegan, to the derogation cut, while he held this baton?

2017 – Output v emissions

In the race to become the former-Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s successor in 2017, Varadkar claimed that Ireland should remain focused on Food Wise 2025’s output targets, even in the face of pressure to cut agriculture’s emissions.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar attending the Iverk Show in 2017. / Patrick Browne

He cited carbon leakage concerns as a possible result of farmers here taking their foot of the production pedal and pointed the finger at energy and transport as sectors which should be the focus of emissions reductions.

“I think we should stick to our targets for food production and the focus in terms of getting our emissions down should be from the other areas, in particular energy and transport,” he commented at the time.

2017 - Brexit

In his first year as Taoiseach, the possibility of a no-deal Brexit with far-reaching consequences for Ireland’s agri-food exports loomed.

Varadkar committed to pressing for unfettered access – with no new tariffs or checks – for agri-food goods exported from Ireland.

He outlined his first priority to “get as good an outcome as possible from Brexit, ideally retaining barrier-free trade between Britain and Ireland, which is so important because so much of our exports, particularly beef, but many other areas as well go to the British market” in August 2017.

2019 – Not gone vegan

The first Dáil debate of 2019 saw Varadkar clarify that he was not on the road to veganism – a point he felt the need to set out after he had suggested that he was cutting back on his red meat consumption.

“I had a very nice Hereford steak last night. I was trying to eat less red meat for two reasons; one health, the other climate change. It’s not flippant,” TDs were told on returning from the Christmas recess.

“It is a fact that red meat increases instances of cancer and contributes more to climate change. I can reassure deputies that I have not become a vegan or anything like that.”

2020 – First election as FG leader

March 2020 saw voters go the polls in a general election for the first time since Varadkar took the reins from Enda Kenny three years before.

Varadkar pledged to safeguard farm incomes from the fallout from Brexit and negotiate for a strong CAP budget in Fine Gael’s election manifesto.

“Securing a new CAP budget that delivers for Irish farmers will also be vital. Fine Gael negotiated €12bn for Irish farmers in the last CAP. We will stand up for Irish farmers and safeguard incomes during the crucial negotiation period ahead,” he said.

2023 – Gresham House

A controversial deal brokered between Coillte and Gresham House to allow the State forestry agency to tap into forestry funds via the UK-based investment fund had dominated headlines in January 2023.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the IFA AGM in January 2024, alongside newly-elected IFA president Francie Gorman. \ Philip Doyle

Varadkar signalled a move away from this approach in stating that the “preferred model for us is Coillte planting forests on State land and above all, the Irish farmers, who are the main landowners in the State getting into forestry on some or part of their land.”

2023 - Farmers at the polls

Irish Farmers Journal opinion polls have shown that while Fine Gael’s support among farmers slipped over 2023, the party still remained the most choice for the farmers surveyed at the end of last year.

Some 33% of farmers surveyed in December reported that they would vote for Fine Gael if an election were to be called, giving Varadkar’s party a lead of approximately 9% of the party next in line – coalition counterpart Fianna Fáil.

Varadkar’s leadership may not have been able to keep floating voters away from Sinn Féin and rural independents among the general public, but Fine Gael’s farming voters appear reluctant to shift their support.

2023 – EU rewetting plans

Speaking in a Dáil debate on the EU nature restoration law in 2023, Varadkar told TDs that he believed elements of the then-proposals went too far and that he shared rural concerns with the plans.

“We all understand the need to protect nature, restore biodiversity loss and allow nature to regrow, but there are aspects of it that go too far, particularly if it comes to taking agricultural land out of use for food production.”

2023 – Deogation D-day

Another issue dominating farming headlines in 2023 was that of the European Commission’s decision to shave the derogation stocking rate limit for almost all of the country back to 220kg nitrogen/ha.

Varadkar weighed in on the debate at a late stage – and after having claimed he would not intervene – by stating that he would seek out flexibilities around the cut with Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevicius.

Varadkar speaks to the media at a Fine Gael think-in in Limerick City as the IFA protests the derogation cut in September 2023. \ Philip Doyle

“We must do everything in our power now over the next two years to build a credible case for the retention of the derogation. To lose it altogether would be a disaster for Irish farming and something we can’t allow to happen,” he said.

2023 - Farmers scapegoated

Varadkar claimed in his address to the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association AGM last year that farmers had been shamed on the emissions-front, with this being both unfair and counterproductive to efforts to cut emissions.

“There’s been an awful lot of climate shaming of farmers and I think that’s unfair, quite frankly. I think it’s counter-productive. When you try to shame people, you don’t get them onside, you get their backs up,” he told the AGM.

2024 – VAT debacle

The Taoiseach pledged in January to resolve the debacle which emerged late last year regarding many farm investment items being deemed ineligible for VAT claim backs.

Since December 2023, farmers have been unable to claim VAT back on farm investment items ranging from meal bins, to milking equipment and automatic slurry scrapers.

A solution to the issue has yet to be found.

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Varadkar resigns as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael