If you’ve had the radio on at all this week, you’ll probably be aware that 2024 is set to be very significant in terms of elections.

Globally, regionally, nationally, locally, people will be going to the polls in numbers never seen in a single rotation of the sun before (that’s the flat earthers tuning out already).

Over 80 countries have general elections scheduled, including Ireland and the two countries that most affect us - the United States and the United Kingdom.

Russia will also hold a presidential election, a nod to democracy if little more, although it could offer an opportunity for an opposition to Putin’s warmongering to emerge, if one exists.

Does it make a difference to farming?

Does any of it make any difference to farmers and farming? Let’s put it this way - farming in Europe is one of the most regulated and overseen of industries.

Every calf and lamb is registered and tagged for life, every tonne of fertiliser and every can of pesticide is logged and accounted for, every field is monitored by satellites from above to the last square metre. So, yes, it massively matters who is making decisions at a political level.

Even a relatively small change can have a profound effect on the lives and living standards of farm families - we’ve seen this in recent months in relation to derogation changes, which Brussels sees as little more than adjustments.

Making a difference

With many of the big decisions made at EU level, the decision makers there are vital to Irish farming’s future. But can 14 Irish MEPs make a difference in a parliament of 720?

The answer is yes, they can, particularly if they can make themselves influential in whichever of the parliament's seven political groupings they find themselves in.

Since we joined the EEC in 1973, the Irish have consistently punched above their weight in terms of political impact in the parliament.

It’s also true to say that it was much easier to have influence in a smaller parliament. Ireland joined a nine-member EEC, which was very western European in construct.

Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Italy, the United Kingdom and Ireland looks very different on a map compared with today’s EU, which stretches from Turkey’s border over to Spain, up to Sweden and across to the Baltic sates of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

It’s all the more important that we pick the right politicians to represent us

The centre of gravity has shifted away from us. It’s a little bit like the Eurovision, where our former pre-eminence has been utterly dissipated by the changed map of Europe. So, it’s all the more important that we pick the right politicians to represent us.

Of course, the European Parliament is only one of the three legs of the stool. The other two are the Council of Ministers (where Charlie McConalogue currently sits) and the European Commission (where Mairead McGuinness is Ireland’s representative).

We’ll see both these seats up for grabs with a general election expected in the autumn and the Commission’s current term ending in the summer.

The current Government is likely to stick around long enough to nominate McGuinness’s replacement. Fianna Fáil, under the terms of the coalition’s working arrangements, will make that selection.

Fractured landscape

Domestically, the political landscape is more fractured than it has been for decades. It’s been a gradual shift from when the choice was between Fianna Fáil or a Fine Gael-Labour coalition to the point where those three parties combined don’t have the numbers to form a majority.

With an extra 14 seats up for grabs and significant boundary and constituency changes following the Electoral Commission’s decisions, it’s also a changed landscape.

The big question is whether Sinn Féin will turn opinion poll dominance into seats won. The fact that the general election will be preceded by the local and European elections may play to their advantage. Government party candidates can struggle in such elections, as people register dissatisfaction.

Will Ireland see the emergence of a right-wing party this year? There certainly are a lot of new parties in the field. The Farmers Alliance will become the 29 if and when it is ratified by the Electoral Commission.

Most European countries have seen electoral support rise for the right, with the centre being hollowed out. And in the UK and USA, the Conservative and Republican parties are controlled by the right of their political wingspan.

But Ireland has so far not seen any such dynamic. There have been straws in the wind - Peter Casey’s 2018 presidential election campaign was characterised as containing populist and right-wing tropes and he finished second. He also came close to winning a seat in the 2019 European elections.

While Casey has been a critic of the EU and Ireland’s migration policies, he has been a strong supporter of Ukrainian migrants to Ireland. A refugee accommodation centre he was building in Buncrana to house Ukrainians was damaged in an arson attack last May, perhaps by some of those who previously voted for him.

A friend and colleague whose opinion I value made an astute comment to me over Christmas. Irish politicians, by and large, have been led less by ideology and more by pragmatism.

There is little appetite among Irish people for culture wars, but a higher level of competence in governance is desired, particularly where housing and health are concerned. Voters expect the Government to provide opportunity, to deliver a decent education system.


When it comes to farming, there is still broad support among the public and our politicians for Ireland’s intensive food production system, with some caveats.

The need to find the sweet spot between output and inputs is recognised, but the 'Monbiot' view that livestock farming is inherently bad is not gaining much foothold.

The tensions are coming more from farmers, who feel that creeping regulation has ratcheted up to the point where life is becoming impossible. Farmer protests in Germany this week have proven effective, with the government rowing back on plans to massively increase taxes on agricultural diesel.

A word of warning though. The change is not the removal of the plan, but instead a commitment to gradually increase taxes on agri fuel. It’s the same outcome over a different timespan.

The savings for farmers during the transition period are clear and obvious, but the direction of travel is equally clear and obvious. The protests are continuing and it could be just the start of a year of protests all over Europe.

Same old story in US

Michael D Higgins will be 83 in April. His role as Irish president, while important, is mainly ceremonial. It’s a very different situation in the United States, where the president has immense power.

They set the agenda, they appoint the cabinet, they pick the supreme court judges should a vacancy arrive. Of course, a president needs the support of congress and the senate to pass legislation, but they have much more power than a prime minister in a European country.

And right now it looks like 81-year-old Joe Biden will seek to retain the presidency, with 77-year-old Donald Trump seeking to regain the White House.

It might seem far away, but the US election will have repercussions for Irish farmers and trade.

To me, it’s an extraordinary indictment of the state of politics in the world’s most powerful country, which calls itself the cradle of democracy, that the exhaustive selection process seems only capable of delivering these two candidates. Should we even care?

Biden on Friday described Trump as “a threat to democracy”, while Trump continues to assert that Biden stole the 2020 election.

On this date - 6 January - three years ago, Trump held a rally in Washington, following which his supporters marched on the Capitol building.

The world watched in shock as senators hid from marauding 'freedom fighters'. But far from serving as a wake-up call to the American people, the divisions seem deeper than ever.

The problem for Europe is the massively different foreign policy the two men would prosecute. Trump is likely to massively reduce any support for Ukraine in its battle to repel the invading Russians.

His support for NATO is lukewarm, his antipathy to the EU open, being an admirer of Orban. Trump as president would probably repeat his previous trick of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. That would derail any efforts to get China and India on board.

Ironically, the one thing Trump and Biden might agree on is unqualified support for Israel, no matter what is happening in Gaza. Ireland has been one of the countries vocal on the need for the indiscriminate killing to stop.

Immigration a common theme

Whether it’s “build the wall” or “stop the boats”, immigration is a hugely emotive issue all over Europe and in the US. And Ireland, which has a long tradition of emigration, is now seeing inward migration become a live political issue.

The 2022 census shows that 12% of Ireland’s population are non-nationals. Of those, about 26,000 are asylum seekers. For context, 74,000 Ukrainian people have sought Irish accommodation.

There is a discernible edge of racism to some of the protestors. It used to be “No Blacks, No Irish”, but now there is an undercurrent of “No Blacks, We’re Irish” in the anti-asylum seeker ranks.

However, there are a much wider and milder group of people who feel the Government has got the balance wrong in how it deals with refugees. The likelihood is that this will become an election issue.

There is a possibility of a broad alliance of people disaffected with Government on non-economic issues ranging from migration to environmental regulation. That coalition could include farmers.

The mainstream farm organisations have made clear that they will steer clear of direct involvement in politics, but we will see if the Farmers Alliance finds a groundswell of support in such a scenario.

A lot can still happen between now and the autumn of the year, when the crunch will come at Irish, British and US polling stations.

The June elections will be an important prelude domestically, whereas the Tories' fate seems sealed unless they stage an extraordinary comeback this year. In the USA meanwhile, Trump and Biden’s medical doctors may be as pivotal as their spin doctors.