I attended the Fine Gael agriculture conference a couple of weeks ago. It was one of the first big post-COVID farming forums and attracted a big attendance.

The crowd was packed into a room that could barely cope with the numbers at the first session.

It added to the atmosphere in the room; better a full provincial ground than having 20,000 rattling around in Croke Park, as the GAA heads say.

I found myself masking up in the back row, with barely enough elbow room to type.

Farming issues are boxed in in a similar way when it comes to the national media. I was joined in the back row with colleagues from the farming press.

However, when Tanaiste Leo Varadkar, who of course is also Fine Gael’s party leader, arrived in the afternoon, our ranks were swelled by political correspondents from all the national newspapers, RTÉ and Virgin Media.

Doubling in size

Leo was interviewed by Maria Walsh in the hall, which had now doubled in size.

A partition had been pulled back after the morning session to reveal tables with sandwiches. Once they were eaten, chairs were laid out and a much more relaxed atmosphere permeated, as people enjoyed the kind of legroom you get in first class on planes (or so I’m told, I’ve never been). It seemed to take some of the energy out of the room.

The Q&A between the Mayo MEP, who has recently completed her Green Cert, and her boss was pretty flat.

This involved some choreography, with each of us getting our turn

Leo seemed happy to talk at length about the health service and how it can be improved in rural areas - he could have made a valid comparison with the challenges facing veterinary practices, but didn’t.

Then followed a 'doorstep' with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment.

This involved some choreography, with each of us getting our turn.

Naturally, the first question went to RTÉ, who asked about the results coming in from the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. There followed some questions about the National Maternity Hospital.

I asked the first question about farming, 13 minutes into the session. I was left wondering if Leo had attended a teachers or nurses conference would that subject matter have been completely ignored by the political correspondents?

It’s a phenomenon I like to call the 'grass ceiling'.

Well represented

So who were the attendants? Mainly party members, most of them active. The main farm organisations were all represented. There was a large presence of Fine Gael councillors, TDs and Ministers. Even Jennifer Carroll McNeill made her way to Tullamore from South Dublin.

And, in fairness, there was a good line-up of speakers, from Glanbia’s Jim Bergin, Dawn Meats' Richard Clinton and the wonderfully engaging principal of Mountbellew Agricultural College Edna Curley.

There were some good discussions in what was a worthwhile exercise. I’ve been at workshops and breakout sessions at Ard Fheis of both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, which were useful but bolt-ons to the main event.

This was a full day fully focused on issues around farming, the agri-food sector and rural issues.

It was a success and by the time the final part of the day was being concluded, the election of officers on Fine Gael’s new agriculture forum, there was talk of repeating the event next year.

Battle beginning for farmer’s votes

The battle to secure the farming and rural vote could be pivotal in the next election, and it has never been so volatile or in play. As recently as fifteen years ago, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael shared the vast majority of farmer’s votes about equally. Now, half of the country’s rural constituencies have an independent TD. Most of them have significant support form farming families, eroding votes and seats for the two former main parties.

Sinn Fein have been steadily growing their support among farmers, and now seem poised to be comfortably the largest party in the country, polling at 36%. If they maintain their current level of support, they will be forming the next government. The only question is who Sinn Fein’s coalition partners will be. There are two likely options at present. One is a broad coalition of the left, including Labour, the Social Democrats, Solidarity/People Before Profit, left independents like Catherine Connolly and Thomas Pringle, and perhaps the Green Party. The other option that the maths suggest is likely to make sense is a Sinn Fein/Fianna Fail coalition.

Perhaps some of the Rural Independents will form part of the next government, there’s an argument that the SF/FF coalition would be a more natural home for the likes of Michael Fitzmaurice and Denis Naughten.

What seems certain is that Fine Gael are destined for the opposition benches, unless they stage a spectacular comeback. Will voters take this into consideration? Will farmers want to see the candidates they support in government?

Next election moving closer

We are now only one governmental banana skin from facing into a general election. The removal of the whip for Green Party TD’s Neassa Hourigan and Patrick Costello leaves the government with the bare minimum of a majority, less than halfway through its tenure. The budget this year is sure to be extremely challenging, the legacy of the entirely necessary public spending during lockdown hangs over the public finances. This government has failed to fix the continuing crisis around housing, and the National Maternity Hospital controversy is refusing to go away.

With all that, do farming issues get a look-in around the cabinet table? The sectoral targets will be soon narrowed, and anything above the minimum 21% will require hard choices to be made. Turf-cutting is an extremely emotive issue, and there has been some confused massaging form the three government parties on it.

It would be unfair to say nothing is being delivered to farming. There has been support for pig farmers, the silage payment to drystock farmers, and the Tillage Incentive Scheme. Pig farmers are still protesting for more, and as I have been saying repeatedly lately, there are reasons to be concerned about the capacity of the beef sector to deliver a margin to finishers next winter when you consider the cost base involved.

The government can be reasonably confident of the support of some of the rural independents, depending on the issue, but there will be pressure. The odds on a general election this year have shortened. They are still long, but a government that can lose two TD’s for supporting a motion they didn’t oppose (the three government parties were whipped to abstain on the issue, it was carried by a large margin) is capable of more self-inflicted damage. Previous governments have fallen over tax on children’s shoes, and a controversy around an extradition warrant for a paedophile priest.

Every rural TD., government, opposition, party or independent, will be quietly preparing for an election.