I knew chairing a meeting on the nature restoration law in Ballinasloe would be challenging, rewetting is a very emotive issue for farmers.
Imagine for a moment that the Government finally decided it was the right moment to proceed with the long-promised Metro from Dublin city centre to the airport.
Due to the carbon footprint and pollution from cars, it would have to happen much more quickly than previously planned; in fact, construction would start next January, to be completed by 2030.
The route would avoid as many houses as possible, but a couple of hundred properties would lose a room or two. Don’t worry though, the families would receive compensation through a room loss support scheme.
House loss would be kept to a minimum, but, unfortunately, thousands of gardens would be required to allow the new rail line through a part of their property. These gardens would immediately be designated as “areas required for transport”.
Under a new compensation scheme, the householders concerned would receive an annual payment of a couple of thousand euros a year. That money would be guaranteed for five years. The route would be announced by 1 December.
How do you think the people of the Dublin’s northside, who already feel like they have been given the short end of the stick through the decades, would react to this proposal?
I’d imagine they be incandescent that being designated as part of the route would destroy the value of their property, perhaps making it practically unsellable.
Perhaps that’s a crude urban analogy for how farmers feel about the nature restoration law. But it gives some sense of the apprehension that exists - people who fear their land will be chosen for rewetting or affected by rewetted land all around them; or uplands farmers who think their land will be deemed unsuitable for grazing.
The simple truth is that as most of Ireland’s farmable land is being farmed, we can only restore land to nature by reducing agricultural activity on it or by removing agricultural activity from it completely.
And quite a lot of that land has already been designated as either a special area of conservation or a special protection area.
These were the thoughts running through my mind as I drove to Ballinasloe on a Sunday morning three weeks ago to chair a meeting organised by three independent TDs on the nature restoration law.
It was the week before the vote in the European Parliament took place. Kilkenny and Clare would do battle the same afternoon.
Feelings running high
I’ve been to hundreds of farmer meetings, have been a guest speaker at dozens, but have only chaired a handful. And this was sure to be a pretty febrile atmosphere, as feelings had been running high around nature restoration since the European Commission published its proposals.
As everyone knows, rewetting is the big trigger issue, but there are many other aspects of the proposals that would impact here in Ireland. Like rewetting, these are more likely to affect farmers in the north and west, but this time on the hills rather than in the bogs.
He wanted to give speaking time to all shades of farmer representation
Michael Fitzmaurice TD had asked me to chair the meeting, with instructions to keep everybody to time, as there was an exhaustive list of speakers. He wanted to give speaking time to all shades of farmer representation.
There were around 450 people in the Shearwater Hotel's large function room when I opened proceedings.
Deputy Fitzmaurice opened proceedings himself, outlining the legislation and its implications as he saw them. He was followed by his fellow independent TD Michael McNamara. Then came James Staines and Ciaran Dolan, who dealt with the legal aspects of the law.
There then followed a procession of farmer representatives. The first section involved the mainstream organisations.
Then came Oonagh Duggan of Birdwatch Ireland. Oonagh is a tireless campaigner - like many others, she works to improve Ireland’s environment, in her particular case specifically in relation to protecting and encouraging the wild bird population.
What makes Oonagh unusual is her level of direct engagement with farming. Only the previous week, she had attended the Moorepark open day.
The opening part of her speech, which was more or less impromptu, as she had not expected to be speaking from the podium, and went down well enough.
Ironically, the moment when things turned was when she made reference to an environmental farming pilot scheme that most people agree has been a significant success - the Burren Scheme.
I could hear murmurs of discontent and presumed it was because that scheme had undergone changes last year in terms of how it is funded.
It essentially was incorporated into the ACRES scheme, which led founder Brendan Dunford to resign from the project. Deputy Mcnamara, who was sitting at the top table two away from me, interjected to say just that.
As a TD from Clare, that’s understandable. However, it was not acceptable, as he continued to exchange views with Oonagh over and back a couple of times.
I feel I made a mistake in not reprimanding Michael McNamara for heckling Oonagh Duggan. I’ll be honest, I expected heckling from the floor, but was shocked to have it coming from the top table.
Perhaps it comes from the Dáil chamber, where heckling is par for the course. In any event, it seemed to open the floodgates, with the audience becoming quite rowdy.
One person in particular, who had been shouting random statements from the floor from early in the meeting, many of them frankly nonsensical, became verbally abusive.
I stopped the meeting and requested that he stop; he kept shouting. I told him that if he didn’t stop, he would have to leave the meeting.
It didn't sit right with me
He asked how I was going to make that happen and I told him I had no issue in calling security if that proved necessary. I meant it too.
He eventually yielded the floor to Oonagh Duggan, who finished her comments and sat down. I could see she was visibly shaken.
As Oonagh was sitting in the front row, she had her back to the audience, some of whom had heckled her. It was an intimidating place to be for the rest of the afternoon. It didn't sit right with me.
Michael Fitzmaurice went down to have a word with the shouty man I had threatened security on. He left at some point of his own volition, I’m not sure when.
The rest of the presentations passed without much further incident.
In all, representatives of 11 farmer organisations spoke - the IFA, the ICMSA, the ICSA, the INHFA, Macra, the IBLA, Family Farm Rights Group, Beef Plan, The Irish Rural Association, Farmers’ Alliance and the Independent Farmers. MEP Colm Markey added his thoughts next.
The speakers who went down best with the audience were Jackie Flannery of the Irish Rural Association and Helen O’Sullivan of the Farmers’ Alliance. They both had well-written, carefully prepared speeches.
I first became aware of both these women during the beef blockades in 2019 and they touched a nerve with the audience as they declared that no-one was going to undo the work of previous generations making their land productive.
Out of time
Things got chaotic fairly quickly when we opened it to the floor. For starters, we were almost out of time. The meeting had been scheduled from 1pm to 3.30pm. The room was to be cleared by 4pm to be set up for a later function.
The meeting didn’t get going until 1.30pm and by the time the 17 speakers had been accommodated, it was 3.40pm before anyone from the floor got their hands on the microphone. It meant I had to restrict speakers to two minutes each.
Some people had parallel or related issues to bring up, ranging from the fishing sector to feed shortages.
Nadaline Webster of the Carbon Removals Action Group spoke eloquently of the underlying issues. Late on, one contributor declared it was time Ireland left the EU and that he would be standing for election on such a platform.
Another man refused to yield the microphone and approached the stage to confront Colm Markey for a commitment that he would vote against the nature restoration law in the European Parliament.
As soon as he did so, I signalled the sound desk who killed his microphone. Soon after, I handed over to Marian Harkin to summarise proceedings, made my excuses and left.
Without wishing to sound like Arsene Wenger, I genuinely didn’t hear that comment
I haven’t written anything about this meeting since because I literally ran out of the Shearwater Hotel and faced the car for Dublin Airport to head off on holiday.
It was days later before I heard that someone from the floor had called for Eamon Ryan to be thrown off the Cliffs of Moher. Without wishing to sound like Arsene Wenger, I genuinely didn’t hear that comment. I don’t think anyone at the top table did. I know the organisers issued a statement condemning the comment. I condemn it wholeheartedly too.
I think the anger I saw and heard in Ballinasloe is genuine. Is it warranted?
People who have had a designation status of one form or another slapped on their land limiting its usage and lowering, sometimes destroying, its economic value - are suspicious of any further regulation.
It’s understandable that they take assurances around the effect the nature restoration law will have on their land with a grain of salt. The sense I got was that underneath the anger is a palpable fear. The fear is that the destiny of their land and their farms will be taken out of their hands.
I have no doubt that there are far-right elements who see this as an opportunity to push an anti-Europe, anti-climate change agenda. And I have no doubt that they were in the room in Ballinasloe three weeks ago.
At one point of the meeting, I stated that we all agree that climate change is real, but I’m not sure the majority of the room was in the mood to agree with me.
But here’s the thing. Branding farm organisations as far-right is not going to bring them towards the centre. For me, the moment Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 US presidential election was when she described half of Donald Trump’s supporters as “a basket of deplorables”. Demonising millions of people on the other side of the political divide is going to harden the soft support for your opponent.
Perhaps some of the fringe farm organisations are drifting toward the margins of Irish politics. But I don’t think it’s accurate to portray the IFA, ICMSA, ICSA, INHFA or Macra as lurching in that direction. And that is an important distinction.
It’s important that we don’t have a depiction of Irish farm organisations as various hues of the same reactionary colour. Again, we can look to US politics for why this can be counterproductive.
When Hillary Clinton defeated Bernie Sanders to become the presidential candidate for the Democrats, some left-leaning supporters decided not to vote at all, saying Trump and Clinton were little more than two sides of the same coin.
When Donald Trump won, loaded the Supreme Court with conservative judges and pulled the USA out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, perhaps those people realised that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were not the same.
It’s not like there was no precedent. In the 2000 US presidential election, longtime environmental campaigner Ralph Nader stood as a third party candidate. The contest between Al Gore and George W Bush was extremely close and some Democrats called on Nader to ask his supporters to vote for Gore in swing states.
In Florida, Bush beat Gore by 537 votes to clinch the presidency. Nader received 97,000 votes in Florida. It meant that instead of Al Gore, who went on to win a Nobel prize for environmental activism, Texas oilman George W Bush became president.
I have no idea how different the world would be had that election gone the other way, but I think we can safely say the “they’re all the same” argument should surely be put to bed by now.
I have so much respect for Oonagh Duggan, who spoke with honesty and sincerity to an increasingly hostile audience in Ballinasloe.
I think her form of environmental advocacy is how we can move forward, building understanding of the difficult but necessary journey ahead. It means respecting the farming community and their elected representatives and working with them to build achievable pathways.
It’s time the farming organisations ... stop demonising Eamon Ryan and the Green party as being the root of all the problematic issues farmers face
But this dynamic cuts both ways. It’s time the farming organisations - and I include the IFA here - stop demonising Eamon Ryan and the Green party as being the root of all the problematic issues farmers face.
The reality is that the three parties in the coalition agreed the programme for government. In fairness to Micheál Martin, he made that clear when, as Taoiseach, he attended the IFA AGM in 2023.
The effects of climate change becoming ever more apparent. Europe itself is currently affected by scorching temperatures, wildfires, overheating seas, with fears heightening around the stability of the Gulf Stream. This is an emergency and it’s going to polarise opinion across society.
Farmers feel like easy targets. But the science is unequivocal, and the arguments around farming and climate change, and indeed farming and biodiversity, have to move to pathways and strategies.
What food production really needs is a long-term goal with achievable staging posts along the way. And that has to encompass carbon reduction and biodiversity restoration, but also farmer incomes.
It seems inevitable that output volume will fall on most farms, so the only way viability can be maintained is either with a hike in farmgate prices or massive increase in supports.
Food price increases is more rational and also more achievable. It will also serve to adjust food consumption alongside production, which is the only truly sustainable pathway.
But you won’t hear too many environmental advocates telling the public to be willing and prepared to pay substantially more for their groceries to help save the planet.
It’s much easier to tell farmers that they need to accept significant and swift change.
We have to conduct a dialogue founded on mutual respect, searching for a common understanding. There’s too much at stake for posturing.