There has been a lot of reaction to this week’s Irish Farmers Journal survey.
Most interest has been around the revelation that almost three in four of the almost 2,000 farmer participants said that they would give their first preference to a farmers’ political party, were one to be on the ballot.
It's hardly a shock that farmers are disillusioned with the mainstream political parties.
Fine Gael has been slipping steadily and Fianna Fáil are also losing ground. The two parties could count on the support of 80% of farmer votes between them - that figure is now down to 57%.
Sinn Féin, the government-in-waiting to most eyes, just can't get traction with farmers.
Having slowly risen to a high of 16% in mid-2022, its vote share has slid back to 12% over the last two polls. That's barely more than one third of their standing in last week's national opinion poll.
Meanwhile, the support for independents continues to rise, making them a stronger electoral force than Fianna Fáil among farmers at this stage.
They have soared to 24%, a gain of 7%, giving a 10-point swing against Fianna Fáil and 11 against Fine Gael.
Asking a farmer “would you vote for a farming party if one existed” is likely to maximise the potential support among farmers for such a party.
When asked to consider the notion of a farmers' political party in the abstract, it’s natural that any individual farmer will picture in their mind's eye a farmers' party that reflects their own views on matters of importance. Who wouldn’t want to vote for such a party.
Trust may be granted in our minds in the abstract, but it has to be earned in the real world
The reality of a farmers’ political party will have personalities and policies and priorities that will ultimately determine its destiny.
It’s a bit like if you asked farmers would they stop to help a car that has broken down on a country road.
In the abstract, most farmers would probably say they would. But suppose the car is broken down late at night on a strange road and the driver has a hood up so you can’t see them and the car is unfamiliar.
Does the average farmer jump out of their vehicle to assist? I’m venturing that they are more likely to slow down, wind the window down and appraise the situation - probably with the doors locked and the engine still running.
Trust may be granted in our minds in the abstract, but it has to be earned in the real world.
Of course, we no longer are talking about a farmers’ political party in the abstract. Earlier this week, as we were publishing our survey, the Farmers Alliance announced that it is “putting a political party together".
“Some candidates are in place, and more needed” their statement on social media said.
They also confirmed that they are moving forward separately from existing independent politicians from rural Ireland. It’s not a big surprise that the independents are not getting on to any bus they won’t be driving.
Michael Fitzmaurice TD has also confirmed that he will only contest the next general election as part of a political party. Deputy Fitzmaurice “would want to go in where the piano was playing”, he said.
The life of an independent TD can be quite demanding. All of the ones I know work extremely hard, both within their constituency and nationally, operating without all the supporting apparatus that exists within a political party. And all while locked outside the corridors of power.
Independents who enter Government are often discarded by voters, with Richard 'Boxer' Moran and Shane Ross being recent examples.
Farmers Alliance founders Liam McLaughlin, Cormac Power and George O’Malley have my respect and best wishes for their endeavours.
Democracy depends on people who are willing to put themselves forward and stand up for their beliefs.
It would be churlish of me or anyone else sitting on the sidelines to be cynical about the motivation or sincerity of people when they are entering the trenches.
That said, there is a difference between standing on the sidelines and sitting on the fence. And that is why I draw a distinction between two of the possible approaches the Farmers Alliance may take based on their activity since their formation.
There is a marked difference between them. One is to oppose the pace of change farmers are being asked to make, on the grounds that they are being asked to shoulder too much of the “effort-sharing” required of society to combat climate change.
The other is opposing those changes farmers are being asked to make from a position of scepticism around climate change itself.
The debates about the derogation for very intensive farmers, rewetting for farmers on peatland and nature restoration for all farmers have been taking place against a backdrop where the global climate is literally changing before our eyes.
And it is changing very much in the ways forecast, with increasing conviction by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Ice melting in vast quantities, wildfires in southern Europe and Canada, the permafrost in the Siberian tundra thawing, potentially releasing massive amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Weather records tumbling one after another in every corner of the planet.
A political party that pushes against the narrative that this climate change is real would be positioning itself on one end of the political spectrum, but there are areas where legitimate debate continues.
An accounting system that levies the carbon from all farm inputs, such as diesel and fertiliser, against the farm, and also levies all the farm’s output, whether milk, meat and crops or methane and other gases against the farm seems to be open to challenge.
The science around biogenic methane cycles and how to account for it is absolutely an evolving picture. Then there is the vexed question of carbon credits and how they are measured and valued. I would expect any farmers' political party to raise such issues.
Others may follow
Farmers Alliance may be first out of the traps, but other political parties representing farmers may follow.
There has been a lot of fragmentation in farmer representation in recent years. No less than 11 separate groups spoke at the meeting on the nature restoration law in Ballinasloe last month and some of those small groups may decide to throw their hat into the political arena. We know that Michael Fitzmaurice is working on the formation of a party.
In a way, some of the independent TDs have something approaching a regional political party. The Healy Raes boast two TDs and three county councillors in their ranks in Kerry.
Michael Lowry had a number of closely associated independent county councillors for much of his career since he left Fine Gael. But can a party become an electoral force right across the country? It will require a slate of candidates with appeal in their own constituency and a blend of policy priorities that make a new party identifiably different.
Dutch elections looming
While, barring accidents, the next elections in Ireland will be the local and European elections next June, anyone involved in a farmers’ political party will be closely watching events unfold in the Netherlands.
The government there has fallen and a general election is planned for November. This will be a significant test of the BBB’s electoral strength. Will they be able to repeat the success of March’s local or senate elections in the parliamentary contest?
We often see in Ireland where local and European elections throw up results that are not repeated in Dáil elections.
We also have seen where parties have made their first breakthrough in European elections and built from there. The Green Party is an example of that phenomenon.
The Dutch government was a right-of-centre coalition and it fell apart in a row over immigration levels, not farming issues. Immigration is a massive issue all across Europe, with some commentators predicting that right-wing parties who make this a central policy issue will have a lot of success in next year’s European Parliament elections.
It was the main plank of Brexit and it helped elect Donald Trump.
How will the BBB combine rural and farmer issues with broader social questions? That may determine their medium-term success. Back home, the Farmers Alliance says it will be presenting its policy platform soon. That in itself will be a significant moment.