Eddie Punches his weight

Being a European election candidate requires many different skill-sets. Being widely known is definitely one.

Eddie Punch might not be a household name, unless it’s a farming household. However, when it comes to being a European election candidate at an Irish Farmers' Association-organised (IFA) hustings, it’s hard to have a better life experience than the Clare man.

With one quarter of a century as general secretary of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA), he can talk any facet of agricultural policy, domestic, European or global, at ease and with authority.

Punch was clearly the star performer at both Ireland South IFA hustings, in Fermoy Mart and Gowran Park racecourse.

Patrick Murphy, the Áontú candidate in the constituency, actually said as much at the end of the Fermoy meeting. I’ve never heard a candidate endorse a rival in such an honest and disarming way before.

Punching through the grass ceiling

To get elected, Eddie probably has to punch through the grass ceiling into the mainstream. That said, there are somewhere around 60,000 farm families in the constituency. If they all vote for him, he’ll take some stopping.

Originally running as an independent, he has recently hitched his wagon to Independent Ireland. There is some momentum behind their debut European election campaign, with Niall Boylan and Ciaran Mullooly two high-profile candidates in the other constituencies.

Ming’s plan chimes with hustings hosts

Luke Ming Flanagan and the IFA are hardly bosom buddies. They have been critical of each other, particularly during the last CAP reform.

Ming was for full flattening, the IFA wanted to minimise cuts in payments, with upward-only convergence its mantra as it tried to secure a larger budget to elevate lower payments.

In Claremorris, at the first of the two Midlands North West hustings, Ming was not for turning. He started by reading a quote, which I quickly realised was one I’d written in this very repository.

It stated that Ming had more influence over the new CAP than either of the mainstream party MEPs or the farm organisations. I still think it’s fair comment.

Ming then confidently predicted that full convergence will happen next time round and made clear that this was what he would work for.

Holding value

But he said there was a need for the CAP budget to hold its value in real terms. In fact, Ming stated if we were only to have direct payments worth as much in real terms as they were in 2001 (effectively year zero for decoupled payments, as the middle of the three reference years), the fully flat payment would be worth €500/ha.

A selection of the 27 candidates running for election in the Midlands North West constituency at the Claremorris IFA hustings last week. \ IFA

He then went further, saying that he wanted to increase the rate of front loading, so the 30ha farmer would get more from the pot than larger, more commercial farmers.

It was only after the meeting that I realised that Ming’s proposals in combination would effectively amount to upward-only convergence.

He is, for once, singing the same tune as the IFA, although the front-loading means he is probably singing in a different key. The sums of money involved are absolutely eye-watering and, as much as I’d love to see it, it will require political alchemy or food shortages in Europe to make it happen. Probably both.

Green fault lines on display

Lorna Bogue is the candidate for Rabharta - the party for workers and carers, a party she leads. Rabharta means spring tide, which in Irish politics conjures images of the 1992 General Election.

Back then, the Labour Party, led by Dick Spring, surged from 15 to 32 seats and were the power brokers. Their preferred partners alongside Fine Gael were Democratic Left, but Fine Gael preferred the Progressive Democrats.

Dick Spring instead went into government with Fianna Fáil. Two years later, after that government collapsed, the rainbow of Fine Gael, Labour and Democratic Left was formed.

Democratic Left (DL) was contesting its first general election in 1992, having broken away from the Workers Party, and would join with Labour in 1999. Some would say DL staged a reverse takeover of Labour, with future Labour leaders Eamon Gilmore and Pat Rabbitte among their ranks.

The Workers Party have been a fringe political party ever since. Will Lorna Bogue and Rabharta make a breakthrough in this election? It’s hard to see it.

The party was previously called Rabharta Glas, which was being translated as the Green Left. It has now dropped the green part; it was seen to be “toxic” on the doorsteps.

Fair needle

Lorna Bogue was a Green Party councillor in Cork, but was part of a split following the Green Party going into government with Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

There was fair needle between Bogue and Green Party MEP Grace O’Sullivan, particularly in Fermoy. Even when it came to the quickfire round of questions, there were differences.

In Gowran, they both were predictably opposed to live exports, but, more surprisingly, Bogue was opposed both to solar farms on productive land and a 50% cut in pesticides by 2030. O’Sullivan was in favour of both.

Bogue also supported the retention of the nitrates derogation both nights, on the grounds that farmers need time to adjust to changes. O’Sullivan was not opposed to a retention of the derogation, but stressed the need for water quality to improve.

Cynthia off the leash

In Fermoy, Cynthia Ni Mhurchú was the most energetic of the dozen candidates present. While the other candidates stood at their place on the crowded stage, she took the microphone and prowled in front of them, at times stepping into the audience like Bono in his younger days.

IFA European elections hustings in Mullingar on 8 May 2024. / IFA

She stressed her communication skills and her experience as a barrister, and ensured that she would be remembered by those present.

In Gowran Park a week later, she was more like a barista than a barrister - one that had drank too much of their own espressos. Energetic had escalated to levels that were over the top.

On a yellow

At times, it seemed like she thought she was back being a presenter herself, interjecting with other candidates to question them. The meeting already had two moderators.

It’s not just because they are my editor and deputy editor that causes me to say they had the meeting under control and didn’t need Cynthia making it a triumvirate.

She was on a yellow card for the last section of the meeting.

In a crowded field, you have to make sure you are remembered, but you can’t lose the room either. Being a debut candidate at this level is daunting, whether you have presented the Eurovision or not.

Cynthia is definitely in the hunt for a seat, particularly as she is in a part of the constituency with few candidates.

Geography matters

The location of candidates will certainly be a factor. Half of the province of Leinster’s 1.85 million people reside in Co Dublin. They have their own constituency and four seats. The other 1.4 million are shared between the other two constituencies and currently boast two MEPs.

Twelve of the candidates who are running in Ireland South for the European Parliament pictured during the IFA election debate in Gowran Park Racecourse, Kilkenny. \ Finbarr O'Rourke

One is Colm Markey, who inherited a seat in Midlands North West when Mairead McGuinness became Ireland’s commissioner, who isn’t standing this time round.

The other is Wexford maverick Mick Wallace, who didn’t attend the IFA hustings or, as I understand, send his apologies.

His stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not been very popular. Perhaps the plight of the Palestinian people has put a different tint on his opposition to the influence of the USA, almost as a defining factor in every geopolitical event.

In any event, the Leinster province, Dublin excluded, is undoubtedly under-represented in the European parliament. Wicklow, Wexford, Carlow and Kilkenny bring 450,000 people to the South constituency between them.

No guarantee

Munster’s population of 1.35 million people is three times larger, so there is no guarantee that Leinster will win any of the five seats on offer. The contenders are sitting MEP Mick Wallace (Independent), Kathleen Funchion (Sinn Féin), and Cynthia Ni Mhurchú (Carlow).

Christopher Doyle from Wexford is running as an independent and was a bright if uninformed contributor to the two hustings in the constituency, but even he doesn’t expect to be in the shake-up.

If any party is to win two seats in a constituency, it probably will involve one of these two women winning a seat alongside their respective party colleagues MEP Billy Kelleher (Fianna Fáil) and Paul Gavan (Sinn Féin).

Funchion’s failure to attend an IFA husting, the only mainstream party candidate not to show up, suggests she doesn’t think the farming vote will be of much help to her. Gavan, currently a senator and from Limerick, came across as likeable and capable, but not very well versed on farming.

Kelleher, on the other hand, comes from a Cork dairy farm and has engaged deeply with Irish farming over the last five years. His brother Donal came within a vote of becoming Macra president in 1991, beaten by farmer, broadcaster and journalist Matt O’Keeffe.

Billy is likely to have better luck this time round and despite Fianna Fáil lagging in the national polls, the Kelleher/Ní Mhurchú ticket is very balanced geographically.

In Midlands North West, Leinster actually has the lion’s share of the population, with 920,000 in the seven counties, compared with Connacht’s 590,000. Meath and Kildare alone account for half that Leinster total.

This will give the likes of Nina Carberry and Peadar Tóibín an advantage. Ciaran Mullooly will hope he can get votes on both sides of the Shannon.

And then there are the 300,000 people in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, the three Ulster counties in the constituency. This is likely to be a disparate vote, but Niall Blaney will hope to dominate in his home county.

Michelle Gildernew will look on these three counties and Louth as her base, with Sinn Féin having six of the 15 Dáil seats across those four counties.

Connacht currently boasts three MEPs in Luke Ming Flanagan, Chris McManus and Michelle Walsh. They will need to trawl votes far outside their home province to keep all those seats.

Alphabet soup

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was aardvark” is a quote a friend of mine loves, I think it’s Monty Python. It’s not so much blasphemy as a play on words, one that only makes sense if you open the dictionary, where aardvark is the first entry.

This election sees 27 candidates in both Dublin and Midlands North West, with 23 in the South constituency. The ballot paper will look like some ancient scroll - long and confusing at first glance.

Most voters will do little than a quick once-over of the list. They will have a few people in mind for their first and other early preferences, but how many people will closely scrutinise the long list to decide their 10th preference?

It’s likely there will be a big advantage in being near the top of the list. Being right at the bottom might be ok, people may glance down there.

But being 20th out of 27 (Pauline O’Reilly of the Green Party in Midlands North West) or 17th of 23 (Aontú’s Patrick Murphy) might turn out like being stuck in the pack coming round to Beechers Brook in the Grand National.

I’m surprised someone didn’t change their name by deed poll to get to the top of the ballot. Aardvark Luke Ming Flanagan, anyone?