Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she was starting “a charm offensive” on her way to address 240 dairy farmers at the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) annual general meeting (agm) in Limerick on Monday.
Members of the farm organisation are considered to represent a Munster and south Leinster heartland of a rural voting bloc traditionally split between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. When asked by The Irish Times how she would try to swing their votes in Sinn Féin’s direction, Ms McDonald replied: “We are here to set out our stall. If given the opportunity to be in government or lead government … a key collaboration will be with the farming community and with rural communities. So, we’re here I suppose on a bit of a charm offensive.”
With 130,000 farm families in the country, the rural farm community represents a valuable voting base, with Fianna Fáil hosting a recent national agriculture policy conference, and Fine Gael publicly championing a return of the live crib to Dublin.
However Sinn Féin have an uphill battle to win the farmer vote, with farmers open about their suspicion and even hostility to the idea of Sinn Féin in power.
Individual farmers told The Irish Times that they had never voted for Sinn Féin, with concerns raised around higher taxation and paramilitary links. When pressed, some farmers were resistant to even the idea of putting a Sinn Féin candidate down as number two or three on a ballot, with preference given to Independent candidates.
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“She knows she hasn’t five votes in that room but she’s still doing it,” said one farmer and he noted that such a pitch takes courage.
It didn’t help either that Ms McDonald opened to a packed room almost entirely of men aged 50-plus with a microphone that wasn’t working. But the audience relaxed once she introduced herself as “the daughter of a west Tipperary woman who was reared on a dairy farm”. As the microphone finally kicked in, she began a half-hour talk about her vision for the farm community if Sinn Féin was in power, including committing to a commission on the future of the family farm. She and party spokesman for agriculture Matt Carthy then addressed another half hour of questions from farmers on everything from student support grants and taxation to dairy calf issues and solar schemes.
She promised farmers that assets such as farm buildings and land would be “distinct” in any Sinn Féin wealth tax.
“You’ll hear a lot about taxation policy,” Ms McDonald told farmers.
“I would just appeal to people here to listen to what we’re actually saying, not the spin that people are saying.”
Despite what had been said before the agm, she clearly had some support in the room with one farmer standing up and telling the crowd: “I know her people in the Glen of Aherlow and I’m glad to say they know what they’re about.”
That was the cue for several attendees to start venting their frustration at the Green Party. The Sinn Féin leader was asked would her party go into coalition with Minister for Climate Eamon Ryan who was referred to as a “waste of space” by one farmer.
“I take it that Mr Ryan is popular in your household?” Ms McDonald responded. “I’m feeling the love emanating from you.”
She said the party would listen to the electorate in any general election but her closing address brought the debate back to the main parties in the present government.
“What I’m hearing from this room is a huge level of frustration,” she told farmers. And She added that Fianna Fáil Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue is not in the Green Party.
“Our approach will be very much one of engagement and not one of succumbing to a hostile view of agriculture and putting you in the corner of blame. Certainly, that day will be over under a Sinn Féin government.”
There was warm applause as she closed her address. Asking a farmer from the earlier informal straw poll, if he had changed his mind about giving Sinn Féin a vote in the next election, there was a thoughtful pause before he responded: “I possibly might, yes.”