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A Dutch warning: Disconnection from Dublin feeds rural discontent

Recent protests in Co Clare show that small-town Ireland is about more than just farmers

The recent call by Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice to set up a “rural party” to contest the next general election has been widely dismissed in political circles. After all, to many metropolitan minds, farmers are – quite literally – a dying breed. For them, rural Ireland begins and ends between the farm gate and the nearest greenway.

But, as the ongoing protests in Co Clare over accommodation for people seeking international protection highlight, small-town Ireland is about more than just farmers. And in many of these communities, an increasing sense of disconnection to decision makers in Dublin is taking hold.

The experience here in the Netherlands has lessons for Ireland. Fertile ground exists for such a “countryside” party to emerge in wealthy, western European economies. As the costs of Ireland’s climate change and migration policies charge sharply into focus, traditionally agrarian areas are feeling the biggest initial shock. And therein lies a dangerous Dutch warning for the future of Fine Gael in rural Ireland.

Like Fine Gael, the Dutch Christian Democrats (CDA) have a long and (occasionally) proud history. From 1977 to 2010, the CDA was the big force in Dutch politics, with long periods leading coalition governments. They also both evolved from a traditionally conservative (and agricultural) base to become the vanguard of a pro-market, environmentally ambitious, socially liberal agenda.


Yet by 2021 the CDA had haemorrhaged nearly two million votes and struggled to just 9 per cent in national elections. Worse still, recent provincial ballots saw its support ebb even lower to a barely surviving 6 per cent. In whole swathes of the Netherlands beyond the Randstad (the urban triangle of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and the Hague where about half the population lives), the CDA is now a ghost haunting its former agrarian heartlands.

Although only formed in 2019, the BBB (Farmer Citizen Movement) is now the largest political party in all 12 Dutch provinces

The problem is that the party’s traditional farming and provincial voters aren’t buying in. And in a crowded political marketplace – in societies where the rural perception is that priorities are driven by capital city elites – this is a recipe for getting stuck in the slow lane to political irrelevance.

Most commentary has associated the CDA’s decline with the recent emergence of the Boer Burger Beweging (BBB), or Farmer Citizen Movement. It is led by former CDA member Caroline van der Plas, the daughter of an Irish mother who also served as a CDA city councillor. Its farmer-led resistance to government plans to reduce nitrogen emissions (thus closing thousands of livestock farms) has morphed into a wider manifestation of countryside discontent.

Although only formed in 2019, it is now the largest political party in all 12 Dutch provinces. And it is not just farmers flocking to its banner. With barely 200,000 farmers in the Netherlands, the BBB still managed to attract nearly 1.5 million votes in the recent provincial elections.

The movement extends well beyond the simplistic notion of rural areas being tied directly to the land and is really about representing those living outside big cities who feel excluded from policymaking in national capitals. It gives a voice to small-town residents who feel threatened by governments’ increasingly rigid approach to social and environmental objectives.

In an Irish context this includes the unannounced placement of relatively large numbers of asylum seekers into smaller – and often quite isolated – communities and places that in recent years have experienced a dramatic reduction in traditional services such as post offices, banks, Garda stations and other public offices.

Outside Leinster, Fine Gael is increasingly viewed as a Dublin-centric party of progressives that is – figuratively and literally – hundreds of miles away from the more prosaic realities of the Ireland of one-off houses

Fine Gael is already well down the dirt track of rural disconnection that has eroded CDA support over the past decade. Already huge chunks of provincial Ireland – Waterford, Cork South West, Tipperary and Roscommon – have no Fine Gael Dáil representatives, a situation that could conceivably be replicated in areas such as Kerry, Donegal and Kilkenny given the already announced retirements of incumbent Fine Gael TDs.

Outside Leinster, Fine Gael is increasingly viewed as a Dublin-centric party of progressives that is – figuratively and literally – hundreds of miles away from the more prosaic realities of the Ireland of one-off houses.

Unlike the CDA, Fine Gael has not yet faced organised competition from disaffected former members or from the broader agricultural lobby. But the scattering of former Fine Gael TDs in the ranks of the swelling number of elected Independents symbolises the potential risks ahead. A more formalised, Dutch-style political party of disaffected rural dwellers – including midsized to larger farmers whose numbers are increasing due to land consolidation, particularly in the dairy sector; healthcare advocates; Defence Forces families; and post office campaigners – would gut Fine Gael from the inside out.

In the rush to be seen as modern, Fine Gael has also forgotten its own history. The old National Centre Party, itself based on an alliance of farmers and other Independents, formed an integral part of Fine Gael’s very creation in 1933. This was the natural home of James Dillon, a key architect of Fine Gael policy, a defiant defender of democracy against the Nazis and moderniser of Irish agriculture as minister in 1954-1957.

Cumann na nGaedheal and Fine Gael survived – even in the worst days of Fianna Fáil dominance – because of the complementary needs of its “urban elites” and provincial voters. Unfortunately, it is a balance that now appears hopelessly lost.

Rather than the usual Blueshirt banter about saving the State, Fine Gael needs a strategy for saving itself. It should start with one forgotten county at a time.

Eoin Drea is a senior researcher at the Wilfried Martens Centre, the official think tank of the European People’s Party of which Fine Gael is a member