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Farmers deserve more than empty promises and stroke politics

Every political party has known for years the derogation is incompatible with our climate targets. Despite this, zero planning has been done to prepare for its reduction

It is now 36 years since the late UCC sociologist JP O’Carroll published an article on Irish political culture entitled “Strokes, Cute Hoors and Sneaking Regarders: The Influence of Local Culture on Irish Political Style”.

At the heart of O’Carroll’s thesis was the notion of political “pull”: “The fact that most of that which is delivered is imaginary in no way lessens the degree of confidence in the person who is seen to have pull,” he wrote.

We might like to think this discredited political culture died with the Celtic Tiger in the crash, but politics remains rife with strokes delivered for self-serving gain, rather than the public interest.

Look no further than the theatrics engaged in by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar when the nitrates derogation for farmers was cut. The derogation, which allows the use of up to 250kg of organic nitrogen per hectare on certain farms, will be reduced to 220kg in January.


This decision, by the European Commission, is non-negotiable – made because our water quality has significantly deteriorated. Water in the south and southeast is particularly impacted by pollution that the EPA has said is primarily caused by agricultural run-off.

The news has come as a blow to impacted farmers, many of whom were misled by both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil. For years, they were led to believe the derogation was sacrosanct. So, they built their businesses in good faith on the basis the 250kg limit was written in stone.

When that promise turned to dust, Fianna Fáil belatedly, at the final hour, accepted the new reality. Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue was clear the commission was not for turning. Fine Gael, on the other hand, saw an opportunity for a stroke and deployed it.

At the party’s recent think-in, Varadkar promised representatives from the Irish Farmers Association he would write to the EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius and invite him to Ireland so farmers could plead their case in person. The implication was clear – his Minister for Agriculture had capitulated too quickly, but Fine Gael would stick up for farmers in Europe. Crucially, the Taoiseach’s intervention implied the decision to cut the derogation could be reversed.

There are more dairy farmers with a derogation in my constituency, Cork South West, than anywhere in the country. So, perhaps it would be easier for me to go along with this fiction that the upper limit can be retained

Except it won’t. Senior Fine Gael Ministers are well aware the decision will not be revisited in the short term. Any pretence otherwise is political posturing, designed to score points against the old enemy – Fianna Fáil – and curry favour with farmers.

There are more dairy farmers with a derogation in my constituency, Cork South West, than anywhere in the country. So, perhaps it would be easier for me to go along with this fiction – that the upper limit can be retained – but it wouldn’t be honest. It would also be a denial of the clear scientific evidence that nitrates are having a serious impact on our environment and biodiversity.

Nobody wants a politician who tells them what they think they want to hear. They want public representatives who will speak honestly, directly and offer tangible support through difficult periods. Farmers need honesty from their politicians now more than ever, and Fine Gael has been found seriously lacking.

Having already led farmers to a cliff-edge, the party prefers to walk them off rather than find a safe route down. The reality is every single political party has known the derogation is incompatible with our climate targets for years. Despite this, zero planning has been done to prepare for its reduction.

What has been the result of this short-termism and dereliction of political duty? Instead of being able to manage a gradual reduction over time, affected farmers have just three months to comply with the new rules. The financial impact on smaller derogation farmers could make some unviable. A rush to buy or rent land by larger farmers, to comply with reduced stocking rates, could result in soaring land prices and cause chaos in other sectors like tillage, which are already being priced out of renting land.

Where is the Plan B for derogation farmers? The plan that was ready to roll out if the decision of the commission were to cut the derogation – which is what has now happened? Where is the information and outreach for impacted farmers? Where is the dedicated funding to support a transition to more sustainable farming? Where is the plan for the future – and the acceptance that our climate action goals, and emission limits, mean change is both unavoidable and necessary?

I was unable to put those questions to the Taoiseach in the Dáil last week as he was in New York admonishing world leaders for their failure to progress the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. On the world stage, the Taoiseach delivered a message of urgency and the need for transformative climate action. Yet, behind closed doors at home, in meetings with farming lobby groups, the message on sustainability appears markedly different. It’s one of delay, defer and deny.

Fine Gael is not the only large party failing to be upfront with farmers on this issue. Sinn Féin is also suggesting the derogation cut can be revisited. At least, I think they are because Mary Lou McDonald’s position has been unclear. If I understand it correctly, she is against water pollution but also against cuts to the derogation.

It is time for politicians, all of whom have signed up to our climate action targets, to come clean with farmers. A head-in-the-sand approach is neither honest nor helpful. What famers want is stability – for the environment and their sector. What they need from Government is not false hope, but a credible plan.

In our alternative budget, the Social Democrats will be proposing using a significant portion of the surplus as a Green Transformation Fund. Money would be invested in renewable energy – like off-shore wind and solar – and future-proofing agriculture with dedicated transition funds to ensure its sustainability. What is the Government’s plan? Or, is all they have to offer strokes and cute hoorism?

Holly Cairns TD is leader of the Social Democrats