New farmers’ political party has become ‘serious discussion point’ in Oireachtas

Contentious issues among disaffected rural voters include turf-cutting, nitrates, bog rewetting, roads investment and forestry privatisation

Along with the rainstorm, the usual deluge of politicians descended on the first day of the National Ploughing Championships. Five Cabinet Ministers, a super junior minister, four Ministers of State, three Opposition party leaders and President Michael D Higgins were backed up by squadrons of backbenchers, spokespeople and staffers. This is normal – the ploughing match is a fixture on the political calendar. But underpinning it, as the system zeros in on the election cycle, is a sense that something is shifting in the politics of rural Ireland.

In August, the Farmers’ Journal polled 1,982 farmers, 72 per cent of whom said they would be highly likely to give a putative farmers’ party their first-preference vote. Following the success of a farmers’ party in the Netherlands, tongues were set wagging, helped by an intervention from Roscommon-Galway TD Michael Fitzmaurice in the spring, who said he would start talks about a new political party focused on rural issues.

“I think there’s certainly scope for a party ... that would appeal to a large number of people sick of being told what to think,” said Michael McNamara, Independent TD for Clare. A Government source said it had become a “serious discussion point” against a volatile backdrop where issues can rapidly mobilise rural voters against mainstream politics – and, more narrowly, against the Government, with a white-hot ire reserved for the Greens. Turf-cutting, nitrates, bog rewetting, roads investment and forestry privatisation are among the issues of contention.

The establishment of the 100% Redress Party, rooted in the mica protest movement, has added further momentum to the sense that new entrants might be able to mop up anti-Government sentiment, outflanking even Sinn Féin (the party polled just 12 per cent support in the Farmers’ Journal August poll).


Of course, just because there is political dislocation in rural Ireland it doesn’t mean a party will necessarily emerge – especially as it may find the ground already occupied.

“I wouldn’t dismiss a farmers’ party winning any seats [but] that space is already occupied by a rural Independent voice that is very populist and doesn’t take climate action very seriously,” said Christopher O’Sullivan, a Fianna Fáil TD seen as leaning green and who represents the rural constituency of Cork South West. “The rate of speed that’s coming at the farming sector is really difficult to adapt to,” he says – and someone looks set to win out, even as he vows to fight his corner for farming families. “That fear will be capitalised on by others.”

In truth, it would be hard for a new party to make inroads. Persuading high-profile Independents to sign up to a whip, not to mention the regulatory hurdles and fundraising needed to start a party, would be a tough sell, especially for Independents who value their freedom and have potent brands and sizeable voting bases. If the political energy goes anywhere it may end up supplying a larger contingent of rural Independents in the coming elections – although McNamara said a form where a “certain number of candidates could agree a policy platform” could prove attractive.

One definite upshot is intra-Coalition tensions – most visible in raised Fianna Fáil hackles over the nitrates issue, and Leo Varadkar’s intervention last Friday. While Ministers are making soothing sounds, behind the scenes there is significant anger within Fianna Fáil at Fine Gael Ministers whom they accuse privately of “playing politics” and “acting the b******s”. The two parties are paranoid about losing voters, if not to each other to rural Independents who are pursuing “FF and FG voters who hate the Green Party”, one Government source confides.

As for Fitzmaurice, who has made more noise about a new rural party than any other TD, he said that if the project was a non-starter, he might walk away from politics. He is currently “meeting people and developing policy”.

“By Christmas, it will be one way or the other – a viable prospect or me heading for the hills come next election.”