Elaine Loughlin: Little gained, and much public support lost for farmers

The motley crew that caused havoc in Dublin did no favours for the majority of farmers who rightly want a fair price for produce, says Political Correspondent Elaine Loughlin

A garda passes tractors parked on the streets around St Stephen’s Green in Dublin amid a protest by farmers over beef prices. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
A garda passes tractors parked on the streets around St Stephen’s Green in Dublin amid a protest by farmers over beef prices. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Regardless of their plight, it is wrong that a disparate group, with no leader, vague aims, and constantly-changing red lines can hold the capital and the Government to ransom.

Beef farmers are the backbone of rural Ireland, they support thousands of other small business owners who wish to make a living outside of towns and cities, and they are also seriously struggling, there is no denying that.

Without farmers, rural Ireland would simply die, they are an integral part of what makes our country unique and must be supported.

However, it is not the job of any minister to directly negotiate with each of the country’s 70,000 beef farmers.

Accepting the demands of individuals just because they cause havoc by blocking up a city is not something that should be contemplated, nor is expecting the minister for agriculture to meet with individuals because they don’t believe they are being fully represented by farming organisations.

Giving such power to anyone would set a dangerous precedent. If farmers think they can simply rock up to Leinster House in their Massey Fergusons and John Derres and get what they want, what’s to stop a group of dissident teachers blocking off access to the Department of Education or renegade nurses from stopping traffic outside the Department of Health for a day?

The way in which the group of self-titled individual farmers conducted themselves could be described as everything from farcical to a disgrace, but it certainly did not advance their cause. The two-day blockade of Dublin’s city centre ended just after 3pm yesterday when the tractors and trailers pulled off in a plume of smoke after horse-wrangling with gardaí, ad-hoc conversations with the minister, and internal disagreements.

Tuesday morning in Dublin was already the type of wet and gloomy day that no-one wants to face into. The kind of dreary day that requires our farmers to pull on the waterproof trousers and trudge through the mud to check and feed their stock. It’s something that you perhaps don’t think about when assessing the price of your vacuum-packed fillet of beef or a roast for your Sunday lunch in the supermarket.

In Dublin, commuters were faced with the usual added journey time due to the rain, but the fact that numerous streets in the city centre were blocked off caused absolute gridlock. The tractorcade hadn’t even arrived yet.

While the rally of around 100 tractors was mainly confined to one side of Merrion Square, gardaí had closed surrounding streets as a precaution.

By mid-afternoon on Tuesday, farmers, who are well used to hammering out a deal, were negotiating with the gardaí.

It was agreed that two tractors would be allowed to drive down Kildare St, passing the Department of Agriculture and Leinster House and then they would be off. But when the mediators went back to the group of independent-minded farmers, the compromise was rejected.

Tractors parked on the streets around St. Stephen's Green in Dublin city centre as a protest by farmers over the prices they get for their produce continues. (Brian Lawless/PA Wire)
Tractors parked on the streets around St. Stephen's Green in Dublin city centre as a protest by farmers over the prices they get for their produce continues. (Brian Lawless/PA Wire)

The second proposal was to let the entire tractorcade drive past the main gates of the Dáil, the gardaí warned farmers not to stop and the negotiators agreed that they would file past and would then make their way home to cattle that needed feeding that night.

Again this idea was dismissed by some in the crowd which made it a non-runner.

At this stage, the gardaí were realising it could be difficult to extract the farmers as the lack of leadership and even less agreement among the protesters was becoming apparent.

The protesters parked up for the night with some sleeping in their tractor cabs. A subsection of the breakaway group took further action blocking the Merrion Square exit of Leinster House with two tractors which prevented some staff and politicians from leaving. Others made the short walk around the block for refreshments in the Shelbourne Hotel.

It was a second morning of chaos for commuters yesterday with St Stephen’s Green east and north closed, along with Kildare St, Dawson St, Earlsfort Terrace, Leeson St, and Cuffe St.

Dublin Bus was forced to make diversions on a number of routes.

Farmers had made it clear that they wanted to bring their concerns directly to the minister and then they would leave, and so shortly after 7am, Micheal Creed took upon himself to meet the protesters at the picket line.

“We need to make sure that what you are doing is not stepping back more than bringing it forward,” the minister told those assembled.

Some of the farmers handed Mr Creed a letter but protesters further along the picket shouted that it didn’t represent their views.

And so the tractors remained and a new set of demands were hatched.

This time, five representatives of the leaderless group would go into the department to smooth things out which would allow for deployment of an exit strategy.

Mr Creed met the farmers in the lobby of Agriculture House where he was handed another letter and told to ignore the first document.

A third hand-written letter was also produced for perusal by the minister just to add to the confusion and mixed messages.

Tractors parked on the streets around St. Stephen's Green in Dublin city centre as a protest by farmers over the prices they get for their produce continues. (Brian Lawless/PA Wire)
Tractors parked on the streets around St. Stephen's Green in Dublin city centre as a protest by farmers over the prices they get for their produce continues. (Brian Lawless/PA Wire)

There were then calls for the minister to apologise for remarks he had made in the Dáil the previous day, then and only then would the farmers retreat.

By early afternoon, many on the protest, who had only expected it to last a few hours, were growing weary, the entire thing became more like an exercise on how not to conduct a successful protest.

The lack of any coherent message or organisation was again demonstrated when one protester announced to the crowd that a motion of no-confidence in the minister would be tabled in the Dáil a 2.45pm and they would all agree to leave — when the minister was also forced to step down — at 3pm.

A quick glance at the schedule would have informed the speaker that the Dáil was not due to resume until 3.07pm at which point topical issues would be up for discussion.

And so at 3pm the protesters finally moved on, with very little gained but much public support lost.

In short, our beef farmers have a strong case to make, the beef task force must be resumed to address issues impacting those who work in a valuable industry, but who are not valued.

But the motley crew that caused havoc in Dublin this week do not represent the majority who work the land. They did no favours for the wider group who quite rightly want a fair price for their produce.

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