Stephen Cadogan: Hope for rural voters in talks on government formation

Not many of the 2,151,293 who voted in the election were working hard on the Sunday evening of the St Patrick’s Day weekend.

Stephen Cadogan: Hope for rural voters in talks on government formation

But it was just another working day for farmers.

They were in the midst of calving down the country’s two million cows, lambing the two million ewes, feeding livestock, and sowing about 170,000 hectares of spring cereals.

It’s one of the busiest times of year on farms, more so this year as farmers catch up with work postponed by the wettest winter they can remember.

That’s why Independent TD Michael Healy-Rae was working with cattle on Sunday evening, and the 49-year-old suffered minor injuries, a not unusual occurrence in farming, especially in the busy spring period.

Luckily, he escaped serious injury.

The hazards of farming are well-known to the Healy-Raes and to all who grow up coping with such challenges.

It’s a world far from the Ireland we heard about in the election, where debates about the fiscal space and what it meant were the highlight.

That’s why it shouldn’t have come as a big surprise that rural people diverged from normal general election trends by voting for a slew of independent rural candidates.

More than anything else, probably, what these candidates had going for them, was a good understanding of the unique rural way of life, which became clear to their constituents on the doorsteps.

These candidates know firsthand about the isolated nature of country life which makes good communications (including broadband) and roads so important; the vulnerability to a growing crime wave; the emigration; and many other challenges which are not so evident in urban areas.

That unique knowledge, which is harder to grasp for our 70% urban population, gives the independent rural candidates elected a month ago a strong rallying point to be a powerful unified lobby in the new Dail.

And there are now welcome signs for the rural electorate that such a lobby is taking shape.

Five of them have merged as a group of rural Independent TDs who Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have been wooing in their bids to form a government.

They are Michael Collins in Cork South West, Noel Grealish in Galway West, Dr Michael Harty in Clare, Mattie McGrath in Tipperary South, and Denis Naughten in Roscommon–Galway.

Their priorities in government would include reversal of cuts in EU-supported LEADER programmes, the need to improve broadband, repair roads, and a commitment to appoint a senior rural affairs minister.

Mr Naughten said their issues of concern revolve around “seeing the recovery spread beyond Dublin”.

Hospital facilities are also on their list.

Such concerns are shared by other rural Independent TDs such as Michael and Danny Healy-Rae in Kerry; Michael Fitzmaurice in Roscommon-Galway; Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran in Longford Westmeath; Sean Canney in Galway East; and Donegal’s Thomas Pringle.

There may also be others interested in coming together to form an effective, united, rural, pivotal voting bloc in whatever Government might be formed, now that the possibilities of an early election or a FG-FF grand coalition seem to have receded.

Such an alliance holds hope for rural voters to see real progress with high quality broadband; new measures to support local enterprise and employment; stronger policing; more funds for road repair and maintenance; and greater exploitation of rural tourism in opportunities, while protecting property rights.

Rural areas have soaked up a lot of punishment.It was the same in the 1920s, when the Farmers’ Party was set up to cater almost exclusively for the agricultural community, winning seven seats in 1922, increasing to 15 in 1923.

Clann na Talmhan followed in 1939, when small farmers’ incomes were under threat from new taxation policies. Up to 1961, they won between two and ten seats in the elections.

Now, a wider based rural grouping of TDs may be taking shape, bringing a new kind of representation in the national parliament for rural Ireland.

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