Simon Coveney is the preferred candidate to be the next Fine Gael leader among farmers but the party is losing support, writes Political Reporter Elaine Loughlin.

NEWS: 35% of farmers favour Coveney to lead Fine Gael

More than one in three people living in rural Ireland favour Simon Coveney as the next leader of Fine Gael.

As Taoiseach Enda Kenny comes under mounting pressure to state when he will step down as head of Fine Gael, a clear favourite has emerged among the farming community as to who they would like to see succeed him.

The former agriculture minister is now the favoured candidate to lead the party. Some 35% of people questioned in the the Irish Examiner/ICMSA poll stated they would chose Mr Coveney as leader of Fine Gael.

He is followed by Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar on 23%. This is in contrast to other surveys taken before the Dáil’s summer recess, which had Mr Varadkar slightly head in the polls.

Farming Poll 2016: Simon Coveney favoured to take over as Fine Gael leader

Just one in 10 people would chose to retain Mr Kenny, while both Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald and Finance Minister Michael Noonan are on 5%.

Interestingly, the survey revealed that 22% would prefer someone who was not named among those mentioned above.

This could leave the door open for Public and Expenditure and Reform Minister Paschal Donohoe, who has so far stated he is not interested in the leadership, or could provide an outside chance to Health Minister Simon Harris.

For some time now, a number of Fine Gael backbench TDs have been calling on Mr Kenny, who has led the party since 2002, to made the details of his departure known.

At the party think-in in Newbridge, Co Kildare, last week, Kerry TD Brendan Griffin, and Jim Daly, of Cork South West, were among those who reiterated this stance.

Speaking at the Fine Gael meeting, Mr Griffin said: “I certainly feel for the country’s sake and for the party’s sake that we need to confront this matter now.

“Here we are over six months after the general election, which was a huge loss for Fine Gael — we had 50% more TDs this time five years ago than we have now.

“If that’s not an alarming wake-up call for a political party in any scenario, what is?”

Both Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney are viewed as the obvious successors, however, both have different styles of politics and would have a different support base.

The latest survey shows that Mr Coveney has strong support in rural and agricultural areas.

However, when broken down by gender, both Mr Varadkar and Mr Coveney are almost neck and neck among female farmers surveyed, with the Cork South Central TD shading it by just one point on 26%, and Mr Varadkar on 25%.

Mr Varadkar scores higher among younger people, with 24% of those under the age of 34 favouring the Dublin West TD, while Mr Coveney has 22% support in this bracket.

The Cork TD, who has been tasked with solving the homeless crisis as minister for housing, planning and local government, fairs best among those over 65, with a significant 46% favouring him to lead Fine Gael.

ANALYSIS: Political ties loosen across rural Ireland

Fine Gael, the party of the big farmer, is losing support across tracks of rural Ireland as people begin to break with their traditional political ties.

While the Irish Examiner / ICMSA poll survey published today shows Fine Gael still remain the most popular party (on 33%), their support is slipping, and the most significant slide has been among the dairy sector who have seen their income head downward over the past 12 to 18 months.

But just as Fine Gael’s support has fallen by five percentage points, Fianna Fáil have seen their backing increase by seven points according to the Behaviour and Attitudes survey of 526 farmers.

Rural Ireland remains decidedly undecided, with one in four people stating they do not know who they would vote for in an upcoming election, while a further 7% wouldn’t cast a ballot at all.

Fine Gael’s ‘Keep the Recovery Going’ slogan of the General Election fell flat in rural Ireland. Many felt little or no boost in their local communities.

In fact, as Enda Kenny and his ministers embarked on a nationwide tour of factories, manufacturing plants and concrete warehouses to show off the recovery during the election campaign, many farmers felt they had been bypassed in the previous five years.

Instead of investment, regional communities witnessed a stripping of resources, and under the reign of the party of law and order they saw an increase in rural crime.

Farming Poll 2016: Simon Coveney favoured to take over as Fine Gael leader

Garda stations closed, post offices and banks shut, and the numbers of families in their localities dwindled, meaning schools lost teachers.

This survey has found that 40% of farmers feel the recovery has not benefited them. This was seen on polling day when Fine Gael lost votes and representatives.

It appears that traditional voting patterns are changing in rural Ireland which historically cast their ballots along well defined political and historical allegiances.

Areas that traditionally had a fertile Fine Gael support base — running down the the spine of the country and into Munster — were diminished in Election 2016.

Former junior agriculture minister Tom Hayes lost his seat in Tipperary, along with his Fine Gael colleague Noel Coonan, other party members to lose out were tillage farmer Tom Barry in Cork East as well as Kieran O’Donnell in Limerick.

Although dairy farmers have seen a slight recovery in milk prices over the summer, taking the slumping price per litre in the 18 months into account it’s no surprise that support for the Government party has also slipped.

The survey also found that dairy farmers feel that the Government has not responded adequately to the current dairy crisis.

Likewise, support for Fine Gael among dairy farmers polled is now at 40%, this is down from 47% in 2015. The figures were reversed for Fianna Fáil, with support among the dairy sector up to 23% from 18% last year.

However, tillage farmers appear to remain staunch in their support for Mr Kenny and Fine Gael.

Some 42% of those asked said they support Fine Gael, this is a noteworthy increase on the 30% rating in 2015.

Ger McCarthy, from Rossmore, Clonakilty, Co Cork, with his horses Larry and Fred. Picture: Dan Linehan
Ger McCarthy, from Rossmore, Clonakilty, Co Cork, with his horses Larry and Fred. Picture: Dan Linehan

Older farmers and those working large farms are more inclined to rate Enda Kenny, according to the survey, while Micheál Martin’s support lies with middle-aged farmers and those with smaller holdings.

But overall it appears that rural Ireland is loosening the traditional political ties.

This was perhaps reflected in February’s election where a swathe of — mainly Independent — new faces took up seats on the Dáil benches.

But the Examiner’s survey has revealed that rural voters are not completely convinced by the amount achieved by Independents since then.

Of those mentioned, Shane Ross fares best, but only he received an average rating of 4.44%. Finian McGrath, John Halligan and Katherine Zappone all received average ratings of 3.98%, 3.69% and 3.7%, respectively.

Independents will no doubt be underwhelmed by their ratings in the poll, but this is clear from our survey. Old allegiances are no longer valid and rural Ireland is a changing place for those in politics.

READ MORE: The Irish Examiner / ICMSA farming survey: Methodology

Find more on the Irish Examiner ICMSA farming survey HERE


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