Breandán O Conchúir explains why the Irish Left need to organise in rural Ireland…
While the growth of the left in Ireland is a welcome development it is worth looking at how socialism relates to life in rural Ireland. I think it is fair to say that the left in Ireland is and has traditionally been urban based as has socialism globally. A quick search of the socialist party website using “farm” and “rural” as search terms returned no results while the socialist workers party website does have animal welfare items, only one animal welfare topic related to rural Ireland in anyway and the ULA website makes no mention of farming or rural Ireland. I truly believe socialism can appeal to rural Ireland and the farming community and if there is a failure to develop policy on rural development then we will see a polarisation of a left right dived along the rural urban divide.
Recent bad weather has meant that many farmers livelihood is threatened as fodder runs out before animals can be put onto grass (which normally happens in March). Last years’ bad summer and this years’ bad spring have combined to push farmers to the edge. Many have racked up serious debts with local feed suppliers, many of which are cooperatives meaning that these cooperatives are now also at risk. There has been a forty percent rise in the number of animal deaths this spring yet it is only now that a plan to help farmers import fodder has been announced. Shockingly the proposed plan will only reduce prices by a third when they have rising to 80 euro per bale in some cases and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association president has called it “hopelessly insufficient”, it was pointed out during a Dáil debate that the salary paid to the chief executive of BOI is only 157,000 euro short of the amount set aside to aid struggling farmers.
However the left has not being the ones criticising the governments lack of effective action it has been right wing TDs such as Éamon Ó Cuív and Mattie McGrath. This failure of the left to support small farmers who suffer the most has allowed farmer representative bodies such as the IFA to be led by large farmers. It is not that small farmers are exploited by large pro Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael farmers; it is that no alternative voice has risen to stand for the small farmers. Instead of standing up for small farmer as they would for their worker comrades, trade union leaders and leftists politicians have criticised farmers for protesting, saying they had “no right to disrupt Dublin”.
How is this relevant now? Well as I have already mentioned many farmers have been pushed to the limit by bad weather which has caused a huge upsurge in the number of animals dying [i]and stopped tillage farmers from doing necessary groundwork in preparation for planting crops.[ii] This all effects farmer’s income and when farm income is down all of rural Ireland suffers. As spring finally came in the last few weeks what should be a respite for the hard pressed small farmers instead only allows farmers to regroup and prepare to do battle over CAP reform. Suggested reform of CAP could see 80,000 farmers lose 40% of their income[iii].
Why is this a chance for building a base of socialism in rural Ireland? Small farmers have been pushed to the limit without any aid from the current government until animals started to die, while CAP reform threatens to change the nature of farm payments to a land based system where farmers with more land are paid more. It is ridiculous that the left in Ireland has been silent on how this vital payment system is restructured. The IFA is in favour of payments which favour of ‘productive’ farms which would inevitably mean the larger farms, yet this is the option being pursued by farmers because they oppose the proposed system of payment based on acreage. Why is it that farmers are willing to support reform which is in the interests of larger farmers? They support it because it is the only alternative that would be backed by parties willing to stand by rural Ireland and the majority of farmers understand the need to be united in their protest.
Can the left offer an alternative? As a socialist from rural Ireland I feel that an alternative is out there if it is willingly pursued. What that alternative would look like is the key issue. The nationalisation of farms as means of production is a non runner because it means more red tape and bureaucracy which farmers despise, and state ownership means a loss of the independence associated with farming. So what is the alternative? Rather than farmers being forced to work in state owned collectives the left should call for the creation of voluntary collective farms similar to the kibbutzim in Palestine in the early 20th century or the anarcho-syndicalist movement in 1930s Spain. Under this system farmers would voluntarily join together to pool resources and share in the profit.
More recreantly the GAEC scheme has been operating in Europe[iv], this scheme helps insure that there is little environmental by setting minimum standards regarding soil erosion, soil structure and maintenance of the natural environment. Environmental measures such as this are easier to implement on cooperative collective farms as there is more land available for a potential variety of agricultural activities. Another advantage of a system based on cooperative agriculture is that it allows for farming to be more profitable for smaller farmers. It has been pointed out that under the current system of single farms a farmer milking 60 cows on his own makes as much as a farmer milking 150 who has a wage bill to pay.
While there is a move towards calling for a fairer distribution of CAP funds by the farm family rights group and a growing unhappiness with the main farming bodies due to the ending of REPS, the suckler scheme and reductions in disadvantaged area scheme. This group is small and without any political support, this is where the opportunity for the left to gain support by supporting small farmers which are central to rural life. The choice lies completely with socialist politicians do they want to expand into rural Ireland or is the worker to remain perpetually opposed to the farmer.
[i] Irish examiner, April 11th 2013
[ii] Irish times, April 1st 2013
[iii] Irish examiner, March 11th 2013
[iv] Irish examiner, April 25th 2013