Farming lobby hasn't gone away you know
OPINION:Agriculture retains significant influence at political, EU and business levels
Farmers have been masterful in their use of the media for nearly half a century. By their staging of colourful protests, their adeptness in dealing with journalists and their monitoring of rural politicians, they have managed to remain a vigorous force in Irish society.
Despite the dramatic drop in the number of farmers, and the growth of part-time farming, it is still a sector that punches above its weight, though not as powerfully as when they were more economically significant.
Farming numbers have declined from 170,000 two decades ago to 125,000 now. About 80,000 are full-time. The agri-food sector accounts for about 7per cent of GDP and supports 150,000 jobs. Exports amount to about €9 billion annually.
Farm organisations need a high media profile because it strengthens their hand in negotiations in Dublin and Brussels. Politicians or executives in the food sector don’t appreciate protests at their own doorstep, but Ministers acknowledge that an angry demonstration back home can help them during tough bargaining at EU level.
The farm groups also use the media to retain militancy within their own ranks. Nearly every autumn, the IFA organises a big demonstration in Dublin. This serves to highlight their agenda in the public eye and it also tests the logistical skills of the IFA in transporting members from its 950 branches around the country. These demos are animated, noisy, and usually large; 20,000 attended the latest protest in October.
Much of the strength of the farming lobby results from its keen interest in the media. The IFA is joint owner the Irish Farmers Journal, which has a weekly circulation of more than 70,000. The ICMSA supports the Irish Farmers Monthly, and other groups have internal newsletters. With texting and twitter, everyone stays on message.
The national press such as The Irish Times and the Irish Independent give comprehensive coverage to agricultural issues. While RTÉ has yet to replace its recently departed agricultural correspondent and the station has dropped its nightly farm slot on Drivetime, it retains its Saturday radio Countrywide programme and the Ear to the Ground series on television. Some grumble, however, that these programmes are more focused on the wider audience rather than on farmers in particular.
Most regional newspapers devote a page to farming every week while local radio stations carry special programmes.
At Government level, agriculture remains a middle-ranking ministry, a much sought-after portfolio by rural frontbenchers. About 20 TDs have a farming background. Most provincial deputies are highly attuned to the demands of the farm organisations.
Not that TDs would be allowed to ignore the interests of farmers. Every so often, all rural deputies are effectively summoned to Buswells hotel near Dáil Éireann to be briefed on farming issues by the IFA. If the IFA doesn’t drive the message home, then there are a myriad of other organisations to bend politicians ears such as the ICMSA, ICSA, Macra na Feirme etc.