Frowning, worried George Lee seems allergic to silver linings
Making dire forecasts about Brexit and agribusiness, George Lee is in his element
George Lee is never one to knowingly accentuate the positive, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong
Some say that the glass is half empty. Others that it is half full. And then there is George Lee, the economics reporter who meets you with an imploring stare and a voice laid low with grave apology, who tells you that the glass is actually poisoned and you should have listened to him before you began drinking.
This attitude does not necessarily mean that Lee, a picture of worry at the best of times, is wrong when he issues dire forecasts about the effect of Brexit on Irish agribusiness. But, as a champion of the dismal science, he is never one to knowingly accentuate the positive.
“All of this could be just a taste of much worse to come,” he tells us about midway through Brexit: Farming at the Edge (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm), which is concerning because he has already supplied a comprehensive run down of worst-case scenarios.
An on-the-ground report, in which Lee moves from a tomato plant to a cattle mart and onwards to several farms, it begins in a gargantuan greenhouse in Rush, Co Dublin, where he throws the first of many stones.
The collapse of sterling since Brexit has meant that a decades-long UK supermarket client of Matt Foley’s tomato plant recently issued an abrupt warning: “We are not in a position to commit to a 2018 programme.” You may wonder if the same could be said for Lee and his writer/director David Starkey, who, through no fault of their own, are trying to divine directions in the middle of chaos.
Even absorbing the impact of December’s agreement in Brexit negotiations, against returning a hard border, proves difficult, partly because trade deals have yet to be worked out, and partly because Lee is not in the business of being assured.
At a cattle mart in Elphin, Northern Irish customers (usually 40 per cent of the market) are suddenly in short supply. But there are bigger worries. “If the subsidies go, it’s over,” says Gerry Connellan.
These subsidies, worth €1.5 billion a year to Irish farmers, come from the Common Agricultural Policy, to which the UK has been a major contributor. Much of the programme is given over to testimonies of worried beef farmers, an especially vulnerable group, who are dependent on them. But it doesn’t seem coincidental that less attention is paid to a young innovator, Marie Martin, who made inroads into French and German markets when UK buyers suddenly went cold.
“Breaking into foreign markets is easier said than done,” says Lee, gravely, citing language barriers as an obstacle.
Oh, come on now. I’m as alarmist as the next doomsday prophet, but compared with anxieties over theoretical trade tariffs, what’s so daunting about investing in a Linguaphone pack?
When even an otherwise sanguine dairy farmer, currently experiencing a boon, only satisfies the show with an analysis of Brexit as “the dark cloud that’s hanging over the country”, the programme itself seems allergic to silver linings.
Lee, genially donning white smocks, blue gloves and, at one point, a fetching pink bandana to assist with everyone he interviews, gives every impression that he is here to help. But really this is a frowning meditation of “ifs” and “mights”, addressing itself to a period of rattling uncertainty in which worries only multiply and fester.
“Nobody seems to know what the effects will be yet,” says Mary O’Callaghan, a busy Mitchelstown café owner, and a final gaggle of hand-wringing experts add little to that analysis.
“Let’s hope the politicians get this right,” concludes Lee, without actually speaking to any, as though speculative pessimism was enough.
For all the worry etched into Lee’s magnificently downturned mouth, not even he is impervious to O’Callaghan’s resilient display, though, serving scones from 6am, keeping too busy to get spooked. Besides, the bandana suits him.