Who is the half-Irish woman leading a farmers’ party that has rocked politics in the Netherlands?

BBB party claims government solutions to Dutch nitrogen problem is unfairly weighted against farmers

She’s undoubtedly a people person. Fiercely proud of her half-Irish heritage, she has “the gift of the gab” in both Dutch and English. But can Caroline van der Plas transform her single-issue farmers’ protest party into a party of government? On that there’s considerable scepticism in the Netherlands.

As long-serving prime minister Mark Rutte – who announced his resignation from politics on Monday, 48 hours after his four-party coalition imploded in a row over immigration – set off to a Nato summit in Lithuania on Tuesday, Van der Plas was far from favourite for the top job.

Although political polls as recently as last week put her “farmer-civilian protest party”, BoerBurgerBeweging, known as BBB, on more or less level pegging with Mr Rutte’s Liberals were an election to be held tomorrow, a TV poll focusing on personalities alone was less flattering.

The poll by current affairs programme EenVandaag opted first for maverick former Christian Democrat MP Peter Omtzigt, who uncovered a child benefit payments scandal which torpedoed the previous Rutte government in January 2021. He attracted a creditable 56 per cent support.


Behind Omtzigt came Klaas Dijkhoff, a former justice and defence minister with Rutte’s Liberal party (VVD) on 46 per cent. It took him just hours to turn the top job down on family grounds, saying he would be busy “for the next 14 years at least”.

Third came Van der Plas (56), former journalist, formerly of the Christian Democrats, and sole member of parliament for the BBB since 2021, when she represented the trickle of farmer discontent over the government’s CO2 policies that would become a torrent in the regional elections last March.

What did EenVandaag’s everyman panel think of half-Irish Caroline Van der Plas for PM?

Some 29 per cent said they would find her “acceptable”. The majority of the doubters were not definitively opposed but felt, quite reasonably, that she lacks crucial experience in government and “on the international stage”, where Rutte has been so ubiquitous and so at home.

And although Van der Plas herself may not realise it, it is her own publicly ambivalent attitude towards the job of prime minister that makes some people wonder – especially since Rutte unfailingly described it in public as “the best job in the world”.

Even in the aftermath of BBB’s mammoth win in the March regional elections where it beat the contenders in all 12 regions, and which are important because they determined the make-up of the senate, she could not say a straight “yes” to the question of whether she would like to be PM.

In fact her answer almost amounted to no. “I like the role of MP and party leader. It suits me very well. But I have no ambition to be prime minister. I know some very good people who could do that if the party does well after the next general election and we can help to shape the cabinet.”

In recent days, however, that “no” has slowly but surely been transformed into a grudging “yes”, which may indeed augur well for her possible future at the top of government. She appeared on Monday to say she would only be interested in the PM’s job if she could focus on Dutch domestic issues – and leave international affairs exclusively to the foreign minister. It’s been a performance that has left politics-watchers scratching their heads.

So who, the Dutch electorate is asking – and especially the urbanites for whom farmers’ concerns are at best peripheral – is Caroline Ann Maria Van der Plas?

She was born on June 6th, 1967, at Number 6, Angelotstede, in the rural town of Cuijk to a Dutch father, Wil van der Plas, a sports journalist who worked for the regional paper Deventer Dagblad, and an Irish mother, Nuala Fitzpatrick, who was a flight attendant with Aer Lingus in the 1950s and early-60s.

Nuala Van der Plas-Fitzpatrick became the first married female flight attendant at Aer Lingus after she met Wil, by then promoted to sports editor, on a flight, the two clicked, and she promised to meet him socially in Amsterdam.

The rest is family history. It was a whirlwind romance but not a whirlwind marriage. The couple were penfriends for years before they took the plunge

Afterwards Nuala became known as “the Flying Dutchwoman”, Caroline has recalled, who refers frequently to her Irish roots in tweets under the name @lientje1967, “lientje” being a popular diminutive of “Carolien”, the Dutch translation of Caroline.

For instance, responding to a Met Éireann forecast of heavy weather to come, she tweeted: “In Ireland there is never a dull day. Even when the sky is grey the Irish eyes are always smiling.”

Caroline van der Plas cut her journalistic teeth writing about the meat industry for Reed Business in Amsterdam. She later moved into public relations for agricultural organisations such as the Dutch Association of Pig Farmers, which prepared her professionally to launch and promote the BBB.

The outgoing Rutte government aimed to cut nitrogen emissions in half by 2030 on the grounds that large numbers of livestock and heavy use of fertilisers by farmers had led to nitrogen levels in soil and water that violated EU regulations.

With Van der Plas at the helm the farmers fought back, claiming that the problem had been exaggerated and that the government’s solutions were unfairly weighted against farmers, forcing families out of agriculture and prompting unnecessary food shortages.

As the farmers’ anger turned to protests and rioting, Van der Plas was the voice of reason. “I understand their anger”, she declared. “So I want the government to start listening and really hearing them or things will get a whole lot worse. Primarily we want the entire nitrogen policy that’s on the table now to be put on hold while we look for workable alternatives.”

Can one person – even a half-Irish woman – turn a protest movement into a party of government in just a few months? The Dutch are about to find out.

In addition to CO2 emissions, the BBB now has a tough policy on immigration, proposing an annual cap on asylum seekers.

It’s a start. But is it enough? Not yet.

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey

Peter Cluskey is a journalist and broadcaster based in The Hague, where he covers Dutch news and politics plus the work of organisations such as the International Criminal Court