Young farmers turn up the heat


The royal herd in England is earning £1.5 million a year in EU subsidies; in Ireland, 85 per cent of farmers survive on an annual income of less than £10,000; Irish wheat was making £138 a tonne in 1984 but in 1998 it makes £68 a tonne; before the BSE crisis, beef was earning farmers £1.06 a pound but that figure has slumped to 74p today . . . Staggering volumes of data and statistics underpinning the plight of the Irish farmer tripped easily from the tongues of Fianna Fail delegates who crammed into the "workshop" on agriculture. It was hospital waiting lists, farming, the housing crisis, education and, to a minor degree, media intrusion into the private life of the Taoiseach that exercised the minds of delegates at the party's 63rd ardfheis at the RDS.

"The atmosphere is good this year, not over the top like other years with everyone going mad. There's no madness and no complacency," said one delegate.

But passions were laid bare among the farming delegates. There was scarcely standing room and young farmers had to resort to squatting on the floor in sweltering heat, listening in vain for words of comfort from the Minister, Mr Walsh, as they face what one called "dire years ahead in our sector".

Mr Jimmy Weldon, from Nobber, Co Meath, is an agriculture contractor. He ploughs, sows corn and cuts silage for farmers in his locality. His job gives him an overview of the farmers' circumstances. Are their woes exaggerated? "This time last year, I had sown 500 acres of corn; this year I've sown 19 con-acres. The bad times are here to stay for a while anyway," he says.

So, what should Fianna Fail, reputedly faithful to its small-farm roots, now do? And what was his reaction to criticism of farmers by the Finance Minister, Mr McCreevy?

"Well, what do you do without alienating the rest of the community? I don't know. But as a rural man, living in a rural community, Charlie McCreevy should not have criticised in the manner he did. He's intelligent; he should know better. This thing is very sore with us on the ground," Mr Weldon said.

Mr Pat Scanlan owns a 50-acre dairy farm in Camp, Co Kerry. "Its beautiful but we can't live off the scenery," he says. "The famous cheque-in-the-post is going the wrong way. The farm organisations, the IFA and the ICMSA, are telling us the family farm is not viable any more but if it was TUI or SIPTU members, their unions would fight for more money for their people. The farm organisations are only knocking their own . . . "

Mr Sean Gilsenan farms 380 acres in Moynalty, Co Meath. He produces milk, beef and tillage on this impressive spread. None of his five children is likely to take to farming. Mr Terry Doran, secretary to one of the three Fianna Fail cumainn in Greystones, Co Wicklow, says that, contrary to intense media reportage of controversy over regionalisation and the power of the Independent TDs, the issues did not dominate the minds of delegates.

"I'm not at all sure Jackie Healy-Rae was handed a prize. There were Government Ministers involved in the decision. But, fair play to Jackie, he is trying to take the kudos. I don't think the electorate of Wicklow or East Carlow will for one moment be fooled by people threatening to pull the plug . . . I am talking about the Independents," said Mr Doran.

The media's handling of the Taoiseach's private life made delegates wince somewhat. In a typical response, Mr Doran took the view that the intrusion was excessive and that "the man must be judged on his performance in government"; everything else is "very much a private affair".

Hospital waiting lists and the state of the health services are clearly issues awaiting the Government in the next election. Mr Cyril O'Connor, secretary of the North Sligo Comhairle Ceanntair, said the Government should "pour" money into reducing the queues. As a successful bone-marrow transplant patient himself, he is acutely aware of the importance of health care.

Ms Mary Conlon, a physiotherapist at St John's Hospital in Sligo, is stunned by the waste she witnesses in the health sector which is top-heavy with management with not enough resources spent on the practical side.

"We are under enormous strain. There is a problem in the health services . . . It is mismanaged and the Government will have to introduce reform," she says.

Housing also rated high on the Fianna Fail agenda of complaints. To the last one, delegates believed action must be taken to allow young people secure their first home. According to Mr Cyril O'Connor, first-time buyers should be refunded 10 per cent VAT if the house cost more than £80,000. Mrs Rosemary Wallace from Co Meath was dismayed at the disproportionately low level of involvement in politics by women. "There should also be more support for women from women," she says.

Mind you, Mrs Wallace's own daughter has flown through the glass ceiling herself. She is Ms Mary Wallace, TD for Meath and a Minister of State.