Diarmaid Ferriter: The ‘opposite of the Greens’ party will serve no one

Farmers have mobilised for years around the theme of rural neglect. Any new rural party will have to offer something more than simply ‘opposite to the Greens’

As the violence of the Civil War dribbled away 100 years ago this month, the minister for agriculture, Cumann na nGaedheal’s Patrick Hogan, was focused on what became the1923 Land Act that summer. It was an attempt to finally solve the land question by giving the newly constituted Land Commission powers to carry out compulsory acquisition and redistribution of land. It would also, the Government hoped, contribute to the restoration of law and order given the scale of agitation around land hunger, and shore up electoral support for Cumann na nGaedheal.

Hogan was predicting another land war if the issue was not tackled, but also claimed agricultural production had to be the “spring and fertiliser of many other forms of industry natural to an agricultural country such as this is”. Many farmers were displeased, however, with Hogan’s parallel insistence on improved standards of cleanliness, packaging and honest description of agricultural produce, considered imperative for successful international trade. Irish farmers, then as now, were often caught between tradition and change, raising challenges that were cultural, political and economic.

Writer Seán O’Faoláin sought to encapsulate their dilemma in his book, The Irish (1949), as the scale of the postwar challenge for an outdated Irish agricultural sector became so apparent. He depicted small farmers clinging on as both guardians and slaves of history: “He will preserve for centuries dull and foolish habits that those who neither love nor fear time or change will quickly cast aside, but he will also preserve dear, ancient habits that like wine and ivory grow more beautiful and precious with age, all jumbled with the useless lumber in that dusty cockloft which is his ancestral mind”.

The challenges of catering for the needs of rural Ireland continued to cause rancour and division. The National Farmers Association was established in 1955 and became more militant in the 1960s. Farmers have mobilised for decades to decry neglect, as they did again this week, with the Macra na Feirme march from Kildare to Dublin. Those younger farmers are very much a minority; figures from the CSO in 2020 indicated one third of all farm holders were over 65 (compared to just one fifth in 1991); the proportion under the age of 35 in 2020 was 6.9 per cent, and they are predicting a bleak future.


The current protests coexist with talk of the possibility of a new political party to represent the interests of rural Ireland, with independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice predicting the “last round in the fight for rural Ireland”. There is nothing new in that prediction; it is another version of historic rallying calls, but translating those into a concrete programme is a tall order. After the last general election, Mattie McGrath suggested those who elected rural independent TDs felt “neglected, abandoned and even blackguarded by successive governments”. He and his fellow rural independent TDs, however, gave a chaotic press conference in February 2020 that suggested little co-ordination between them.

There is also a new Irish Farmers’ Alliance, preoccupied with pricing, distribution and land use. Its founder Liam McLoughlin has insisted “there’s a lot of nonsense being pushed on us like rewetting and forestry. We’re not against looking after the environment, but we are basically going to push back against that.” All these initiatives, mobilisations and assertions suggest a great degree of fracturing when it comes to representing rural Ireland. Is it likely that a new rural political party would exacerbate that?

Rural campaigners

From the foundation of the State, farmers and rural campaigners contested elections. In the 1923 general election, the Farmers’ Party obtained 12.1 per cent of votes and 15 seats. Strongly pro-Treaty and representing the interests of larger farmers, it had six TDs by 1932, three of whom stood under the Cumann na nGaedheal banner. Others went into the National Centre Party, which was involved in the creation of Fine Gael.

Clann na Talmhan, founded in 1939, endured the longest as a rural party, mostly focused on smaller farmers in the west of Ireland; it made a breakthrough in the 1943 general election, winning 10 seats, securing 8.6 per cent of the vote nationally and 33.3 per cent in its three central regions of Galway, Roscommon and Mayo. By 1954, its national vote dropped to 3.1 per cent. Political scientists later characterised it as a voice of rural petty-bourgeois protest, but dependent on an ageing, declining support base. Despite radical undertones, its message remained conservative.

Notwithstanding the vastly changed context, its experiences remain instructive. Organisers of a new party might build considerable support on the back of legitimate concerns, but to what end? If the core message is, in Fitzmaurice’s words, to organise something “opposite to the Greens”, it will serve neither rural nor urban interests, but simply encourage avoidance of the urgency of climate change action, which will sink and burn both rural and urban Ireland. The changing climate will be no respecter of a noble “ancestral mind”.