Subscriber OnlyOpinion

Michael McDowell: Rich must not be allowed use farmland as vehicle for investment

Irish agriculture cannot revert to a landlord-tenant model

I have been meaning to write here about ownership of farmland for a while, but other topics came first. This week I read a striking piece in the online business magazine The Currency which draws our attention to a large and growing transformation of property ownership in Ireland – investment in Irish farmland by wealthy people as part of their personal asset portfolios.

Let me set the scene. Ownership of Irish farmland was a central issue in the political development of Irish independence. Throughout the 19th century and for the first half of the 20th century, the relationship between the Irish landlord class and their tenant farmers dominated the British government’s agenda in post-union Ireland, and the newly independent Irish State regarded redistribution of ownership of agricultural land as a key area of national policy.

British governments – particularly Conservative and unionist governments – wrongly believed that by enfranchising Irish tenant farmers they would buy off the threat of radical Irish separatism. The Tories also believed they could also buy off limited autonomy in the form of Home Rule by programmes of land reform which would satisfy growing political agitation among Irish Catholics. Liberal governments believed that land reform coupled with Home Rule would satisfy the Catholics’ political aspirations. In the end, neither approach succeeded.

The newly independent State made continuation of the redistribution of land ownership to farming families a central policy goal. The Land Commission became the key State agency in that drive and every Irish cabinet had a separate minister for lands with personal political responsibility to drive that redistribution. The Department of Lands and the Land Commission occupied one side of Upper Merrion Street opposite Government Buildings. There were lay commissioners and a judicial commissioner to resolve disputes and confirm the actions of the commission. There were limitations on the right to sell land outside urban areas. Older deeds of conveyance were obliged to recite the consent of the Land Commission to the sale of farmland.


Land Commission

In short, the question of who owned and used Irish farmland was one in which the State and its political processes were centrally involved. Underused agricultural land was liable to be acquired and redistributed among neighbouring farms. The Land Commission inspectors were as powerful as the clergy in the affairs of rural Ireland.

The question of who owned and used Irish farmland was one in which the State and its processes were centrally involved

A central issue was the ideal size for family farms. As the years passed, it became clear that family farms of under 100 acres were economically questionable in terms of viability and development. Many believed that larger farms were the only means of developing the entire Irish agricultural sector.

From our 1973 accession to the EEC, a radical change in policy took shape. The Land Commission was allowed to wither and was formally abolished as late as 1999 (in Northern Ireland it was wound up in 1935).

Has Ireland lapsed from fervent belief in land policy to bordering on agnosticism?

The issue is re-emerging as one of potential political importance. Quite apart from large-scale purchase of agricultural land by property speculators eyeing its potential for redevelopment, there is a comparatively new phenomenon of long-term portfolio farmland purchase by wealthy individuals, syndicates and investment trusts.

These purchasers want to become landlords where agriculture will be undertaken by tenants and contractors with no long-term rights or property interest in the land. The super-wealthy are building portfolios of many tens of thousands of the best agricultural acres simply as long-term stores of value on the basis that “they aren’t making land any more, you know”.

Farming families

This reverses completely what was a key national aim and social policy for a century – the distribution of land ownership among the maximum viable number of farming families.

Is the State to walk away and permit Irish agriculture to revert after a century and a half to a landlord/tenant sector where the powerful own land and farmers toil to pay rent?

This has a constitutional dimension too. The Oireachtas is still constitutionally entrusted under article 45’s Directive Principles of Social Policy with the task of ensuring that “there may be established on the land in economic security as many families as in the circumstances shall be practicable”.

That policy goal for the Oireachtas remains part of the basic law of our land, albeit that the principles in article 45 are for the exclusive care of the Oireachtas and not directly justiciable in our courts.

The fundamental question arises as to whether the independent State is simply to walk away and permit Irish agriculture to revert after a century and a half to a landlord/tenant sector where the rich and powerful own the land and farmers toil to pay them rent. It’s not just our urban homeowners who are being shunted into tenant status.

Maybe the time has come to reverse this unseen trend, and to use our tax systems to limit and reverse the growing concentration of farmland ownership in the hands of the wealthy few.