Irish leaders switch jobs as farmers turn on troubled coalition

Coalition government puts former prime minister back in the driving seat as it hits halfway mark in power

Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar, right, will become Taoiseach of Ireland on Saturday, while Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin, left, will become Tanaiste (deputy leader). PA
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Ireland marks its first job swap at the top of government on Saturday with deputy leader Leo Varadkar taking over at a time when climate policies have opened a gulf between those in power and voters in some parts of the country.

The transfer of the top job of Taoiseach (prime minister) from the Fianna Fail party's Micheal Martin to Mr Varadkar will put centrist Fine Gael in the driving seat after two years of its traditional rival spearheading the agenda.

Mr Martin will be named deputy leader in the Cabinet reshuffle that will take place on Saturday, December 17, as the coalition reaches its halfway mark. The date was pushed back by two days from an original target to allow Mr Martin to attend the EU summit in Brussels this week.

Despite being the junior partner in the coalition government, the Green Party has managed to push through emissions reduction targets for key sectors of the economy during its time in power.

Voters in rural Ireland are growing increasingly frustrated with the government over policies which they say will upend their livelihoods and possibly deprive them of income. Farmers in particular have warned of monumental consequences from the government’s green agenda.

The government’s aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector by 25 per cent by 2030 is proving to be unpopular with farmers, prompting some to question their future in the industry. Many see it as an all-out attack on their way of life and an attempt by politicians to undermine their ability to make a living and carry out the work their families have done for generations.

At a time when the war in Ukraine has thrown the topic of food security into the spotlight, it may be difficult for the government to roll out the agenda, given it is unpopular with many sections of the electorate.

A convoy of farmers driving tractors through Dublin city centre in a protest against the government's climate plan. PA

Before the next general election, scheduled to be held in 2025, the government is keen to make as much progress on its green agenda as possible, even as its opponents Sinn Fein continue to lead in opinion polls. The nationalist party, which seeks the reunification of Ireland, won the popular vote in the 2020 election but failed to form a coalition government with other parties. The latest survey by the Irish Sunday Times and Behaviour & Attitudes put Mary Lou McDonald’s party on 34 per cent, ahead of Fine Gael on 23 per cent and Fianna Fail on 21 per cent.

Some farmers have warned they may be pushed to cull some of their cattle to meet the government's target.

Sinn Fein strongly supports climate action but has not put a figure on the emissions reduction it would have sought from farmers if it were in government.

Ms McDonald, the party’s leader, said it would be unfair to place the burden of emissions reductions on individual farmers, and said Sinn Fein would not support culling animals to reach targets.

“If you are asking are we proposing to cut the herd, no we are not,” she told the Irish Farmers Journal.

But despite her opposition to such a measure, rural voters are unlikely to look to Sinn Fein as a beacon of hope in their battle to be heard in the climate debate.

Michael Healy-Rae, an independent member of the Dail — the lower house of the Irish parliament — for the Kerry constituency, has been among the most outspoken critics of the government’s green policies. He told The National the government is unlikely to change course after the switchover on Saturday because opposition party Sinn Fein “are supporting them 100 per cent” in their push for greener strategies. He said the government will “probably not” adopt a more empathetic approach to farmers when Fine Gael takes the reins.

“Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are trying to be greener than the Greens because they think it’s the thing to do,” he said. “Do they not realise that these restrictions will strangle our farmers?

“They’ve all lost rural Ireland and they won’t be getting it back.

“I am very fearful of the fact that farmers are not being adequately represented in the Dail. I am only one person.”

However, Jackie Cahill, a dairy farmer and Fianna Fail member of the Dail, appeared optimistic that the agriculture sector could rise to the challenge and meet the target imposed on it.

Despite concerns from other farmers that the end-of-decade goal could be missed, he said the figure members of the Dail had arrived at was a “reasonable compromise”.

Going forward, he said the sector’s ability to meet it would depend largely on how much it embraced the latest green technology. He cited fitting solar panels on to farm buildings and incorporating more clover in pastures as examples. Clover thrives in soil with lower nitrogen levels — boosting nitrogen levels — so extra chemical fertiliser is not needed.

“I had been looking for a lower target but with three parties in government you have to compromise,” Mr Cahill told The National. “That’s democracy. The target is a reasonable compromise.

“It’s not going to be easy but it’s a challenge we have to face up to. Climate change is a fact of life.

“There’s an awful lot of modern technology out there that will help us to reduce our emissions that needs to be embraced.

“I am worried [about meeting the target] and it will take a lot of initiatives. To reduce emissions by 25 per cent is going to be difficult and it will take a lot of work.

“Farmers are worried about climate change and are worried about the challenges that they face, but every generation of farmers has come up against different challenges.”

Updated: December 16, 2022, 10:17 AM