Ian Maleney
Wed, May 11, 2016

A Sack Of Potatoes (The Left & Rural Ireland)

It is common practice when discussing leftist politics and rural affairs to quote Marx on “the idiocy of rural life,” and to follow it up quickly with his description of the peasant class as a “sack of potatoes”. Such traditions observed, let us move on.

Is there any evidence that a single leftist politician in this country has a solid grasp on how rural life — its economy, its social structures, its cultural life — actually functions? On the basis of the lengthy election cycle we have just witnessed, I would say not. As far as I can tell there is no strategy (coherent or otherwise) coming from any progressive group in the country that attempts to engage specifically with rural issues. These issues might be subsumed into the rubric of “the environment,” but such a move is a fudge at best and wilful, destructive ignorance at worst.

There would appear to be a general belief that the people of rural Ireland are deserving of the ridiculous figures which they repeatedly send as their representatives to the capital. Lowry and Kelly in Tipperary, the Healy-Rae brothers in Kerry, the Cowen brothers in my own native constituency. They are denizens of the special interest campaign: the defence of turf cutting or the battle against wind energy; winning special exemptions for sly farmers or exaggerating the issue of rural crime for their own benefit. They are forever engaged in some vote-winning scheme at the expense of the bigger picture, easily bought by whoever is in power.

I am not going to defend these politicians or their politics. They are ridiculous figures, often dangerous and their repeated re-elections are a hugely exasperating, dispiriting sight to behold. Compare however the treatment of Brian Cowen to that of Bertie Ahern in recent years, or Alan Dukes. Cowen lives on in some ghostly fashion as a symbol of excess and failure, the gombeen man gleefully steering our dear ship to ruin before finding himself with two tidy pensions and seats on a few boards. Ahern and Dukes, two men just as corrupt and significantly more instrumental in the destitution of the country, are treated as wily businessmen; not averse to a little rule-bending — however objectionable we may find it — but canny operators nonetheless. Both were invited by the Irish Times to give their opinions on the election results in February.

I am not saying that Cowen should be treated more fairly; I am saying that Ahern and Dukes get off lightly — in the press and in the popular imagination — because of their ability to present themselves in a certain way; as businessmen, deal-makers, big picture people. In contrast, the rural (signified by Cowen’s fleshy face, broad accent and semi-drunken ineptitude) cannot be understood as anything but backward and objectionable.

This belief culminates in the idea that rural Ireland is fallow ground for progressive politics. But if rural Ireland (that undifferentiated mass) has no time or space for leftist politics, it also reflects the reality that leftist politics seemingly has no time or space for rural Ireland.

Almost all the progressive, leftist TDs are based in Dublin. The only exception is Mick Wallace, and I cannot say how far left his politics run. Even given how much good he has done since his election, this is a former millionaire elected on the back of a bankrupt construction business; an exemplar, along with Roscommon TD Michael Fitzmaurice, of how the throwaway categorisation of people on either side of the left/right divide is more complex than often imagined. There was Ming Flanagan, but he’s basically out of the picture for the minute.

The examples set by the elected leftist TDs — particularly Clare Daly and Ruth Coppinger — has been hugely invigorating and the work they do is without question extremely important. What I wonder about is why there has been no effort from any progressive party to set out some terms of engagement with the agricultural community or the coastal fishing communities. Why has no party detailed a strategy for the small-town, rural economy that might counteract the multifaceted threats it faces? In the most general and abstract terms, how do we deal with emigration, under-employment, the deskilling of workers, the encroachment of big-box retail and the stripping away of community assets like post offices, Garda stations, banks, credit unions, transport links, schools, fire stations and medical services?

You will not find any concrete ideas in the manifestos and policy documents of the Anti-Austerity Alliance or People Before Profit related to the development of agriculture or rural business here. There is nothing at all in the AAA documents, while PBP have a six-page policy document on Land and Food Use, of which a single page is given over to farming. Their plan is to nationalise the big agri-businesses, distribute EU grants more equitably and encourage a move toward organic farming for the domestic market rather than lower quality product for the export market. All laudable plans in one sense, but unlikely to convince many farmers — or indeed anyone else — of their efficacy. Beyond saying how much certain large-scale farmers get in grants, there is little in the way of useful, practical detail. And useful, practical detail is what voters in any constituency are generally interested in. They need to see how it’s all going to work.

Plans like these cannot be imposed from on high. They must reflect the needs and desires of the people who will live with their consequences. There is nothing in the documentation that suggests how such a relationship with those people might be built and nurtured. Without such a relationship, the plans will never be seen as anything but an imposition, as foreign and as unwelcome as the EU directives which have played a large part in creating the current situation. Any cursory reading of Irish sociology will inform you that Irish farmers are slow to embrace change, not because they are inherently risk-averse (or backward), but because their lives are so marginal, their survival so hard-won, that they place their trust in what has kept them going so far. Like most economically precarious people, particularly those with a well of tradition to draw on (a demographic readily found and quickly embraced in urban environments), their lives are built on bare habit, on the proven methods. Risks are not lightly taken because the margins are so tight, and losing a family farm is not a simple or shallow consequence.

It is not as if there aren’t movements, organisations and ideas a party could work with to further integrate themselves in rural Ireland. Why has no party attempted to highlight the highly progressive protests which have taken place across the country in recent years? The fight against the corporatised imposition of wind-farms across the midlands took place largely in town halls, heritage centres and hotel function rooms of small-town Ireland, far from both the capital and the tourist trails of the West. The energy and passion of thousands of local people from Offaly, Westmeath and Laois successfully over-turned what would have been a disastrous, State-backed plan with long-term negative consequences for the area. They did so with little, if any, vocal support from the progressive parties or their elected representatives. They did it without the help of the media or the backing of the unions. The fought and they won. They continue to fight, and they continue largely to be ignored.

I understand that the leftist groups have limited resources and are most likely to concentrate their efforts on seats they can win right now. They have largely focused on the water charges movement for obvious, and obviously successful, reasons. This has, arguably, been enough until now. But there is likely to be no more than two or three years until the next election. In that time, the progressive groups in this country need to set out a vision for the whole of the country. If I approach a leftist TD, of whatever grouping, and ask about GLAS, the CAP, land-leasing, dairy quotas, meat processing factories, wind farms, peat harvesting or the governance of commonage and Special Protection Areas, am I going to get a worthwhile response? The simple answer is that I don’t know. And this is a major part of the problem; I don’t doubt that leftist politicians care about such issues, but even when I’m looking for evidence of their concern, I can’t find it. What hope someone who isn’t actively looking?

Before the next election, this needs to change. A strategy must be put in place that will help leftist groups to integrate with the organisations and groups currently doing good work in rural areas. There are concrete examples — from the co-operative mart in Sixmilebridge to group water schemes to the efforts of Macra Na Feirme and the ICA to generate viable social lives for isolated people — that the left should be highlighting, praising and attempting to further.

The right — locally, nationally and at European level — have long had the freedom to put in place a rural economy heavily weighted towards the large farmer, a rural economy closer to a mechanised production line than a viable home for ordinary people, farmers or otherwise. Depopulation of the countryside, the desolation of small-town high streets, the industrial exploitation of the land; these are not unintentional by-products of the current system but an inherent quality of the drive for efficiency. The sheer scale of the task facing leftist parties must seem off-putting but it is only by connecting with people who live their lives there, who know how the place functions, that any inroads will be made. We cannot stand back and pontificate from afar about organic lettuce and farmer’s markets.

The left must make the argument that we need a new model of rural life, one built around the idea of “supportive” land use rather than “productivist” land use — how many people can this land support, rather than how much product can this land produce? They must stress the collective benefits accruing from things like co-operatives, from keeping small farmers on the land, from more sustainable methods of food production and land use. This argument must be about quality of life, about self-determination and collective integrity. It must tackle the social, economic and cultural issues underwriting rural decline by engaging with communities on the ground, by displaying an understanding of the issues really effecting their lives. It is only by integrating with and working alongside the already existing structural forces of rural life that this argument can be made successfully.

The rural economy is a complex web of interconnected issues, with a diverse set of consequences resulting from each and every action. The major leftist groups need to set out a practical vision for how that economy is to function, to survive and to grow. Most importantly, they need to articulate that vision through the language and concerns of those who’s lot it is intended to improve.