By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Anger boiled over onto the streets of Dublin last week with up to 40,000 farmers gridlocking the city in a protest march about plummeting incomes. It was the biggest farmers rally since they last laid siege to the Dail in 1966.
The march was strongly opposed by Dublin businesses, shops and trade unions, who complained the protest cost the capital more than £3 million in lost trade and man-hours.
Farm organizations had been estimating that about 15,000 would turn up, compared to the 10,000 in 1966.
The amount of urban opposition to the protest appears to have encouraged many more farmers to travel up from the country, with the extension of income support social welfare payments to farmers being one of their main demands.
The Irish Congress of Trade unions accused the farm lobby of "bully-boy tactics" and warned that PAYE taxpayers were not prepared to write a blank check for family income supplement for all farmers.
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General Secretary Peter Cassells said about 10,000 small farmers could require some form of income support payments this winter. At the moment, income support is not paid to farmers or the self-employed.
A statement by Dublin Euro-MP Bernie Malone that farmers "have no right to disrupt my city" particularly annoyed many farmers, who complained they had every right to march the streets of their capital and protest to their parliament.
A combination of problems, including bad weather during harvest time, global economic difficulties and the so-called mad-cow scare have all combined to hit farm gate prices in virtually every sector of the industry.
Beef farmers have been hit by the closure of the Russian market, which took about £100 million worth of beef. Pig farmers have suffered after one of the largest processing plants burned down. Sheep farmers are reeling from low continental market prices and the EU requirement to de-stock mountainside because of overgrazing.
Two special trains, 400 buses and convoys cars brought the rural revolt to the city. The Garda’s initial estimate of 15,000 people was upgraded to 30,000 to 40,000 after the end of the march was still leaving Phoenix Park when the leaders had already arrived outside the Dail in Merrion Square.
Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh said he had already moved to help farmers, citing that hundreds of millions of pounds have been made in direct payments this year with £233 million paid out in just the last fortnight.
"I have taken action on every single option open to me," he said.
Irish Farmers Association president Tom Parlon told his members that 50,000 jobs in agriculture could be lost within five years as a result of government inaction and indifference about the income collapse.
The number of people working in agriculture has already fallen from 390,000 in 1960 to 134,000 last year.
He said the government must reject the cuts involved in proposed EU and GATT reforms.
"This must be a veto issue for Ireland. Cattle, sheep, pigs and grain prices are back to the levels of the 1970s and hill sheep men are in total despair at their situation," Parlon said. "Irish agriculture is facing its greatest crisis in a generation. There is a crisis of confidence in the future of Irish farming. Young people are turning their backs on farming. The government is guilty of neglect of our industry."
Parlon said that 30,000 farm families were living on incomes below the basic poverty line of £150 a week and should be getting family income support.
He said that at current cattle prices, a suckler farmer would need 70 suckler cows to earn the average industrial wage of £15,000. A beef farmer needs 250 acres and a grain grower more than 200 acres to get the industrial wage.
"You cannot expect beef farmers to take 75 pence per pound for cattle when costs are 90 pence, or grain growers to take £75 per ton for spring barley, which costs £95 to produce, or pig farmers to take 75 pence per kilo for pigs , which cost 95 pence," Parlon said. "There is a very real crisis now. People underestimate the huge frustration that is out there."
He complained that prices for consumers had not fallen and only 30p of every punt spent in shops was now passed back to farmers, with middlemen "raking off the benefits."
Parlon, who became the farmers’ leader nine months ago, has threatened a "winter of discontent" because of the "paltry" government response to their problems.
The march and accompanying farm machinery brought the center of the city to a halt.
A spokesman at IFA headquarters in Dublin said they had been inundated with calls complaining about the traffic gridlock.
Regular complaints about financial hardship in the past has left farmers facing an uphill struggle to persuade many city dwellers there really is a crisis.
They also have to overcome hostility from past city-versus-country rows about the amount of income tax they have paid in comparison to ordinary PAYE workers.
Parlon apologized to Dubliners for the disruption saying the farmers had been forced into a corner. A ton of beef was donated to the St. Vincent de Paul Society as a "gesture to the less well off" in society.