I am not of farming stock, but the ongoing protests at the meat factory gates around the country symbolise far more than a battle for better prices for cattle. It is a battle for the heart and soul of rural Ireland. This is not only a problem for the meat companies, it is a problem for the Government too. They will have to decide what they want for the future of rural areas.
I understand that the demand for beef is down and that the factories feel that they cannot pay any more, but the farmers cannot be expected to be losing money hand over fist, as is the case at the moment. It is very hard to see a way out of the impasse at the moment, but unless there is a solution found we will be facing an even bigger problem for rural Ireland than any we have at the moment.
The threat of South American beef flooding into the Irish market in the next five years plus the depressed price for cattle is making it a very worrying time for farmers. The easy solution is to appeal to the EU for further financial supports, but that is not sustainable in the long run. The factories and the big processing firms will have to play ball too, as in the long-term their future is at stake as well. We also have to remember that there are thousands of people working in these factories, many of whom have now been temporarily laid off.
We have experienced a massive flight from the land in the past decade in particular. Local shops, pubs, garda stations and post offices have been shut down. The motorways into Dublin and Galway are overflowing with cars every day, as rural people flock to the cities for work. Sports clubs are struggling to field teams at underage level as population levels in country areas fall year after year. Soon we will see small rural primary schools closing down – that’s the reality.
The Government might think that this dispute is nothing to do with them, but the quicker there is a solution the better for everyone in rural Ireland. The authorities will have to decide what do they want in the future. Do they want a vast wasteland where there is little more than forestry in rural areas, or do they want to try to keep people on the land?
Now we hear that thousands of workers at meat processing plants have been laid off because of the dispute. Those people have families to support too. It’s a situation that simply cannot be allowed to continue.
Remember, the spectre of a no-deal Brexit is looming large and such an outcome would have catastrophic implications for our food industry, particularly if there is a hard border. I know that farmers have been accused in the past of protesting too much, but while I would never support anyone breaking the law, the situation now for many small farmers is dire. It is clear to me that they are at breaking point.
I think it’s time for Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney to step in and try and solve this before it gets out of hand and is too late. Everyone deserves a fair price for what they produce. That includes farmers and processors. The people working in the factories deserve to live too.