Monday, October 26, 2009

The Scarecrow and the Tinman - How Sinn Féin can fill a gap the Irish left ignored.

When Lyman Frank Baum wrote 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz', a fairy tale with many political undertones, he had in mind the hard-working farmer of the mid-west who like Dorothy's father toiled from day to night but never knew joy. Baum was a politically active man with a progressive agenda who wanted to see the scarecrow(the struggling farmer) unite with the tin man (the industrial worker) so that they could go to Emerald City (representing big business which is ultimately exposed as a fraud and sham) meet the wizard and solve their problems. Ultimately they must look to themselves if they are to achieve anything. The cowardly Lion is William Jennings Bryan the democratic presidential candidate who sought to push the eastern, financial interests (Emerald city) to move from the gold standard alone (the yellow road) to gold and silver so that the economic burden of the industrial worker and farmer might be eased. Unfortunately he failed to unite both groups of workers. Ultimately the tin man and the scarecrow; the industrial worker and the farmer, must look to themselves if they are to achieve anything

Interesting as this is as an insight into 19th century America and the desire to unite rural and urban worker into one common cause in that country the focus of this site is Ireland. So how successful has the agenda of making common cause between the scarecrow and the tin man in Ireland been.

Firstly lets consider the agri-sector in Ireland

A quick historical survey shows that as early as the 18th century the White Boys and Ribbonism were aggressively defending small farmers against the deprivations of landlords and tithe collectors. Its a radicalism that was later exported to American coal fields in the form of the Molly Maguires. JJ Lee, the noted historian, has commented that Fenianism built on and channelled this energy and radicalism. Later in the 19th century the Land League represented the first major reversal of British hegemony in the southern part of the country as Irish farmer agitation began to force the pace of change. Indeed Eoin O'Brien comments that when the industrial workers had become pliant it was the rural workers, the farmers, who were the cutting edge of radicalism in this state - a radicalism that would later see them take arms, as they had so frequently done in Irish history.

But this is not an eulogy to the rural workers. Instead its intended to consider whether the rural working class has been afforded suitable political representation in southern Ireland.

Fianna Fail established a dominant hold in the 1930s across rural southern Ireland that has not yet been broken. As other parties failed to move FF established its hegemony with the smaller farmers, those households who struggled from day to day in poverty despite supposedly being men of property. However it was shown in the 40s and 50s that those self-same small farmers were keen for better representation as Clann na Talmhan and Clann na Poblachta gave them a voice other than FF. The left had shown some interest in representing the small farmer but this faded. Indeed by 1981 it had faded so drastically that The Worker's party could write in 1981 that Irish farmers were practically delinquent, with western farmers the worst mind you, because they were choosing what to grow and how much despite having contracts with 4 sugar factories. Indeed the Workers party commented that if anyone had the right to complain it was the companies. Incredibly in 1981 the average Farming wage was 70% of the average industrial wage. What ideological fancy led the WP to condemn people earning less than the average industrial wage in favour of the sugar companies. Its clear that the man of property, that poor fool farming in the west with 35 acres, earning less than the average industrial wage could see no reason to vote WP or to vote left. He was effectively condemned to voting either for Fine Gael or Fianna Fail. Treated by the Workers party as if he were a 19th century landlord the small farmer earning one of the smallest wages in the south had no choice but to throw his lot in with the big parties.

Lets fast forward today to 2009. Unfortunately it appears that some progressive Irish parties make the same mistake as the Workers party with one of them commenting that the Govt. need to stop subsidising the rich and instead tax them. Amazingly it includes all farmers in this bracket along with investors and business owners. So are they right to say farmers are in the same league as business owners and investors?

Well some farmers would fall into that bracket. However today the small farmer is much worse off when compared to the average industrial wage. Indeed today the farmer's average income has fallen to about 50% of the Average Industrial Wage. The Socialist Party may consider the farmer in the same league as big business but with an average farm income of €19,687 in the southern state the small farmer would be excused for wishing it were so. Indeed our western farmer so roundly condemned by the Worker's Party would today be living a fine life on his average income of just €11,463. But what about the EU farm subsidies? Well, the bottom 68% of Farmers
received a Single Farm Payment of €4,057. How they must have lived it up in the Celtic tiger years on such largess?

It would appear that elements of the left have made a terrible mistake when it comes to viewing the position of Irish farmers. Almost as big a mistake as if we were to argue that because a senior manager in Tesco may make multiples of the average wage that s/he is the same as the minimum wage stacker of shelves. They are all retail workers so should we regard them as all the same. Should it not be argued that yes indeed some Farmers belong to the rich but most dont and many of them, numbering the tens of thousands, are in a worse financial position than the average industrial worker.

Imagine a state with manual workers who earn less than the minimum wage, who work longer hours (up to 60 hours a week) than most other industrial workers and who are by far the most militant block of workers in that state - regularly coming out in force, defying the political establishment to express its opinion, loudly protesting on streets and at public gatherings and blocking and fighting large companies that are seeking to make them price takers rather than price makers. That state is southern Ireland. Those people are natural voters for the left you would think. However the smallest and poorest of them are politically poorly represented, forced to work with the representatives of parties like FF and FG who instinctively look to largest of farmers who needs the least support. The small farmer has no choice. Who else is fighting their corner.

Its been years since Labour last had a policy paper on farmers. Will the small farmer vote for Labour? The Socialist party thinks that all farmers are fat cats. Will the small Donegal farmer, with his €11k each year vote SP?
So how do we fit in. Are we in a position to become the left wing party that stands for the small farmer. Are we the left wing party who recognises that in south Ireland 70% of the population live in predominantly rural areas. Can we be the party who recognises that a man earning 11k needs to be represented and damn the nonsense of calling him a man of property as if he were a landed aristocrat.

I recently took the time to read Martin Ferris' report on the future of farming and fishing in the west. While its a depressing document in that it highlights how this state is failing so much of the west, and with McCarthy's cuts its going to be worse, it also focuses the attention on how this party is defending those small farmers and rural workers who are really hurting. Its a good document and having read it I am proud that this party is willing to fight for the small guy, rural and urban. Pearse Doherty also did a very thorough document on social and economic inequality in the the west.

The unnatural alliance whereby small farmers are forced through lack of progressive representation to ally with the biggest farmers and vote for Fine Gail and Fianna Fail, parties which fail them every election and condemn them to lower and lower wages must end.

Sinn Fein can split the small farmer and fisherman, struggling to survive, away from the big parties. Sinn Fein can represent the worker in the towns and factories but it can equally represent the worker in the countryside.

Sinn Fein is going to get a lot bigger in both countryside and state. If we have the courage of our convictions then we can unite the small farmer and the urban worker. The 19th Century US democratic party failed to unite the oppressed farmer with the oppressed industrial worker. But then they weren't Sinn Fein.



  1. The farmers Journal recently did a poll on support in the farming community for various political parties.

    SF was on a low base of 3%. So even to get up to our southern average would mean there is potential for growth.

    But that poll was especially interesting when it highlighted the percentage of farmers saying they will vote for FG and FF in that poll.

    A massive, saddam hussein style 87%. There was a huge swing from FF and where did it go. Well it went to FG. There is no where else for it to go. Its tweedeldum or tweedledee

    The general figure for those parties across the southern state is 60%.

    Can SF win votes here? Clearly there is room for growth and the chance to provide representation.
    Who knows how many but its clear that at the moment there is an unnatural balance in favour of FG/FF.

    There is little difference between FG/FF but when it comes to the farming voters there is little choice.

    I'd love to see us offering that choice.

  2. What sort of policies do you feel with attract a small farmer vote?

  3. J

    Are there any examples in western europe of modern left wing parties being able to mobilise support in rural and urban settings?

  4. how many small farmers are there any more. though europe has all but wiped them out. iam from dublin but both sides of my family come from small farming back rounds in the west. one side cousins uncles etc has compleatey stopped and the other side do it as an extra as in its not there main scourse of income.

    guessed our support out side dublin and the boarder areas came from what was left of that tradition. maybe not.

    but agree the workers party was to dublin or city centric. i don't think SF has been and that has contributed to some of the frustrations in dublin in the past. but its interesting to note that the country is where the revolutionaries come from. in all this recession there has been only two riots and its farmers that done both of them.


  5. Hi, trying to respond to all three previous posts.

    to anon of 12:41

    I think the policies that a progressive party like ourselves could take so as to speak directly with small farmers could, at the highest level, take two approaches.

    Firstly - specific farming policies
    secondly - take the time to explain our general policies which aare applicable to to all workers - rural or urban if you are min wage you are min wage.

    The first would be to push basic policies that support all farming (and therfore by inclusion small farmers), I think of policies like:
    (1) pushing a redefinition of what constitutes Irish food i.e Thai chicken with a bit of processing is not Irish chicken. This needs to change. Also full country of origin labelling for Irish food.

    Can you tell which product is definitely Irish and which might not be: smoked Irish salmon and Irish smoked salmon?

    Tough call but its Irish smoked salmon. One is real the other is sold as Irish. Hrdly fair or in our interest.

    (2) The regulatory burden associated with farming today, which has the flavour of make-work, is very much resented. I'm not sure how to reduce it but whoever comes up with the answer will be thanked.

    (3) inspections - Rather than treating farmers like the enemy with unannounced inspections at least a weeks notice shoule be given. Family farms are not businesses with several people. The state should work with farmers on the best time.

    (4) revoke the cuts to the suckler scheme - means that as our suckler herd is one of the best assets we have then work on improving its quality. Invest money in the national herd so that farmers can adapt. Do it now rather than waiting for family farms to be replaced by private companies.

    (5) Assist farmers in the fight back those particular interests that are forcing down the price to farmers while the commodity price is rising or simply put when the farmer gets less for milk but the price of milk goes up in the shop then thats a problem.

    such macro policies which help all farmers are necessary in order to secure credibility for the party.

    Aims which help smaller farmers are modulation reform, defence of REPS and the custodian principle and also allowing smaller dairy farmers the opportunity to increase their quotas and improve their facilities. Specifically the quota is a key issue. At the last quota distribution the govt. choose a distribution model that favoured the larger farmer rather than a flat distribution that would give equal opportunity to the smaller farmer seeking to reach his threshold.

    But there is a second approach to winning over small farmers and thats simply to argue for measures that defend the less off in society.

    If you are a small farmer on a reduced income then you will respond to the same measures that appeal to the office worker/plant worker.

    But we need to take the time to speak specifically to those people diretly.


  6. Starry Plough,

    Regarding left wing parties who achieved a rural/urban voter block. I'd point to the Scottish Socialist party which managed breakthroughs in the central scottish belt but also in rural shetlands in 2003. Also the SNP had very strong support in rural areas.

    But its been hard to find where left parties have successfully done this in western europe. Its my belief that this represents a serious failure on the part of left parties in western europe.

    But SP I would argue that this is a point where we must not look beyond our own island. Ireland has 70% of its people living in predominantly rural areas. In europe that figure is closer to 18%. Even if an other western european leftist party had succeeded at this project we would not be comparing like with like. Ultimately the only thing that must concern us is that a poor man is a poor man whether he has a pike or a pen in his hand

  7. S,

    Europe nailed the small farmer? Try Leinster house for the accomplices :)

    Plenty left and even if they are part timing then if they lose that job or get smaller hours etc then they will hurt.

    SF has not been city centric. To the party's credit they have looked at the whole country.
    Poverty, hardship etc does not stop at the town limits.

    As long as we target the poor in every sector of society and defend the marginalised whether they be small farmer, unemployed or minimum wage workers then what does it matter if its city or rural people we help. There are close to 6 million people in Ireland and only 1 million live in Dublin. We have to think bigger than one city surely.


  8. yeah europe nailed the small farmers. how much of our agriculture policy is set here.

    leinster house is an acomplice all right but only in that no party seeking election is prepared to brake with europe. they all talk in terms if they get elected going to europe and talking thuff but its all crumbs from the table because on the other side of the argument at a european level you have people argueing that the market should be totaly open and subject to the same rules of compitition as everything else which will happen eventually.

    totally agree with you there getting screwed. my uncle will be the last generation of our family to farm land not because of choice because of economics. the force of numbers of that class of people has been totally destroyed since we joined europe. when this state was founded they were a force. there social class small farmer large family catholic etc was by far the largest in the country, there ethos was the ethos of the state. but even before europe economics made that life style barley viable. out of two families 17 children 3/4 left mayo 1/2 ireland, replicate that acrosss thousands of other families and its the same story. europe gave or is giving the final blow.

    i don't know where your 70% rural statistic comes from theres more than one city in ireland. and even when we look at that term rural are we doing it from an aul dublin 'sure there all culties' attitude. are we taking in to account the process of mini urbanisation that is happening in the towns around ireland who's social problems in drug abuse and anti social behaviour is replecating the problems of the bigger cities. are we thinking how many people today actually live on the land. because its different social structures that i don't think would view themselves as your viewing them. this is what i ment by the reminents of that culture and i presumed SF was working it. totally agree SF shouldn't be a dublin centric party. i pointed out SFs attempts to appeel to both camps has led to frustrations in dublin. mainly because again some city people believe the S word frightens people from the country which i belive is nonscence. but different argument.

    iam not argueing to write this class of. if there there great if they can be marsheled brillient. the world is hedding for a fuel crisis which will trigger a food chrisis which says at the very least says theres a future in farming down the line. but don't take an attitude when i point out the obvious today.


  9. Hang on, where are you getting the idea that the Socialist Party considers small farmers to be "fat cats" or "in the same league as big business"? I think that they can reasonably be accused of not having had much of interest to say about small farmers, but that's a significantly different thing.

    This article overall is interesting, but it glosses over some significant issues, particularly when it makes historical points.

    The political economy of rural Ireland today is extremely different to that of the 1930s or 1940s, let alone the period of the land wars. Farmers and farm labourers and their families one accounted for a huge proportion of the rural population. That has changed dramatically: Farm labourers still exist but in tiny numbers compared to previous eras, there are many fewer farmers and of the farmers who remain fewer and fewer are full time.

    That doesn't mean that there is no potential for rural radicalism. Far from it in fact. But the situation is different and the kind of radicalism may be different.

    For instance the agrarian radicalism which existed in the 19th and early 20th centuries simply doesn't exist anymore. Most country dwellers are working class in the Marxist sense of the term now. Even most small farmers are now earning much of their income as wage workers. These sort of changes have to be taken into account if the left is to develop a policy programme that can gain widespread support in rural areas.

  10. I'm a city boy so excuse my ignorance here, but i stayed on a family memebrs farm back in the early 70's. This farm to me was magical because it had no electricty, no toilet etc. The reson that is not the case now was surely the support given to farmers by the EU. My understanding was that the common agricultural policy gave famers a far better income than under the pre-eu irish system.

  11. By nagical I meant great for me, but clearly an absolute outrage in terms of working people's living standards

  12. Hi S,

    Thanks for your comment. Please dont take my post the wrong way. I didnt think that you were writing them off or pushing a city own agenda. When I responded i was thinking out loud and writing quicky. If it came across as with an attitude then sorry but that was not my intention. its hard sometime to express thoughts clearly on the internet. As you can see above I posted three answers one after another and maybe did it too quickly. No offence meant or intended.

    I got the 70% figure for the predominantly rural Ireland from the Ferris report. Its the situation in 2001 but I think it includes the small country town. Its not a strict urban/rural divide.

    The point about society changing is well made. Small farmers are very reliant on off-farm income, with the larger dairy farmers doing very well actually. So yeah its not exactly cut and dry as you say.
    Its almost like the country has become semi-urban, not as regards towns and villages getting bigger but in the issues the country faces - drugs in small towns, employment issues shared by part time farmers who maybe work in factories etc.

    I still think they the Agri-sector is a powerful block. Up to 7% of the southern state work force is farmer and 10% for the whole agri-sector. The first Lisbon NO vote was a urban and rural working class based success. I think there is still potential there.

    Finally on the point that this decline was going to happen anyway because the farms were just not economic. Many many of them were and are and will go to the wall. If we as a party can do anything then I think it must be to fight for the viability of as many as possible. But we cant save them all or maybe we as much as possible make part time farming a genuine option.



  13. Aside from the obvious conservative demographic disposition of farmers, isn't the problem with appealing to the farming electorate the simple fact that EU policy dictates almost every aspect of local farming policy. The Irish Min of Agr, or whatever its called, is just an enforcement agency, by an large, for EU directives. There are some policies to pursue as Anon J has outlined but the only real improvement I can forsee in the future for small farmers is in the area of the co-operative movement, and coming from a rural background I can tell you this is not an easy proposition. Plus, there are a whole load of health and safety directives which make entry into agri businesses for small farmes nearly impossible.

    Maybe a general rural regeneration schematic would be more viable as policy, but any such scheme has to be centred on business activity. As agriculture is so heavily industrialised, and set to become more so in the future, I just can't see any new rural enterprises springing up which will revitalise the rural landscape. Maybe investment in tangental agricultural businesses which can concentrate rural labour in a rural setting might be the easiest way to start the ball rolling.

    As always, in a Capitalist world, we demand cheap and ready made meals as a solution to working long hours to chase over priced assets such as homes. Healthy food, time to prepare meals, and time to spend consuming food in a social setting (bar restaurants) are considered luxurious endeavours these days by the ruling caste. In light of this, imo, a rural policy, as opposed to direct agricultural policies, won't have much affect on the targeted populations until such time as vertical integration of the agriculture industry, as currently practised on a national and EU policy, is somehow subverted. The modern dilemma is no longer the need to grow enough quality food as we have the machinery and expertise, but instead we have to contend with industrialisation policies which seek to ensure that cheap food is sold on slim but massive volume margins. This economic structural barrier to entry for new businesses nearly ensures that massive agri-corps and distributors will enjoy greater monoploy status and thereby perpetuate social means of production and consumption.

    In other words, the agricultural system was designed as a corner stone of the current NLC doctrines. Any changes or policy initiatives will always have at best a marginal impact on the overall social set up and on business activity. Still, every little bit helps!

  14. Zinlet,

    Thanks for your comment. I based the "fat cats" comment on the following article:

    The SP aclled for a stop to subsidising the rich and demanded they be taxed instead. They listed farmers along side investors and big businesses like Michael Dell.

    S made the point that some believe the countryside does not do socialism. He disagreed with that and so do I. I have always believed that there is a huge demand in rural Ireland for greater equality. Indeed across Ireland up to 80% want greater distribution of wealth (TASC report).

    If I were a part time farmer who was getting 15k from my farm including subsidies and on top of money and those hours farming he work 36-40 hours a week on a site or in a factory then I would be frustrated to be talked about in the same article as Michael Dell or the others who control all the wealth in Ireland.

    I think your next point is the key one that the left maybe didnt talk to the small farmer as much as it could have. To my mind the danger is that the small farmer would look at that article and wonder did it not mention big farmers and specifically exclude the small man.

    I believe the key is to specifically have a dialogue with the small farmer (or maybe I should say part time farmer).

    I think that rural Ireland has many deeply held suspicions about left wing politics and that the left has, until now with SF's focus on rural workers, not sought to actively engage and change their mind.

    Is that a fair point?

    The historical analysis was a bit far I agree. Its almost pointless to talk about the Land league now but I wanted to set the scene a small bit. You are right the radicalism is very much changed but as S pointed out earlier the only two times we came close to riots in this crisis was the farmers. Also when the strong rural Lisbon 1 vote despite the establishment pressure suggests that there is still a radicalism, a hidden Ireland, in the countryside and the city that does not march to the establishment tune.

    i read somewhere that Marx didnt really talk about farmers. is that correct? But Farms to Marx where surely different with large landlords and many many tenants. I've always thought that in this country with the land reforms under the brits and various land distributions under the saorstat that we gave the land to the people. The downside was the farms were small, too small for today.

    Over in UK, including north of this country, some 41,000 farms (~14% of the total) are larger than 100 hectares and account for over 65% of the agricultural area. 14% of the farms cover 65% of the land. In Scotalnd the average farm is 100 hectares. In southern ireland the avreage farm is 32 hectares I think.

    I think that in Ireland to an extent we had our agrarian revolution and distribution of land to the poor. Having experienced that land distribution to the small farmers rural Ireland, with its small farms, will not understand why they are mentioned in the same article as Dell.

    Is that a fair point?


  15. picked you up wrong j apologise. maybe iam missing you still but one of the areas SF path is different than the sticks is our strength out side the cities. i think our people are doing what you want any way. maybe we can tighten it up.

    starry plough

    its a matter of scale. large farmers done well out of europe small farmers didn't. rurual electrification started it the 30's the ESB is probably one of the greatest sucess stories of the free state and a brillient argument against the whole neo - liberal agenda. compotition couldn't have brought electricity to achilll.

    if were talking about rural radicalism there is one clear area over the last decade that were neglecting to mention and thats the shell2sea campaign. a community we must remeber that is totaly relient on the eniornment for farming fishing and tourism defending its livlyhood against a currupt government and a multi national. couple the fact that on a national level our government is giving away natural recourses as were heading in to a fuel crisis the amount of money involved the muliti faced nature of the campaign and how important it is for that community and the country the courage and convection of that community should be saluted and supported where possibe. adams o doherty ferris, o snodaigh and a scathering of individuals around the country do see this but iam not sure the mass of the membership do.

  16. J:

    That article you point to is rather tenuous evidence for the claims you made about the Socialist Party. That article only mentions farmers once, and even then that single remark is directly attributed to ICTU rather than to the SP itself! You are drawing a lot of, frankly unfounded, inferences from a reference to ICTU's point of view in a single line of a short article.

    As I said above, there is a case to be made against the Socialist Party on this issue but it certainly isn't that they can't see the difference between a small farmer and the likes of Dell. It's that they just don't say very much about small farmers at all.

    A major issue with farm subsidies, by the way, is that they overwhelmingly go to large farmers and what is essentially agri-business rather than to the small farmers who are trotted out as their justification. That, if I recall correctly, was the point ICTU were making in the first place.

    The point I was making about the difficulties in drawing historical analogies with previous periods in Irish history is that the demographics have changed. Not only is Ireland now a majority urban society, but in rural areas farming is no longer the dominant economic activity. Only 6% of our labour force now work in agriculture.

    That's a profound change in Irish society and in rural Irish society in particular. The overwhelming majority of people in the countryside and villages are not farmers. Having something to say to rural people in the days of the Republican Congress meant essentially having something to say to farmers and from a left wing point of view small farmers and farm labourers. That simply isn't true any more. The farm labourers are essentially gone as a signifiant factor. Farmers as a whole are much reduced in numbers and small farmers have born the brunt of this.

    Farmers matter and, as you say, they can be quite militant in defence of their interests when provoked. But simple demographics has eroded their numerical significance drastically. A programme for rural Ireland is no longer essentially a programme for the land question or for farming.

  17. S,

    I agree SF is already working on this. It was reading the ferris report and noting the lisbon posters, and the strong euro showings, that gave me the idea of discussing this. I guess my post was more along the lines of saying what we are doing is right, we should keep it up, and there is an upside to it. The various reports by the Doherty and Ferris and points on the Lisbon campaign will resonate with the rural vote and build strength.


    I think you very fairly pull me up on the particular choice of words I used. If I had argued that the SP had not focussed enough on small farmers/rural society it would have been better. I have the same criticism of labour.

    The % working in agri-sector is a bit of a moving target. I saw on the Teagasc site it was 10% for the entire sector - farmers and processors etc.

    But 6 or 10% the demographic is as you say small ( maybe max 180,000 workers? - there are over 100k farmers registered with revenue).

    However small as it is I think its virgin territory for a party of the left. Who knows maybe there are a lot of 2 votes and 3 votes for us/other-left there as well.

    I originally focussed on the small farmer as my example of a demographic that the Irish left, in the main and excluding SF, had failed to fully exploit.

    Considering the feedback from the comments then maybe the better approach was to focus on small farmers and how they are, with their related suppliers/processors, a strong component of the rural economy.

    And ultimately its with all of those in the rural economy and society, Farmers, related industries, and those who just live and work there that we need to have the dialogue with to discuss what the programme for rural Ireland will be.

  18. I don't get this thread. Is someone arguing somewhere that socialists shouldn't try to talk to farmers. A central plank of marxist thought since marx has been how to achieve a new balance in the metabolism of production. Marx spent the last few years of his life looking at how peasant society in Russia could accommodate socialism. Lenin developed this into the concept of the alliance of the workers' and peasants which was critical to the revolution. With the exception of the stickies and some ultras, few disagree with this approach - so why propose it as if it's contentious?
    This is all the more perplexing when today in the north republican representatives are expending all their efforts focussing on speaking to SMEs. In fact, they don't do anything similar for workers affected by the crisis or even small farmers. The party's focus is on business and it is competing with the other parties to do this.