Darragh McCullough: ‘Beef farmer protesters have settled for a ceasefire but this battle is far from over‘

‘Imagine that it took a bunch of nuns sitting out on that road to get this school built?” whispered former TD and MEP Gay Mitchell to me during a function at my better half‘s old school last week.

She spent the last 13 years teaching in St Ultan‘s in Cherry Orchard in west Dublin. With Wheatfield and Cloverhill prisons around the corner, and semi-regular shootings, it‘s not the kind of area that many farmers will ever be familiar with.

The school is a one-of-a-kind, with hot meals and after-school clubs for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. But it wasn‘t until 2006 that the doors opened on this social necessity. Over 500 children will pass through those doors today, ensuring that they all have a fair shot at prosperity.

And to think that it took a group of campaigning nuns militant enough to camp out on the road to force the powers that be to make a move.

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The same day I was in Cherry Orchard, I had been in touch with ABP to try to get to the bottom of the story about why two part-time farmers had multi-million-euro court injunctions hanging over their heads nearly two months after the protests outside the meat factories had ended.

The two men in question – one a Fine Gael councillor and part-time builder, the other a carpenter – had been to the fore during a week of pickets at the ABP-owned C&D pet-food plant in Longford.

I was given some lame line about how the C&D wasn‘t part of the “beef processing family” because the plant doesn‘t actually use any beef.

Apparently it‘s all poultry, pork and fish that make up the meat content of pet food. ABP believe that it was unfair for the farmers to picket “secondary” targets like C&D.

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ABP‘s second gripe was that there was a “sinister element” attached to the increasingly militant pickets that allegedly intimidated and threatened the management at the plant.

This issue was well aired during the protests when men in balaclavas appeared on the pickets.

Curiously, within a few hours of talking to ABP representatives, I got wind of the press release from ABP announcing that they had finally decided to lift the injunctions against the two men.

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But why did Larry Goodman‘s company wait for nearly two months to take this step?

Why did it take scuffles outside the Department of Agriculture as the Beef Task Force tried (and subsequently failed) to convene for the first time after the protests?

Why did ABP let the discontent simmer to the point where 100 tractors caused traffic chaos in Dublin and farmers lost a chunk of their precious social capital with an increasingly bewildered public?

And then there‘s the bigger question. Why does it take militant action to get any progress or action on social issues in this country? Whether it‘s the nuns in Cherry Orchard or the farmers in Longford, it shouldn‘t be like this.

Every time a marginalised group goes militant, it is effectively going all in. If they lose, they lose everything, so they are prepared to polarise opinion, create division and risk it all.

But if the last few months have proved anything, it‘s that militancy is the only way to get any movement from the powers that control farming and the beef sector in particular.

Price grid

Before the protest, beef farmers were told that all the criteria governing the price for their cattle were set in stone, including the price grid, criteria for over-30-month cattle, and the 70-day residency rule.

Only when the beef sector was finally ground to a halt did movement on every one of these issues begin.

And it was only when there was a threat of tractor protests shutting down Dublin in the run-up to Christmas that the injunctions against all farmers were suddenly lifted.

Whether it‘s nuns encamped in the middle of a road, or farmers blockading streets or factory gates, dramatic action seems to get results.

That‘s bad news for anyone hoping to rely on the power of reasoned negotiation.

It‘s particularly bad news for the established farm organisations, who have justified their existence by their supposed powers of persuasion.

And with little hope of a major uplift in beef prices any time soon, beef producers are only going to feel more and more marginalised as they see the rest of the economy power ahead. This could get ugly.

Indo Farming

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