LAST week’s commemoration in Bantry of the farmers’ march to Dublin in October 1966 recalled what was a seminal event in farm politics, which eventually led to the National Farmers’Association (which afterwards became the IFA) being granted negotiation rights to make their case for better prices for their produce. The power of the IFA as a super-effective lobbying organisation is well-known nowadays, but 50 years ago, their predecessors were not taken seriously by the government at all, especially the then Minister for Agriculture, one Charles J Haughey.
When 16 West Cork farmers left from Bantry fair, led by NFA president Rickard Deasy, to march the 217 miles to Dublin, they had no idea what effect, if any, their action would have. It could have ended up as a small and isolated protest that was quickly consigned to the dustbin of history, however media coverage of the march saw it capture the public imagination and encouraged farmers from other parts of the country to join in with them and converge on the capital to try to further their cause.
Marching into the unknown, the West Cork men left behind their farms for a significant amount of time, but families and neighbours did the jobs that needed to be done while they were away pursuing a cause they believed passionately enough in to be prepared to take on such a mammoth task. After eventually arriving in Dublin, the number of protesting farmers had swollen to 30,000 and they fully expected to be able to make their case to the Minister for Agriculture.
However, when the stubborn Mr Haughey refused to meet with them, the NFA men decided to stage a sit-in on the steps of the Department of Agriculture until he was prepared to do so. The fact that the farmers had to sit there for three weeks garnered further public sympathy and support for them.
Talks eventually ensued and the rest, as they say, is history because the farmers’ organisation found its feet and it became a strong and effective lobbyist on behalf of its members, especially in the run-up to Ireland joining the European Economic Community. Indeed, our farmers got a far better deal from Europe than Ireland’s fishermen and have continued to benefit well through income supports.
The IFA has had its troubles in the past year, but seems to be working through them with a new chief executive set to be appointed shortly. IFA president Joe Healy paid deserved fulsome tributes to the men who set out from Bantry 50 years ago – and their families – for the sacrifices they made, which ultimately benefited their fellow farmers all over the country, who have a lot to be grateful to them for.