Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice’s recent call to form a “village party” to run in the next general election has been widely rejected in political circles. After all, for many metropolitan minds, farmers are – literally – a dying breed. For them, rural Ireland begins and ends between a farm gate and the nearest greenway.
But the ongoing protests in Co Clare, which are mostly about providing shelter for people seeking international protection, are about more than Irish farmers in small towns. And in many of these communities there is a growing sense of disconnection from Dublin decision makers.
The experience here in the Netherlands has lessons for Ireland. In the wealthy, Western European economies, there is fertile ground for the emergence of such a “rural” party. As the costs of Ireland’s climate policy and migration policy come into focus, traditionally agricultural areas feel the biggest initial shock. It also contains a dire Dutch warning about the future of Fine Gael in rural Ireland.
Like Fine Gael, the Dutch Christian Democrats (CDA) have a long and (sometimes) proud history. From 1977 to 2010, the CDA was a major force in Dutch politics and led long coalition governments. They both evolved from a traditionally conservative (and agrarian) base to become the vanguard of a pro-market, ecologically ambitious, socially liberal agenda.
Yet the CDA had almost two million votes in 2021 and won only 9 percent of the national elections. Even worse, recent provincial polls dropped support to an even lower 6 percent. Throughout the Netherlands beyond the Randstad (the urban triangle of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, where half of the population lives), the CDA is now a ghost that haunts the former agricultural heart.
Although the BBB (Farmer Citizens Movement) was only founded in 2019, it is now the largest political party in all 12 Dutch provinces.
The problem is that the party’s traditional agrarian and provincial voters don’t believe it. And in a crowded political market—in societies where there is a rural perception that priorities are set by capital elites—this is a recipe for slow entanglement. Politically inappropriate route.
Most comments have linked the demise of the CDA to the recent rise of the Boer Burger Movement (BBB). Chair is former CDA member Caroline van der Plas, daughter of an Irish mother who was also a CDA municipal councilor. Farmer-led opposition to government plans to cut nitrogen emissions (which caused thousands of farms to close) has expanded into a broader expression of rural discontent.
Although it was only founded in 2019, it is now the largest political party in all 12 Dutch provinces. And farmers are not the only ones under his banner. With only 200,000 farmers in the Netherlands, the BBB managed to get almost 1.5 million votes in the recent provincial elections.
Moving beyond the simplistic idea that rural areas are directly connected to the land, the movement represents those who live outside major cities and feel excluded from policymaking in national capitals. It gives a voice to small town residents who feel threatened by the government’s increasingly strict approach to social and environmental goals.
In an Irish context, public office involves the unannounced relocation of large numbers of asylum seekers to small – and often isolated – communities and places.
Outside Leinster, Fine Gael is seen as a Dublin-focused progressive party that is – figuratively and literally – hundreds of miles from Ireland’s only homes.
Fine Gael is already well down the dirt road of rural disengagement that has eroded CDA support over the past decade. Large parts of provincial Ireland – Waterford, Cork South West, Tipperary and Roscommon – already lack Fine Gael Tail representatives, a situation which may reflect the already announced retirement of Fine Gael TDs in areas such as Kerry, Donegal and Kilkenny. .
Outside of Leinster, Fine Gael is seen as a Dublin-centred progressive party that is – figuratively and literally – hundreds of miles from the individual homes of Ireland.
Unlike the CDA, Fine Gael has not yet faced organized competition from dissatisfied ex-members or the wider agricultural lobby. But the spread of former fine-gal DDs among the number of elected independents points to risks ahead. A highly formalized Dutch political party of disaffected rural residents – including medium and large farmers whose numbers are increasing due to land consolidation, particularly in the dairy sector; health advocates; Armed Forces Families; and post office campaigners – will drive Fine Gael from within.
In its rush to be seen as modern, Fine Gael has also forgotten its own history. The old National Center Party, based on a coalition of farmers and other independents, was part of the formation of Fine Gael in 1933. It is the natural home of James Dillon, the chief architect of the Fine Gael policy. Democracy against the Nazis and modernized Irish agriculture as minister 1954-1957.
Because of the “urban elites” and the complementary needs of the provincial electorate, after Ncatháil and Fine Gael, Cumann survived the worst days of Fianna Fáil dominance. Unfortunately, that is a balance that now seems hopelessly lost.
Instead of the usual chatter about saving the state, Fine Gael needs a strategy to save itself. It should start with the once-forgotten neighborhood.
Eoin Drea is a senior researcher at the Wilfried Martens Centre, the official think tank of the European People’s Party, of which Fine Gael is a member.