ETHNOGRAPHY AND POLITICAL SCIENCE: AGRICULTURAL POLITICS IN EIRE

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<ul><li><p>Politics (1990) lO(1) pp9-16 </p><p>ETHNOGRAPHYAND POLITICAL SCIENCE: </p><p>AGRICULTURAL POLITICS IN EIRE </p><p>THOMAS M. WILSON </p><p>THE EUROPEAN Community (EC)'s impact on the institutions and values of people and communities at the local level has seldom been investigated. This has been especially true of ethnographers, who have failed to recognise the implications of EC policies. The irony is that ethnographers have as an essential aspect of their research their participation in community life, often for a year or more, so could chronicle these changes. This article, based in part on field research, relates the changing role of a small group of commercial family farmers to regional and national political cultures which have been redefinedwithin the EC.' It is also an example ofhow longitudinal ethnographic case studies can complement the research of political scientists interested in regional and national political processes.2 </p><p>Ireland and the EC The Republic of Ireland's entrance into the EC in 1973 usheredin the greatest period of socioeconomic growth since the Irish government ended its protectionist policies in the 1950s. The CAP, EC loans, grants and subsidies, and foreign capitalists eager to establish a base in the EC helped Ireland achieve the highest growth rate in the EC of the Nine, a growth rate rate however matched, ifnot surpassed, by Ireland's foreign debt, making her one of the greatest debtor nations per capita in Western Europe. Since EC accession Irish governments have not only had to deal with the impact of EC economic and political integration but the redefinition of many traditional political relationships with interest groups and party supporters. The Ireland of the 1980s has been beset with up to 20 per cent unemployment, a stagnating industrial base, breakdowns in the structure of agriculture, and the return of emigration as the panacea for the ills of the nation's young. National governments have failed because they promised either too much or too little to an electorate reeling from economic blows from which their politicians seemed powerless to protect them. Ironically, many of these same politicians still point to the 1970s as an example of what national politicians can achieve for their people in an Ireland bereft of its traditional economic dependencies and newly 'Europeanised'. In the first decade of EC membership foreign capital, principally from the United States and Japan, was attracted to Ireland. Irish agricultural production was redirected to continental markets, (lessening dependence on </p><p>9 </p></li><li><p>THOMAS M. WILSON </p><p>the British market) and Ireland received tremendous transfers of capital from the EC through the CAP and the Regional Fund (Hart, 1985). Ireland's foreign policy became 'Europeanised', giving it a voice at the highest, supranational levels of European decision-making (Matthews, 1983). The first five years of membership were the most lucrative for many sectors of the economy as well as for many traditional constituencies, factions, interest groups and political lobbies. Groups such as farmers, miners, factory owners and political party cadres went into the EC with mixed feelings of hope and apprehension, and the roller coaster years up to 1979 did not fail to surprise and delight (O'Brien, 1978; Matthews, 1983; Finnegan, 1983; EC Commission, 1982; Blackwell and O'Malley, 1984) Ireland also benefited substantially from direct transfers of funds from the EC, primarily through the CAP but also through such avenues as the Regional and the Social Funds. In 1973 Ireland contributed a total of $6.1 million to the EC but received $43.8 million. In 1981, its contribution to the EC was $112.2 million but it received $551.2 million in return (not including $244.8 million in EC loans). The 'boom' years for some sectors of the Irish economy were 1978 and 1979, when Ireland contributed $42 million and $60 million respectively but welcomed $447 million and $550 million from European coffers (EC Commission, 1982). And although the good years have now gone, Ireland still enjoys benefits negotiated before the admission of the new Mediterranean members (Finnegan, 1983). It received a sizeable increase in its EC funding as the EC prepared for the completion ofthe internal market in 1992. The sector of the economy that benefited most in the 1970s was agriculture. In 1978 farm incomes at current values were over four times their level in 1971. Real income levels in 1978 were 70 per cent higher than for 1970 (Cox and Kearney, 1983). This was a remarkable boon for the farmers of a nation who in 1980 still constituted 20 per cent of the national labour force (down from 25 per cent in 1971) and who accounted for 10 per cent of Irish GDP. In 1970 food production and food industries accounted for 30 per cent of the national wealth, and the country's agricultural self-suficiency was the highest in the EC save Denmark. In 1980 agriculture supplied almost 40 per cent of total Irish exports with 60 per cent of the countries gross agricultural production being exported (Duchene et al, 1985) The CAP was welcomed from the first by Irish farmers because of its guaranteed markets for unlimited production at high prices, which would free them from their dependence on the cheap food policy of the UK and shift the burden of income support from Irish to EC taxpayers (Cox and Kearney, 1983). Although the impact of EC membership on Irish agriculture remains understudied, the importance of the CAP for the Ireland of the 1970s is clear: up to 1978 total Irish GNP increased by as much as 15 per cent above what it would have been without the EC farm policy (Duchene et al, 1985). </p><p>The Irish Euro-Farmers Farmers were the principal beneficiaries of the material rewards that flowed from the EC. Growing towns and cities, the elimination of emigration, assured access to continental markets, guaranteed high prices, and the expansion of public and private sources of credit all helped turn many Irish </p><p>10 </p></li><li><p>AGRICULTURAL POLITICS IN EIRE </p><p>farms into successfirl businesses. Farm profits and subsidies within the EC made the Irish farm community aware of their new role as European citizens and farmers, a situation which, with few exceptions (Scheper-Hughes, 1979; Wilson, 1988) makes the absence of an EC-dimension in anthropological and sociological studies of local communities all the more remarkable (Curtin and Wilson, 1989). This led to dramatic chmges in Irish agricultural politics. Up to the 1970s Irish politicians and farmers had a stable relationship in which the farmers support of parties and politicians depended in part on institutionalised and informal subsidisation. For over a generation of government protectionism, farmers competed for national funds and selective protectionist policies through their traditional avenues of political brokerage. Many scholars have viewed 20th century Irish politics at the local level as revolving around various forms of patronclient relationships (Bax, 1976; Sacks, 1976; Higgins, 1985; Komito, 19851, with local and national politicians mediating between individuals and groups of their constituents and public and private agencies at the local and national levels. This type of politics fitted in well with the evolving political system of the new state (Garvin, 1981). After the establishment of the free state in the 19209, large farmers tended to support Fine Gael (FG), while small farmers looked to the FiaMa Fail (FF) (Rumpf and Hepburn, 1977; Gallagher, 1985). National agricultural policy was decided by politicians dependent on their constituents votes to keep them in ofice. The rules of the game were clearcut: politicians used whatever influence was at their disposal at national and local levels to establish individual family clientage even if aid to clients wa8 often little more then imaginary patronage (Sacks, 1976). Since the 1970s, however, Irish farmers have frequently voted, against the political pundits predictions, for the government best able to serve their interests (Wilson, 1989). Although it is difficult to ascertain how farmers as a group voted in any one election, let alone determine the voting patterns of large and small farmers, there is much to suggest that, since the 1973 general election, farmers support has become problematic for party cadres, who themselves used campaign promises to help fashion the current generation of farmers into instrumental voters eager to safeguard their livelihood (for recent reviews of the social bases of Irish party support see Gallagher (1985) and Laver (1986a;1986b)). </p><p>County Meath In County Meath, renowned for its good land, large farms, and influential and wealthy farmers, the consensus among local politicians at the end of the 1970s was that in both local and national elections farmers had become unpredictable and ~ola t i le .~ Of the 29 sitting Meath County Councillors I interviewed before the June 1979 local elections, all concluded that the two major parties could no longer depend on traditional loyalties to ensure farmers political support. These politicians, many with over 20 years political experience at the county and national levels, were particularly mindful of the shift in large farmer support in Meath from FG to FF in the 1977 general election, which they believed combined a reaction against the tax measures introduced by the FGled coalition government and support for Fianna Fails propal to remove a number of long-standing taxes. Of more </p><p>11 </p></li><li><p>THOMAS M. WILSON </p><p>than 50 farmers I interviewed in the Navan Electoral Area of Meath (one of five political subdivisions in the Meath constituency), none disputed the notions of their elected representatives. Most farmers believed they faced a new political and economic world. Although many of these farmers claimed they still voted for their family's traditional political choice, as many admitted that they had voted for the party that they perceived would not take as much of their profits away through taxes or poor policy-making at home or in Europe. Over the last 15 years, the perception that the farmers of Ireland have become volatile voters has taken on a political dynamism of its own. If this perception is shared by farmers elsewhere in the country, then the partisanship of large and small farmers is becoming problematical in Irish politics (Wilson 1988; 1989). Meath farmers, slowly diminishing in numbers due to declining birth rates, increasing emigration, structural agricultural reform, and the lure of wage labour, have tended to vote according to the issues in a series of elections that have been contested almost exclusively on economic grounds. In the 1985 local elections in Meath, farmer opposition to the FG land tax plan helped give the county council to F'F. In the 1987 general election, Meath farmers again switched their vote according to their 'interests', in an election that must seriously threaten any views that farmers remain loyal party supporters. In the volatile 1987 election (Gallagher, 19881, Meath farmers helped elect three FF TDs (MPs), with one of them out-polling a Meath TD who is not only a national leader of the FG party but also a farmer who in the past was a touted successor to his party's top spot. The local representative for Leinster Province at the European Parliament (until 1987 himself a 'I'D) predicted FFs 1987 Meath success, which he attributed to farmers' intention to give parties a clear message: farmers will fight government's moves to tax farmers and they want a strong nationalist voice in Europe.5 </p><p>Farmers and Policy Meath farmers have become increasingly sophisticated in their roles as Euro- farmers and businessmen. They are acutely aware of their small voice in Europe, a voice that they are convinced must be heard because of their contradictory role within the CAP. Although they welcome wholeheartedly the price and market policies within the EC, they know that their interests place them in opposition to other aims of European farm policy. Because increased production of most commodities is unprofitable at the EC level, other member nations oppose many price supports for agricultural products, but Ireland benefits from expansion in such areas as dairying and beef production because the whole EC must pay the costs of the disposal of the surplus. "his conflict in objectives is exacerbated by the essential contradiction in the CAP as a whole: the achievement of two seemingly mutually exclusive goals of an improved standard of living for all EC farmers and the rationalisation of agriculture through the elimination of wasteful and inefficient farm practices (and farmers). This 'equity' versus 'efficiency' issue has not caused conflict in Ireland between large and small farmers to date, but Irish consumers and taxpayers have been quick to point out that they are shouldering the burdens of higher prices and subsidised agriculture (Sheehy and O'Connor, 1985). Political parties have also attempted to adapt to their changed role within the </p><p>12 </p></li><li><p>AGRICULTURAL POLITICS IN EIRE </p><p>EC, especially in relations with their constituents andlobbies. Elections have become media events in which the party that promises the most to an increasingly sceptical electorate seemingly wins. Ironically, every national election fiom 1973 to 1987 saw the opposition party the victor. Irish farmers have tended to become a strong and united interest group under the aegis of their occupational societies. The Irish Farmers Association (IFA) and the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) have consistently moved to advance the interests of farmers at all levels of policymaking. The changed attitude of farmers has been demonstrated in the continuing struggle between farmers and government over taxes. Since 1979, when FF introduced a 2 per cent levy on agricultural production, farmers have waged a running battle with each political party that has been in power (led in part by Meath farmers (Wilson, 1989)). The last ten years have seen five successive governments attempt to catch more farmers in the tax net. The 1980s problems of inflation, unemployment, higher prices, and EC curbs on production have all made the incomes of farmers a contentious point for wage- earning citizens, and increasingly powerless local and national politicians have been caught in the middle. Farmers have utilised all available means of influencing national and supranational policymakers to combat such threats to their livelihoods as the 2 per cent levy, the EC super-levy, agricultural rates, and the recent land tax. The IFA has been the principal representative of farmers in this fight and has usurped much of the power of the politicians and made the shrinking farming electorate into an effective lobby. The internationalisation of Irish agricultural policymaking has thus helped to redefine Irish farmers roles within national politics. </p><p>Farmers in the 19808 Spiralling innation, unemployment, and massive foreign debt t...</p></li></ul>

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