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Dublin: 20 °C Thursday 6 August, 2020
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Explainer: Why are farmers protesting outside Leinster House this week?

A deal was brokered and a task force established – so why are there still protests?

Farmers arrive along St Stephen's Green.
Farmers arrive along St Stephen's Green.
Image: Sam Boal

FARMERS BROUGHT PARTS of Dublin city centre to a standstill yesterday when they arrived on tractors to stage a protest outside Leinster House.

They have remained there overnight and protesting farmers insist they will not be moved until the Government resolves outstanding issues in the long-running dispute between beef farmers and meat factories. 

It follows months of tension between the meat industry and farmers, which culminated in the intervention of Agriculture Minister Michael Creed and the brokering of a deal in September. 

The core issue centres around the price farmers are paid for the beef they supply to processors which they say is unsustainable into the future. 

For weeks throughout July and August, farmers blockaded meat processing factories, essentially shutting down their operations and leading to staff being temporarily laid off.

In response, meat factories took several cases to the courts, securing injunctions against protesting farmers. 

The Minister’s deal required concessions from both sides, and to get it over the line representatives from farming organisations agreed to stand down the factory blockades in exchange for factories agreeing to withdraw all legal action. Other measures to increase profits for farmers were also agreed. 

Not all farmers were satisfied with this, however, and in the last 48 hours, a convoy of tractors descended on Kildare Street and the surrounding St. Stephen’s Green area in the centre of Dublin. 

So with no sign of the protesters leaving any time soon, we at TheJournal.ie are looking at where the protests began and why are farmers protesting outside Leinster House this week?

Where did the protests come from in the first place?

The row stems from a series of protests back in June and July and lead to farmers putting blockades at the front of meat processing factories, preventing produce from entering or leaving the plants. 

Farmers claimed that the price they were being paid by factories was not profitable and they wanted the base price to be increased. 

As the primary producer of beef, which is then bought by factories where it is processed and sold on to retailers, farmers felt they were getting a raw deal and wanted retailers and factories to work together to allow for farmers to be paid more for their produce. 

When these demands were not met, the protests ensued. 

This also came against the backdrop of the farmers’ worries about the Mercosor deal which was at the time being discussed at national and European level. 

That trade deal will open up the European market to South American farmers who want to sell their produce in this part of the world, increasing the competition for farmers in Europe, including Irish farmers. 

And so, hundreds of frustrated farmers across Ireland took to the pickets outside factories and Leinster House for weeks. The protests this week are the evolution of those frustrations. 

farmer protest 082_90585891 Farmers sleep in their tractors outside the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. Source: Sam Boal

But I thought the minister intervened and they made a deal?

The minister did intervene on a number of occasions in a bid to resolve the dispute.

At a meeting in September, a deal was finally struck following more than 30 hours of discussions between the Department of Agriculture, Meat Industry Ireland and representatives of farming groups. 

That deal involved a reviewed bonus structure which set out how much farmers would be paid based on the age and weight of their cattle. 

It also promised the commissioning of two reports into pricing, as well as the establishment of a beef task force which would ensure constructive discussions would continue between all sides of the table. 

To stand that deal up, farmers pledged to immediately end all protests pending the next round of discussions with the beef task force. Meat Industry Ireland said all processors would withdraw any legal action it had taken. 

However, a small group of farmers claimed that not all legal actions taken against farmers by processors have been withdrawn and they continued to voice their concerns over the past month or so. 

That is essentially what has come to a head in Dublin this week in the form of giant tractors being driven into the city, blocking access to busy streets and backing up traffic. 

Why is the beef task force not resolving this?

The beef task force was set up to be the entity through which the meat industry and farmers could continue to liaise with each other, and ensure there was no renewed escalation in this dispute – but even that got off to a rocky start. 

On the day of the first meeting of the task force with Meat Industry Ireland, farmers arrived and attempted to block representatives from entering the Department of Agriculture to attend the meeting. 

They claimed that three people were still facing legal action from meat processors and they wanted those cases dropped.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar condemned the actions and said the task force should not be prevented from doing its job. 

“We need to see the task force getting to work and do its job, and that’s why I was very disappointed to see the scenes on the TV the other day, of people impeded from doing their day’s work – being jostled outside that building. I don’t think that’s the way to go,” he said at the time.

Since then the Department has yet to reconvene the task force. 

Today, Varadkar also weighed in on the latest round of protests, saying: “We’re all very aware that beef farmers had a very bad time in the last couple of months and last couple of years. The beef price is below the cost of production and that isn’t sustainable for anyone.

“But we also need to be honest with the farmers as well. There are some things that the Government controls and some things that the government doesn’t and the beef price isn’t one of them.”

farmer protest 122_90585897 Minister Creed addressed protesters early this morning. Source: Sam Boal

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So what happens next?

Farmers began their protest yesterday and it ran into the wee hours of this morning. The area continues to be blocked off today and farmers show no signs of moving. 

Minister Michael Creed made an impromptu appearance before protesters early this morning to engage with their concerns but protesting farmers accused him of letting them down.

“I have never refused to meet farming organisations,” Creed said, adding his schedule didn’t allow him to meet with them yesterday. “The normal route is not to blockade the city and demand an Oireachtas meeting.”

One farmer said: “The ball is in their [government's] court. We don’t want to be here, we want to go home.”

Another added: “The injunctions are a cloud hanging over farmers’ heads.”

A letter was given to the minister and a discussion was held at the Department of Agriculture in the past few hours. 

While none of the organised farming associations are involved in these protests, as per the deal agreed with the minister, some have expressed their solidarity with those taking part in the demonstrations.

John Coughlan of the Irish Farmers’ Association said: “I support the end goal of these farmers and the many thousands more up and down the country who share their frustrations.”

With the beef task force still out of action and farmers pledging to remain in Dublin until they feel they are being heard, the length of time it will take before the protests are lifted is anyone’s guess. 

With reporting from Sean Murray

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