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The sample test for nitrates in water. The legal limit is 50mlg per litre.
On the campaign trail

Green MEP candidate tests water supplies for nitrates as she canvasses in Ireland South

The Journal spoke to MEP Grace O’Sullivan during a novel type of campaigning in Ireland South.


“YOU FILL A glass of water, take a sample with this strip of paper and then we wait,” Green Party MEP Grace O’Sullivan explains to The Journal in the backroom of Devereux’s menswear shop in Dungarvan. She counts down, watching as the test grows increasingly dark over the next 30 seconds.

In Dungarvan, O’Sullivan is pioneering a novel method of European election campaigning by carrying out a test for nitrates in the local water supply across her native county.

The chemical is commonly used by farmers in fertilisers but in excessive amounts it can harm drinking water.

As we wait for the result, there is some chatter about the campaign to date. O’Sullivan, who got into electoral politics a decade ago after Greenpeace activism in the Rainbow Warrior crew, it’s been a flat campaign with “little engagement or interest” in the issues.

That was until a “turnaround” in awareness seen around last Friday anyway, according to O’Sullivan. Last Sunday brought her a fillip thanks to a Sunday Independent poll showing her at 6 percent, giving her a chance of retaining the seat she first won five years ago if transfers can go her way.

The same survey suggested that her fellow incumbents Sean Kelly (Fine Gael) and Billy Kelleher (Fianna Fáil) were both looking likely to retain their seats on 18.5 and 14.4 percent respectively.

IMG_1131 Grace O'Sullivan and Sharon Devereux in Bridebridge.

Others in the running are Clare Independent TD Michael McNamara and Sinn Féin’s two candidates Kathleen Funchion, while not far behind O’Sullivan are SF’s second candidate Paul Gavan and sitting MEP Mick Wallace. Fianna Fáil are aiming for a second seat with Cynthia Ní Mhurchú and Fine Gael are hoping for the same with John Mullins.

Among the smaller parties, Niamh Hourigan (Labour) Susan Doyle (Social Democrats) and Patrick Murphy (Aontú) are running, alongside a several independents. Another candidate, Eddie Punch of Independent Ireland, was the general secretary of the pressure group Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association.

“People seem to be a lot more up for it now and are getting ready to make their decision on who to back.”


The Ireland South constituency is a five-seater and is typically vast, spanning all of Munster in addition to the counties of Carlow, Kilkenny, Wexford and Wicklow.

Sharon Devereux, one of the reelection team, offered the shop up for the test. “I think farmers are doing what they’ve been made to do, because I don’t think any farmer wants to create issues for biodiversity but they’ve been pushed into it. But they’re drinking the same water as everyone else, and we know that this area will be a key one for nitrates.”

For her water sample, it clearly starts to change colour, growing a darker shade of pink.

The legal limit for nitrates in drinking water is 50mg/l but this sample surpasses that threshold and settles in around the 70mg/l mark.

“At this level it is a problem for human consumption and can cause real health impacts,” O’Sullivan, a marine scientist by training, added.

“We have conducted other tests from here and there has been a level of nitrates recorded [on those occasions].”

In Dungarvan, O’Sullivan is firmly in farming country. West Waterford regularly listed by the Irish Farmers Journal as having the most expensive land in the country. Nitrates are predominantly used in dairy farming which is the main form of agriculture in the region.

Irish farming is facing change with the reduction in Ireland’s nitrates derogation,which allows farmers to keep denser herds, but became a political row for the Government last year as indications from Europe indicated it wi be lost.

Ireland is one of three EU countries with the derogation. Netherlands and Denmark are the others with the legal exceptions, but the latter has recently confirmed it will not be renewing its derogation.

While the Irish government has insisted it will aim to maintain the derogation, O’Sullivan is against retention, viewing it as a policy that only “benefits a small minority of farmers” who have been “polluting our water supplies” through their farming.

She said the debate around farming, which has taken on an increasingly important role in the past six months amid regular protests in European cities, has been “skewed” by “vested interests”, including a small cohort of “very profitable dairy farmers” in the sector.

It can be an awkward topic in this type of constituency – one of her team quickly stresses they “appreciate all the work farmers do” – but O’Sullivan herself is blunt.

‘Disproportionate’ focus

She says the election campaign, not just in Ireland but elsewhere across Europe, has seen a “disproportionate” focus on the interests of a small part of the farming sector.

“It’s a sector of farming, dairy farming mainly. Overall there are 135,000 farmers in Ireland and you’re talking of like 5,000 farmers are looking for the derogation.

“That gives me real concern because it means we’ve really, over the course of this election, focused in on a small cohort of very profitable dairy farmers and that does raise questions. There are also very profitable billionaires who are in the business of supplying farmers with nitrates. This is where the whole thing gets so skewed.”

She blasts some of her other opponents as “disingenuous”, citing a video by Fine Gael’s candidate John Mullins in which he ploughs a tractor through stacked boxes marked ‘red tape’. He was proposing simplifying the drawdown of EU funding for farming schemes.

“He’s flinging papers and jumping in and out of a tractor like there was no tomorrow – let’s get real here,” O’Sullivan said, claiming there was a sense wrongly put forward from the clip that farmers are “incapable” of managing documents.

Hard spot

The Green Party has found itself in a hard spot in this election. More than one party source points to how Green candidates likely benefitted from perceived increased coverage of the climate crisis five years ago.

For O’Sullivan, she says she’s getting “back to basics” in the final days of the campaign. This means focusing on what she sees as her bread and butter issues, ranging from .

On the canvass trail in Grattan Square, she’s getting “back to basics” in the final days of the campaign, talking not just about the climate crisis and Earth, but the earth itself: on more than one occasion the chat move towards methods for improving the soil to give added flavour to plants for grazing cattle. It’s a familiar topic as she used her term in the parliament to push for EU legislation on soil quality.

While the number of farmers in the country is far from its height of generations ago, plenty of the population has connections to the sector. Indeed, most of O’Sullivan’s campaign team are either the children of farmers or can count them as among their immediate family.

IMG_1073 Grace O'Sullivan and Treacey Power in Grattan Square

Among these are Críostóir Ó Faoláin, an Irish language activist who is running for the Greens in the local elections in Dungarvan, who firmly believes there is a shift underway among farmers.

“Farmers are no fools and they’re very clear when talking to me that they know the nitrates derogation won’t be able to remain. Look at the weather we’ve had this year – it’s only going one way at the moment and we all know that needs to change,” he told The Journal.

In Grattan Square, the campaigners meet Tracy Forest, whose partner farms nearby.

On O’Sullivan, she believes “a lot of people aren’t really familiar” with her policies, but positively cites the MEP’s support for rural transport in the region.

Forest added that her family and her neighbours had all been hit hard by poor weather seen recent months.

On towards Cork

Further along the trail, the campaign visits Bridebridge in north Co Cork where farmer Donal Sheehan showcases work he has been undertaking in a project for more than 40 farmers along the River Bride. It’s a state and EU-funded pilot aiming to increase
the quality and number of habitats on intensively managed farmland.

He said he became more engaged in climate and biodiversity issues after becoming “sick and tired of the raping of the environment” by industry.

He told The Journal that he believes the farming industry has “so much power and [that] farmers are doing the dirty work of the flipping industry” by focusing their protests on issues such nitrates. He said O’Sullivan likely “gets lambasted by farmers” for her stances.

Despite this, he maintained that the MEP has been doing more from his point of view than “any of the mainstream politicians because she can see the issues” affecting the sector and their wider impact.

Another local who spoke to The Journal was cooler about voting for the party, saying he was unsure about lending a vote to the party “this time” around.

The polls open on Friday but with local council elections taking place the same day, it will be some time next week before we learn the final results for Europe.

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work are the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here.


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