Ireland: to Envy and Emulate?
July 27th, 2016
I should probably start with a reminder of why I’m here in Ireland. My Nuffield topic is looking at the coverage and representation of farming issues in the mainstream news. I’ve talked about the perception in the UK, that the farming industry is somehow disconnected from a largely urban media. I’m in Ireland to compare that experience with a country that’s on the doorstep geographically but a different planet demographically.
In terms of media coverage and public attitudes towards farming, there is much to envy about Ireland, but can we realistically replicate it in Britain?
I considered this conundrum over lunch, after visiting the Department of Agriculture in Dublin, and decided to make a list of the fundamental differences between the UK and Ireland.
Basically, what do Irish farmers have that the Brits don’t?
* It’s smaller. Just 5.2 million compared to our 67 million.
* It’s very rural. Most British people are urban.
* Many, if not the majority, of people living in the middle of Dublin are only one or two generations removed from a farm and still have rural connections. There ain’t no disconnect here.
INDUSTRY AND GOVERNMENT:
* The economy is reliant on the agri-food sector.
* Ireland produces way more food that it can consume and exports most of it to lucrative markets all over the world, trading on authenticity (small family farms and the green, green grass of home) and traceability (exacting food safety standards).
* Massively powerful and influential farming lobby in the form of the Irish Farmers Association, which in spite of recent bad publicity, is still well supported and provides a united voice for Irish farmers.
* Majority of Government Ministers represent rural constituencies and, with an electoral system based on Proportional Representation, seats can switch colour more easily than in the UK. Keeps them on their toes.
* Agriculture and Rural Affairs are two separate Government departments. The future sustainability of both farming and rural communities are core priorities. The State invests heavily in trade promotion and opening up new global markets for Irish food.
* Mainstream newspapers have weekly farming supplements (yes, I’m talking about the Irish equivalents to The Independent and The Telegraph). Even The Irish Times, generally seen as the least agriculturally focused newspaper, has an agribusiness section on the website and employs specialist reporters.
* Farming is well represented on TV and radio in the form of RTE’s flagship programmes Ear to the Ground, Countrywide and Nationwide.
* High profile and widely-recognised specialist media including Irish Farmers Journal and the online magazine Agriland.
* Government press officers belong to one department as opposed to being career PR specialists. They revolve around that department, working in a number of different roles (so a press officer within the Department of Agriculture could also work in policy areas or trade). This means those dealing with the media have specialist knowledge, and build up relationships over long periods of time.
Those are some pretty striking differences and maybe a tad disheartening for a British farmer. But take heart! The Irish agri-food sector has based its success on some raw ingredients…
Rain. Grass. Family farms. Small farms. High environmental and animal welfare standards.
Now where else can you find all that? The British Isles of course. Ta da!
Authenticity is the secret to Ireland’s success – they’ve recognised its value and they’re selling it. The UK can tell that story too.
The British farming industry, namely the NFU, is at a crossroads now as it weighs up its priorities post-Brexit. What should a new British Agricultural Policy look like? What does it value most?
To ignore a formula that works so well across the Irish Sea would be a bit mad wouldn’t it?