Most politicians regularly pledge to support the farming community, but Maria Walsh underscored her commitment to rural Ireland and indeed became a skilled farmer.
The Midlands-North-West MEP earned her Green Cert, became heavily involved with her family farm, raised her own Highland herd and is now pursuing a Masters in Agricultural Extension and Innovation with UCD.
“As an MEP, I wanted to learn more about rural Ireland and expand my knowledge on issues like the CAP,” says the 34-year-old.
“I was interested in alternative farming and I wanted to learn how to be a good advisor to those who want to do something different with their farm.
“I chose Master to support the growth of our region. A region like the Midlands-North-West can only thrive if we create opportunities for people to grow their businesses, be it their farm, agritourism or grocery store.
“Two fundamental demands that we as policymakers have learned from the pandemic are: people are striving for a better work-life balance; and people who were forced to leave during the financial crisis want to return to their communities.
“I work at national and European levels to ensure that there are jobs and services in the digital and green sectors that support our farming community and are readily available.”
Rose of Tralee
Born in the United States but raised in Shrule, Co. Mayo, Ms Walsh is a former Rose of Tralee winner and one of Ireland’s best-known MPs.
Her parents Vincent and Noreen, with Maria and three siblings in tow, returned to Ireland to join the family farm in 1994.
“We always kept dry food – Cattle and sheep as well as a few Connemara ponies on the farm growing up,” says Ms Walsh.
“When you’ve been away from the farm for a few years, like me, you miss everyday farming life.”
She is committed to promoting farming as a career option for more women.
“It was incredible to see how young girls in particular were striving for a career in the agricultural sector,” she says. “When I was a little girl going to the Headford Mart, you didn’t see many other young girls or farmers.
“They existed, we know that, but it was hard to see them. One of the benefits of social media is the fact that you see farmers like Louise Crowley, Alice Hodges and Hannah Quinn-Mulligan showcasing and sharing their work.
“If you can see it, you really believe you can do it.”
The journalism graduate rose to fame after winning the Rose of Tralee in 2014 before serving as a soldier in the army.
Then Ms Walsh, despite not having a party political background, ran for Fine Gael in the 2014 European elections and won the third seat in the four-seat constituency.
“I followed American politics and was so driven by Obama’s emotional language,” she says. “Your politics also showed me how great the disconnect can be when someone like Trump gets elected and doesn’t deserve the role.
“I have spoken to friends and family about some of the issues we are facing here and across Europe and it has been frustrating not being able to do anything about it. So I went to a Women for Election event that focused on upskilling and educating women who wanted to go into politics.”
She came to Fine Gael for a number of reasons.
“I’ve found that they always put people’s interests at the forefront of their thoughts and negotiations,” she says.
“They work hard to put women in transitional roles and they’ve done a fantastic job on issues like marriage equality and repealing the 8th Amendment.
“If you want change, you have to be with a party that does it.”
She attributes her success at the election in part to her experience as the Rose of Tralee.
“I’d done a 32-county tour, where I’d met so many people from different communities that when I voted, it was like introducing myself to the political sphere,” she says.
Ms Walsh sits on a number of committees and works on issues she says are close to her heart.
“I am Vice Chair of the LGBTI Rights Intergroup and Co-Chair of both the Mental Health Alliance and the Coalition of Mental Health and Wellbeing Intergroups and I am a member of the Committee on Culture and Education, Employment and Social Affairs and Delegation for Relations with the United States,” she says.
“And a deputy on the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs.”
She is leading the call in Parliament for an EU year dedicated to mental health and well-being.
“UNICEF reported in 2021 that nine million young people aged between 10 and 19 in Europe are living with mental disorders,” she says.
“An EU Year of Mental Health will call on Member States to make workplace health a key part of the EU’s socio-economic recovery from the pandemic and to make it a priority. The farming sector has been experiencing the effects of a lack of mental health support for many years and this now needs to change.
“A dedicated mental health strategy at EU level would ensure this for all sectors — agriculture, in particular – There is proper signage and access to support, which we all need now more than ever.”
Ms Walsh is also working on a policy to ensure equal pay for equal work and ensure pay is transparent within the business community.
“There is currently a 14 percent pay gap between men and women. Many farmers and those who support a farm understand this gap all too well,” she says.
“Moreover, a woman will experience further divisions throughout her working life and when she retires, it is estimated that there is now a salary gap of almost 30 percent.
“This policy will ensure that women have the same opportunities as men in terms of their pay package. This is a sea change, especially in male-dominated industries like agriculture. I commend the work of the Women in Farming advocacy group for their work on inclusion and balance in farming,” she says.
As part of her committee work, Ms Walsh also works to improve funding and access to vocational training (VET).
“We need apprentices, internships and people, not just young people, who see the benefits lifelong learning brings to our careers, our communities and our competitive growth as a country,” she says.
Last summer Maria Walsh decided to bring something different to her home farm and bought two purebred Highland heifers.
“They are so unique and beautiful and I’ve decided I need some in my life,” she says.
“I found Michelle Shaughnessy online and got in touch with her. Michelle has built this fantastic Highland Cattle network in the west of Ireland and I wanted to source my Highlands from her.”
Ms Walsh says she had never seen Highlands up close before arriving on the trailer from Scotland.
“The first thing that struck me is how big they are. I had seen numerous videos and pictures and did a ton of research before buying, but I was amazed to the very end by how big they really are,” she says.
Ms. Walsh says each of her “girls” has different temperaments and characteristics.
“Lady Alma is very bossy and always likes to be front and center,” she says. “She has to be the first to eat and the first in line for treats.
“Magaidh is the complete opposite and quite a lady,” she says. “They are the perfect combination.”
She says her appetite matches her size.
“You would eat anything!” She says. “Silage and hay are her favourites, but also a slice of bread now and then as a treat. They love crunch (meal) and I’ve recently started feeding them oats.”
Ms Walsh admits her father was a little skeptical when he first saw them, but he’s warmed to them ever since.
“Vincent Walsh wasn’t too happy when they first arrived at the farm, but they’re definitely growing on him now,” she says.
“They’re not a typical breed of cattle, but dad is getting to know them now and even babysitting them for me while I’m in Brussels for work.”
Lady Alma and Magaidh both recently calved a famous Highland bull.
“Prionnsa Dubh 2nd Of Balmoral was bred by Her Royal Majesty and she handpicked him to sire the heifers I now own,” says Mrs Walsh. “She nicknamed him ‘Guinness’. He now lives with a young farmer, Sean Harton, a Highland breeder and organic farmer.”
The calves were born “happy and healthy” at the end of February.
Ms Walsh says there has been a lot of interest in the two Highlands since they joined the farm, with young families stopping by to ask questions and take photos.
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/news/politics/mep-maria-walsh-on-why-she-went-into-politics-and-how-being-a-rose-of-tralee-helped-her-get-elected-41489743.html MEP Maria Walsh on why she went into politics and how a Rose of Tralee helped her get elected