- 05 Feb 20
Saoirse McHugh talks about the recent farmers’ protests, explains why feminism doesn’t just mean more female CEOs and talks with remarkable candour about her struggles with an eating disorder.
Saoirse McHugh is a political star-in-the-making. So much so that the tall, 30-year-old Achill-islander – running as Green Party candidate for Mayo in the upcoming general election – has renewed my hope for community resilience in Ireland. The challenge is this: how can we forge through ecological breakdown into a post fossil-fuels world? The answer is: we need people like Saoirse McHugh involved in shaping our path…
McHugh is deeply impressive. Having graduated from University College Dublin with a degree in genetics, she went on to take a Masters in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in Lancaster University. She’s worked in a variety of jobs, both in Ireland and abroad, including planting trees, growing food, and restoring soil: all invaluable, practical experience. McHugh’s time with the Irish Seed Savers in Co Clare gave her a direct insight into the fragility of our eco-system. She’s involved with Food Sovereignty Ireland – look them up! – and is on the committee of the Organic Growers of Ireland.
In the spring of 2019, McHugh ran as Green Party MEP candidate for Midlands-North-West in the European Parliamentary elections. She announced herself nationally as a powerful voice for social as well as environmental justice, when she faced down anti-immigrant remarks made by fellow MEP candidate, Peter Casey, during a Prime Time TV debate. “Millionaires scapegoating migrants is an old trope, and it’s boring,” retorted McHugh, when Casey tried to interrupt her criticism of Direct Provision. Talking to McHugh, it’s very clear that her democratic socialism is as important as her environmentalism.
McHugh had been planning to come to Dublin for our interview. In a grim example of extreme climate events, however, Storm Brendan intervened, bringing the sea rolling right up against the Achill house that she rents with her partner, and fellow Achill-islander, Colm Cafferkey. Colm, McHugh, and her brother, Edan (both act as McHugh’s advisors), had to flee the scene, having come close to being swept away by a freakishly huge wave which engulfed them while they were standing outside. The house wasn’t flooded, but huge rocks and vast amounts of plastic rubbish were strewn around their garden. Hot Press photographer Miguel Ruiz and I travelled west instead, meeting in Castlebar on a crisp winter’s morning.
When the freak wave hit, McHugh was on slightly higher ground than her partner and her brother. Watching them cling to each other, as the wave dragged around them, McHugh told me that she was debating which one to save first – but then found herself clinging to a fence to save herself as the wave hit her. Edan joked with me that it was typical of Saoirse to be worried about saving two men who are bigger than she is.
Let’s hope Mayo gets the message: Saoirse McHugh is just the kind of warrior we need.
How did you become an environmentalist?
I think it’s empathy. It started with animals – I’ve always felt really attached to them. I suppose environmentalism is the next step.
Did growing up an Achill islander shape your outlook?
When I lived in Houston, Texas, what I couldn’t get over was anything big around you, was man-made. The biggest things in the landscape were man-made. I remember thinking that it’s so jarring to imagine what must’ve been there before a building. That still always occurs to me in cities. You’re on all this tarmac or concrete, and it once was a lovely hill, or a beautiful river valley. Imagine how lovely the Liffey river alley must’ve been.
Recently beef farmers have been getting national attention with their vehicle protests in Dublin. What’s your take?
I understand where those farmers are coming from. I think they’ve been fed a lie. They’ve been told to expand and increase production and export. That’s just going to drive down the cost – of course it is. And I don’t think the answer lies in more of the same. The farmers need to be supported, so they’re not just forced off their land – that’ll be vital, so we don’t just have land consolidation going on – they also need to be offered a way to make a living that’s not export-based.
What do the Green Party propose?
We’ll say right, we’ll support you over the next five years, as you transition to growing food for your local community. And it means that they can supply local villages, so they can decrease production enough so that nature can find its way back onto the farms, and they can be paid for biodiversity: for results. There’s no point in ripping down a hedge so you can get paid to plant a hedge, if there’s already a hedge there.
But the fundamental question remains: what is the future of beef farming?
What I’d say to the farmers is that things are going to have to be different. And if they resist change, the likelihood is that it’ll be decided for them. Where we are now with our agriculture is a result of policy; it’s not just an accident. And that policy is developed to work for large dairy farmers, and as a result, a very few large beef farmers are thriving. But it’s done at the expense of the smaller farmers. It has to be recognised that there’s no solidarity between Larry Goodman or whoever, and someone who has 20 suckler cows in Mayo. They don’t want the same thing. The small suckler farmer in Mayo shouldn’t be fighting for Larry Goodman, because he won’t be fighting for them. Or fighting for the beef industry in general.
So what does the small farmer do?
They need to say: what we can do that you can’t, is offer biodiversity. We can diversify and provide food for communities. We can sequester carbon. We can provide higher animal welfare standards. And we want those to be recognised. As opposed to fighting for more of the same.
Some farmers believe that it is all about getting a better price.
If you look at all the cattle industry adverts, you don’t see the factory-owned feedlots. You don’t see that 10,000 head feedlot in Meath, where there’re huge numbers of cattle in small areas. What you see in the adverts is some 60-year-old farmer and his grandson up in some grassy field with a cow, birds and butterflies. That image sells; but that’s not what’s on the ground any more. So alongside wanting a better price, I feel that farmers will have to change direction.
But are they in a position to effect change?
It’s hard because they’re so panicked at the moment. They have families, they have debt. The immediacy of the crisis makes it very difficult. If that’s your focus, you can’t think, well, ‘What about five years, what about 10 years?’ I totally understand that. I suppose my pessimistic side would be no, there is no sign of the transition I’ve described coming, because the lobby groups in Europe are too strong. The new EU Green Deal seems to be limited to tokenistic gestures. It refuses to go anywhere near what the real problem is: which of course is excessive consumption, excessive waste, and excessive profit.
Do you think the Green Party can afford to be honest about its own policies?
Yes. The problem is getting through the misconception of what Green policies are. You often hear, ‘the Greens don’t like rural Ireland’. But if you look at the party’s policies on agriculture, transport and rural development, they’re far more pro-rural than what we’ve had for the past 50 years. A man at a door last night was saying to me that the Greens have stopped people back-burning in Australia, and that’s why the fires have raged. And I said, well, first of all no, they haven’t, that’s a total lie; second, it’s a different party; and third, the Greens aren’t even in power over there. Someone else told me that the Greens won’t let anybody dredge, and that’s why we’re being flooded. And it’s just not true. So I don’t think the reality of Green Party policies is the issue; the problem is getting the reality of Green Party policies across to the public.
Why do those misconceptions exist?
I was listening to the radio a few days ago. A rural Independent, a Fianna Fáiler and a Fine Gaeler were being interviewed. They were talking about the farmers’ protest, and they spent most the time talking about the Greens, and how the Greens are ruining it. I was thinking, hang on! Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have been in government, but you’d swear that the Greens have ruled with an iron fist! It doesn’t make sense. We have three TDs. And they get a lot of blame for such a small party. I suppose it’s flattering really.
Is there a difficulty that Greens are seen as holier-than-thou types, talking down to people?
I think so, but once again that’s more of a media caricature. The Greens have been strong about saying that this isn’t about buying a glass lunchbox or re-using a water bottle! Although of course that’s important too. The party’s been consistent on the need for systematic change, as opposed to individual responsibility alone. But when it’s translated through the media, they say: ‘Oh, so you want us all doing everything on our bicycles’. Once again: I don’t know where that comes from. I often wonder is it a largescale form of what happens sometimes when I tell people that I don’t eat meat. I won’t say anything else, but some people will instantly feel like you’ve scolded them, even though you’ve said nothing.
I wonder is it a psychological process: we feel annoyed at the Greens, because on some level many of us feel bad about what humanity is doing to nature. We project this guilt outwards.
That’s an interesting theory. For me, the Greens are well aware of that tendency for them to be portrayed as finger-wagging. And so the party is really strong in stating that individual guilt is not going to save the planet.
Is it your view that unless the current economic model is completely overhauled, we’re all basically fucked?
Yes, that would be about right.
Is it hard for you to come out as a socialist, given that some so-called environmentalists maintain that a less rapacious form of capitalistic economic growth is sustainable?
It’s not hard. I don’t know if it will win me any fans. But if you can get past the decades of Hollywood anti-socialist propoganda then everyone likes socialist ideas. OK fine – don’t call it socialism. But let’s talk about community-owned energy, let’s talk about devolved government, where people have more direct power.
We should talk about community-supported agriculture, libraries, social housing, social healthcare. Everyone likes socialist ideas, but everyone also likes to think that they’re hard-nosed capitalists on their way to the top. So, I’ve had a few discussions where people say I have a ‘Marxist agenda’. But when you get down to it, not many people think that just because you’re rich, you should be able to enclose commons, extract profit, enslave people, damage the environment, poison the water, so you can get more profit.
What about the importance of what people call ‘wealth-creation’?
Millionaires or billionaires don’t create their wealth. Years of state-led research and development do; natural resources do; people working for them do; if someone is a billionaire, they didn’t earn it. Or if they did, in some weird way to do with intellectual property rights, then how fair is that? Wealthy individuals don’t just come out of nowhere. They had state education, maybe. All their workers have state healthcare. Or use state infrastructure. Most people are intuitively socialist, but they might not know it.
Is it difficult for you to take a radical socialist stance within the Green party?
No. A lot of people in the Green Party agree with me.
You attempted to get the Green Party to adopt an anti-capitalist motion last year.
Yes. I can’t remember the exact wording now, but it was that the Green Party openly identify as an anti-capitalist party, and we basically reject any policies that increase the power of the market over our lives. It wasn’t a policy motion; it was a statement motion.
What was the response?
When we were talking about it I think it would have passed, but the way it works is people put in amendments. Then they vote on the amendment – so the amendment passed before the actual motion was voted on. So it went through as anti-neoliberalism, not anti-capitalism. We could, of course, have seriously regulated capitalism, but I still don’t think that should be the end-goal.
What should be the end goal?
Oh, some beautiful eco-socialist utopia!
One that doesn’t use money?
Yeah, that would be cool! There’s always examples of these things. For example, Cloughjordan Eco-Village in Co Tipperary. That would be great, if you could scale it up. There’s things in our lives that are outside capitalist structure – like libraries. It’s about expanding, bit by bit, the public services that aren’t in the realm of for-profit.
Would you call yourself an anarchist?
I’d be afraid to. I know a lot of anarchists believe that any participation in electoral democracy is counterproductive. I suppose I’d skirt around it, and say I really like the idea of anarchy and I’d like to get there; but I am participating in electoral democracy at the moment.
What do you mean by anarchism?
I mean a society whereby power is fully dispersed and devolved out. So everyone is totally free to work if they want, to be involved in certain social relations if they want, so that we’re not tied into any hierarchies. For example, landlord-tenant relationships, or people having to work 40 hours a week. It would be a community where decision-making was done with everyone being equal.
Are you a feminist?
Obviously. But so much of the conversation of feminism in politics is misplaced. It’s often this kind of idea: there are 2,100 billionaires in the world, and if 50 of them were women, everything would be fine. The ‘more women CEOs’ brand of feminism. Which is fine. But in politics especially, you get women running on this, ‘I’m a woman’ platform, and they just support really bad policies. They support the status quo.
You’re saying: ‘They’re not feminists’.
There’s women who run on this ‘I’m a woman therefore I’m a feminist’ kind of idea. But I don’t think you can be a feminist if you support capitalism. I just don’t see how it works. The burden of capitalism globally – while it’s definitely fallen on everyone – women bear a huge proportion of it. And I don’t think you can be a feminist if you are OK to let people drown in the Mediterranean. I don’t think you’re a feminist if you’re ok to let companies hide taxes in Ireland, or to avoid paying tax in countries that need medical infrastructure and storm defences and investment in agriculture. I don’t think you can be a feminist in you are anti-Traveller. A lot of people think that by being a woman and entering into politics, it’s inherent that you’re a feminist. I’m like, no, you’re just ambitious.
What do you say to people who say, ‘Well, women are entitled to the same opportunities as men’?
Of course they are, but that’s simplifying feminism down to this idea: ‘I’m a woman, now I want this’. What we really need to do is to work together – as people with disabilities, as people of colour, as trans people, as everyone – to fight against that patriarchal system of power, as opposed to trying to get ourselves into it. I’m careful all the time around race, around feminism, because of course we live in a white supremacist society, which means that I must have blind-spots. I was at a Merj – that’s Migrants and Ethnic-minorities for Reproductive Justice – workshop and they really opened my eyes. I was like ‘Yay, we repealed the 8th, everything’s fine now’. But it’s not. Reproductive justice is different to access to abortion. Because the rate at which migrants or women of colour are denied access to reproductive healthcare or die in childbirth is way higher than white Irish women. It’s really important for us as feminists, that not only do we not pull up the ladder behind us, but that we don’t even go up the ladder unless we all go up the ladder.
If you were Taoiseach tomorrow, what measures would you introduce to immediately tackle the climate crisis?
I would pass Brid Smith’s Climate Emergency Bill for no new fossil fuels exploration or drilling. It’s a ‘keep it in the ground’ bill. And I would immediately invest in public transport. And I’d start talking to farmers and ask: how can we pay you for biodiversity, how can we support you to produce food to be consumed in Ireland, how can we transform our agriculture? I do think something like that would have to be super regional specific. Obviously if I was Taoiseach tomorrow, I’d give it all a bit more thought!
How important is it to regulate polluting industries?
It is of paramount importance. That whole plastic debate: instead of getting people worried about recycling, or getting people to leave plastic in supermarkets, we should just legislate against excessive plastic packaging. I mean, it’s in living memory where everything wasn’t coated in plastic. It’s definitely doable. But it will take legislation. We can recycle all we like, but it’s still being produced. Now obviously, it’s more difficult with carbon emissions. You start to address this by providing alternatives. Then there’s the question: how do you make Irish companies pay? How do you stop them passing carbon tax down to the consumer?
Which businesses would you or the Green Party target in Ireland?
We’re gonna have to target our tech companies. We’re planning to have a load more data centres built – huge buildings with rakes of processing units. If the ones that are planned are built, our electricity usage will go up enormously. How do we reconcile that with having to reduce emissions massively over the next few years? Airlines don’t pay at all currently; they’re carbon-tax equivalent exempt. They are massive polluters, and they’ll have to be legislated on too.
Is the mainstream media complicit in failing to support change?
Definitely. Globally. It’s not just in how they don’t spell out what’s happening with carbon emissions and with climate breakdown – it’s not just that they don’t spell out clearly how bad this might get. But also in the way it’s poo-pooed if you talk about the 1 per cent, or the very richest people in the world. Somehow all of a sudden you’re made to look like a conspiracy theorist. When you talk about the very richest, a minute number of people, I find it hard to imagine the amount of wealth we’re talking about. And so I think it can be difficult to communicate as well.
Obviously they have a huge amount of money to spend on gaslighting the rest of us…
Yeah, the ‘if we all pull together’ line. ‘Let’s all use keep cups’. Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, donated $690,000 towards fighting the Australian bush fires. I heard a journalist say that’s what he makes in either three seconds or three minutes. So, we’re not all in this together. A huge number of disdadvantaged people are bearing the brunt of climate breakdown, who had little or nothing to do with creating it. Once again – I’m all about keep cup, but in terms of meaningful action, we have to look at where all the money is going. What enormous companies, what individuals, have made billions off contributing to climate breakdown?
The hope for the Greens in the upcoming election would be to hold the balance of power. Who’d be your No.1 choice to partner with?
Any coalition would depend entirely on the programme for government. So whatever parties would bring forward the most progressive, equitable, socially and environmentally just programme for government – I would like to go into coalition with them. I’d like to go into coalition with parties on the left. Obviously that would be looking like quite a rainbow coalition, because there’s so many. And we’ll need people from across the left to have the numbers for a coalition. So it would be the Greens, Sinn Féin, Labour, People Before Profit, etc.
As regards coalition with Sinn Féin, are you concerned by the blood that certain members of the party might have on their hands?
The way I see it, Fine Gael came out of actual fascism. And at some stage we have to recognise that the North was an occupied state, with an occupying army. There was a struggle for freedom, and it was a continuation of the struggle that had been going on in the Republic for years. I’m not saying oh, that’s fine. But the big parties were forged through armed struggle and violence. It’s mad that we just draw an arbitrary line and pretend that what happened before 1940 was fine, because the truth is that six counties were still occupied. I don’t want people to jump down my throat, saying Saoirse supports murder! But a lot of the people who bring that up about Sinn Féin are also in parties that were founded in armed struggle and bloodshed.
In relation to water chargers: was it telling that populist street protests forced the Green Party to abandon what had been a crucially important principle, which was that the user pays?
I think that’s fairly standard with a lot of politicians – that they follow public opinion. They’ll put forward something and if the public doesn’t protest, it goes through. I wasn’t involved with the Green Party when water charges were being introduced. I wasn’t even in the country, so I’d be hesitant to make too sweeping a statement on that. It definitely indicates that the Green Party misjudged public opinion.
Does the Green Party now admit that it supports the principle of water charges?
I’m not sure, to be honest; I’ve never checked official party policy on that. I know what I feel about it. My brother Edan says he thinks the Green Party manifesto will say that the Green Party is against the privatisation of water.
What are your views on the Greens in Austria, going into coalition with a far-right anti-immigration party?
To be honest, I think the European Greens should tell the Austrian Greens to leave the Greens. It’s not about just getting carbon emisisons down. Green politics has to be about so much more. So I think the Austrian Greens have made a horrible, horrible decision.
What do you think about the allegations that the treatment of the Shell-to-Sea activists by the Green Party was cynical?
I was young at the time, but I do think that what happened there was just an awful situation in general. We can’t have any more fossil fuel infrastructure. We can’t allow Ireland to continue a tradition of letting fossil fuel companies walk over local communities. What happened with Shell in Mayo should never have been allowed, and it certainly shouldn’t be allowed any more.
Has the Green Party reflected on how badly they handled Shell-to-Sea?
To be honest, I don’t know, because I only joined the Green Party last year. A lot of the people who I’d be close to in the Greens are in their 20s. So many people have joined the Greens in the last year.
You’re very open about having had an eating disorder during your teens and early 20s. Do you find that tough?
Yeah, I do find it hard, but I also feel, why hide it? I’ve a list of reasons why: because it’s super uncomfortable; because I was never open with some people about it, and now I’m talking in the media about it; but it is important. Especially with eating, because it’s such an invisible but constant thing. You can’t go cold turkey on food. When I think about the amount of time I spent looking at myself, pinching my belly, going over and over in my head how many calories did I eat that day? It worsened gradually. I was definitely weird around food by age 12. Hiding stuff, and binging on it when it was hidden. And it got worse and worse, until I was 23 or 24, when I told Mum and Dad.
Did it get so bad that you stopped having your period?
Yeah. It’s not like I was skinny all the time – I went up and down in weight. Because I’d have times when I’d binge an awful lot, and then any sort of purging, be it making myself sick – which is not what I’m supposed to say in this article! – or obsessive exercising, or fasting then for two days, and only eating low-fat yoghurt. I had a few bad times where I’d be on a really bad run, I couldn’t get any sort of stable eating going, and I’d wake up in the morning and I wouldn’t be able to move my legs or arms, they’d be tingling, because of potassium deficiency or something. And that was really scary. I had big heart palpitations. Eventually a friend rang me from the States and said if I didn’t tell my mum, she was going to tell my uncle, who she knew over there.
How did you get out of it?
I’d been to four or five of doctors before telling my parents. I’d be like right, I have to get over this, I need help. And the doctors ranged from absolutely terrible, to just a bit helpless. I was depressed as well. I remember ringing – I can’t remember the name of the organisation – and saying, I need help. They specialised in eating disorders. And they didn’t have space, they were shutting down. I sat in a café crying on the phone to this man who was crying on the phone to me. He said, ‘We just don’t have any money, we can’t take you’. And I was crying, ‘But I need help, please!’
We had to go private. Without my parents I wouldn’t have been able to afford to get the therapy. In fact, they probably couldn’t afford it either, but I’m so glad they helped. In terms of eating disorders, the difference between private and public healthcare is enormous. I’d have a doctor say to me, ‘Well, you look fine. I’ve to wash my hands every time I touch an animal, so we all have our little things’. And I told him, I don’t sleep, because I’m up weighing and measuring and pulling and checking. There were several doctors like that. I’d never been in any sort of private healthcare before and I was shocked at the difference. I’m not here promoting private healthcare. It shouldn’t be that way.
What would you say to young people going through what you went through?
It’s so hard, because the services aren’t there. For about three years, I tried to get help. I’d work myself up, go to a doctor, go to a counsellor, and then be so disheartened that it would take me another eight months to try again. So to people going through that, I’d say: find someone and spit it out – someone that will fight for you and help you through it. It’s awful and you’re so alone, because it’s a secret. It thrives on that secrecy. I genuinely think that secrecy is fundamental to it having a hold over you. Breaking that hold is really important.
Do you feel you’re bringing anything forward from that difficult experience?
I did CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) for ages. That has really helped me to be able to recognise and name my feelings. Whereas before, all negative feelings for me were, I’m fat. I feel fat. And they kept on saying, fat is not a feeling. So I did learn to name my feelings.
Will that skill of self-reflection, of being conscious of your real motives, be of benefit in the political arena?
I do know what I believe in, and also what I won’t accept or let slide. I trust myself to be honest about what’s right or wrong. Of course every politician on the planet says, ‘I will be an honest voice of integrity….’ So you can’t say any of those things without sounding naff. But it does make it easier, because so much of this whole politics thing is really uncomfortable, honest belief really does help. I wouldn’t be able to do it if I didn’t believe in it – and if I didn’t know that I believe in it.
• Saoirse McHugh is the Green Party candidate for Mayo in the 2020 General Election. It takes place on Saturday, February 8.