Clinton, Mark (1915–2001), government minister and farmer, was born in Walterstown, Moynalty, near Kells, Co. Meath, on 7 February 1915, the fourth son of Tom Clinton, farmer of 160 acres at Walterstown, and his wife Margaret (née Kearney). His father was elected to Meath County Council for Sinn Féin in 1920 and chaired the council while it operated on the run during 1920–21. An unsuccessful Cumann na nGaedheal candidate in the 1923 dáil elections, he later supported Fianna Fáil.
Mark attended Kells CBS and played Gaelic football, lining out for the Moynalty (1934–7), St Mary's (1937–9) and Kells (1939–40) senior teams, and winning a senior county medal with St Mary's in 1937. He played intermittently for Meath (1937–40), though as a left full-back rather than in his preferred midfield position. Though he was a substitute for most of Meath's 1939 all-Ireland campaign, injuries to teammates enabled him to shine as a starting midfielder in the victory over Cavan in the semi-final and to come off the bench in the final, narrowly lost to Kerry. Also a horseman, he hunted as a young man and subsequently owned showjumping horses.
Descended on both sides from Meath farmers, he studied in the mid 1930s in the Salesian Agricultural College at Warrenstown, Co. Meath, and later at the Albert Agricultural College in Glasnevin, Co. Dublin, obtaining diplomas in agriculture and social science. In the late 1930s he worked for Harry Ferguson (qv) in England on developing the Ford–Ferguson light tractor before becoming Ferguson's sales manager in Ireland until the war curtailed supplies.
Appointed farm manager of the Peamount Hospital, Co. Dublin, in 1943, he rejuvenated the failing 450-acre operation by developing a high-yielding dairy herd of 150 Friesian cows, rearing pigs, and growing potatoes, vegetables and wheat. He also assumed the non-medical aspects of administering Peamount, establishing an industrial unit for providing occupational therapy after the hospital concentrated on treating the intellectually disabled from 1962. He lived in Newcastle, Co. Dublin, and in 1952 married Dorothy Gleeson of Crumlin, Dublin; they had seven children.
From the late 1940s, he was frequently on Irish radio as a farming expert, urging more intensive methods. Throughout his career, he disparaged the subsistence practice of farming cattle both for beef and milk, lauding specialised dairying as best suited to Ireland's soil and climate. His profile attracted political interest, and in 1955 he was co-opted by Fine Gael on to Dublin County Council. (In 1943 he had been on the national executive of Clann na Talmhan, a minor party of small farmers.)
During his eighteen years on the council, he was chairman three times (1957–9 and 1968/9) and put his experience in farming and health administration to use by chairing the Dublin County committee of agriculture (1965–8), the general council of the county committees of agriculture, the Dublin Health Authority and the Eastern Health Board (1972/3). A hard-working representative for a rapidly suburbanising community, he was chairman of the Dublin County Council planning committee (1972–3) and of the Dublin vocational education committee (1970–73), and sat on the boards of management of local hospitals and community schools.
The growing population of his Newcastle base enabled his return for the Dublin County constituency in the 1961 general election. Re-elected for Dublin County (1965), Dublin County North (1969 and 1973) and Dublin County West (1977), he was a stalwart dáil presence during a long spell in opposition and joined the Fine Gael front bench in 1965 as local government spokesman. An influential party power broker, he endorsed the 1964 'just society' document, which advocated redistributionist policies, but the Fine Gael liberals' focus on secularism soon drew him into the clericalist inner circle of party leader Liam Cosgrave.
In 1966 Clinton became spokesman for agriculture and vehemently backed the National Farmers' Association during its 1966–7 protests. When the Fianna Fáil government vengefully introduced a bill in summer 1967 for controlling cattle marts, Clinton staged the dáil's last filibuster before guillotine motions precluded this tactic. Farmers, however, dismissed him as ineffectual, and were unmoved by his idealistic proposals for devolving authority from the Department of Agriculture. Distracted by his Peamount responsibilities, he asked in 1969 to return to the backbenches, but Cosgrave, valuing Clinton's unswerving support, moved him to defence where he failed to impress.
After nearly losing his seat in the 1973 general election that returned the Fine Gael–Labour coalition, he was appointed by Cosgrave as minister for agriculture and fisheries. Ireland's recent entry into the EEC meant that farm support prices and grants were much higher and came out of the EEC budget, transforming the previously adversarial relations between farmers and the Department of Agriculture. Whereas the Irish government acknowledged the benefits of EEC membership by otherwise adopting a communautaire approach, the fact that these benefits were derived overwhelmingly from agriculture enabled Clinton, whose mild manner concealed an indomitable will, to push national farming interests relentlessly. Conversely, his willingness to sacrifice the interests of Ireland's underdeveloped fishing sector for more attainable and immediately beneficial agricultural concessions sparked protests from fishermen. He shed an unwelcome responsibility when Cosgrave appointed a dedicated fisheries minister in December 1976.
In Brussels, Clinton operated alongside the contrastingly subtle foreign minister, Garret FitzGerald (qv), with whom he had political and personal differences, having more in common with rural Labour ministers like James Tully (qv) than with Fine Gael liberals. The cabinet's most conservative member, Clinton opposed proposals to make contraceptives more freely available and arranged to be abroad when the relevant government bill was voted on by the dáil in 1974.
His early confrontations with the EEC Commission made a good impression on the Irish public, which he consolidated by indefatigably addressing and consulting with farmers across Ireland and by throwing extravagant lunches for the agricultural journalists, pledging his department's cooperation in disseminating news. (Despite this punishing schedule and his frequent absences abroad, he also attended assiduously to his constituency.) Such an assured handling of public relations owed much to his friend Paddy O'Keeffe, who controlled the most popular farming publication, the Irish Farmers' Journal.
Initially Clinton needed the media's indulgence, as he struggled to master a complex brief, appearing rattled at EEC summits and under dáil questioning. In 1974 a world recession combined with bad weather to cause a catastrophic cattle glut. So much beef went into intervention that Clinton leased three freezer ships and storage space abroad, but this outlet failed to prevent a collapse in prices for calves and store cattle. Ireland soon accounted for 40 per cent of all EEC intervention beef, maintaining an egregiously disproportionate contribution thereafter.
Clinton's reputation recovered once cattle prices rebounded in 1975, amid a near trebling of farm prices during 1972–8. (While the price supports disproportionately enriched large farmers, dairy farmers especially, smallholders also benefited from grants.) Chairing the agricultural council of ministers during Ireland's EEC presidency (January–June 1975) completed Clinton's maturation into a formidable EEC operator. Adopting finely judged spoiling tactics during negotiations, he knew that it cost little to satisfy Irish demands and that he was expected to be unreasonable, given Ireland's relative poverty and reliance on agriculture. In disregard of the EEC's dairy surpluses, he urged farmers to switch to milk, and successfully resisted proposals to reform the common agricultural policy, driving a production surge designed to strengthen Ireland's negotiating position for the inevitable imposition of milk quotas.
From 1974, he enabled Irish farmers to benefit from sterling's mid-1970s plunge by winning a succession of devaluations in the Irish 'green pound' (a fixed exchange governing agricultural trade between EEC members that deployed taxes and subsidies to offset currency movements). Following his well-timed walkout of an EEC summit meeting in October 1976, a large gap was permitted to develop between the British and Irish rates, which subsidised agricultural exports to the UK (prompting mass smuggling along the Northern Ireland border), but increased domestic food prices and exposed manufacturers of sweets and confectionery to UK imports.
Encountering resistance to these devaluations from an Irish cabinet desperate to control inflation, Clinton prevailed because he and the other members of the EEC council of farm ministers regularly agreed decisions without reference to their national colleagues. He maintained that since Ireland was a food exporter the higher domestic prices were substantially outweighed by the increased value of agricultural exports. Aggrieved industrial workers demanded that the newly prosperous farmers be taxed properly, which Clinton accepted in principle while ensuring that only 10 per cent of farmers paid taxes in practice.
The economic crisis besetting Ireland politically necessitated Clinton's indiscriminate pursuit of agricultural subsidies. But the rise in agricultural output was unimpressive, as the EEC windfall perpetuated the rudimentary farming that predominated in Ireland by providing income support for unviable smallholders and a guaranteed outlet for a handful of low-price beef and dairy commodities. It also overwhelmed his department's capabilities and dissipated the will to enforce reforms, dooming his attempts to encourage centralised marketing and land leasing.
Guilty of taking an unnecessarily bloody-minded line towards departmental labour relations, Clinton experienced tensions with his technical staff – who regarded him as beholden to his senior civil servants – that permitted the succeeding Fianna Fáil government partially to reverse his reform of the chaotically structured farm advisory services. Similarly, his attempted employment of lay technicians for cattle testing led to a bitter dispute throughout 1975–6 with the Irish Veterinary Union. He publicised the vets' avaricious abuse of the department's accordingly ineffective programmes for eradicating bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, but the farmers' unhelpfulness meant that he extracted only temporary and trivial concessions.
Acclaimed by farmers, Clinton was perceived as the government's trump card in the 1977 general election. Instead, his disregard for consumer sentiment lost votes in urban areas while wealthy farmers feared that Labour's influence would compel a re-elected coalition to tax them heavily. The lush dairy farmlands of north Munster and mid Leinster swung against Fine Gael, as the coalition suffered a landslide defeat. A shocked Clinton accused the farming organisations of double-dealing, having received assurances that they would tolerate the coalition's tax policies.
Following Cosgrave's ensuing resignation, Clinton ruled himself out for the party leadership, declined the proffered deputy leadership and withdrew to the backbenches, resuming as manager at Peamount for another two years. He believed Fine Gael would be long in opposition and passively opposed the party's embrace of social liberalism under FitzGerald's leadership. His status as the party's conservative standard-bearer was highlighted at the 1978 Fine Gael ard fheis where rural members ignored the feminist speakers and mobbed him. In 1979 he was elected to the European parliament for the Leinster constituency, his personal popularity amongst farmers yielding an impressive vote. Topping the poll again in the 1984 European election, he gave little assistance in either campaign to his liberal running mates.
Leaving the dáil in 1981, he concentrated on the European parliament, where he had an impressive attendance and voting record, speaking frequently and on issues unrelated to Ireland. An influential member of the parliament's agricultural committee from 1979, becoming its vice-chairman in 1984, he was also leader of Fine Gael in the European parliament from 1984 and was appointed one of the parliament's fourteen vice-presidents in 1987. He strongly backed the unsuccessful bid of his protégé (and future taoiseach) John Bruton for the Fine Gael leadership in 1987.
After leaving politics in 1989, Clinton died in the Lucan Lodge Nursing Home, Co. Dublin, on 23 December 2001, and was buried in Rathcoole, Co. Dublin. Presiding over a momentous period in Irish agriculture, Clinton lacked neither vision nor courage, but an inflexible mind-set and an embarrassment of subsidies meant he accomplished more for farmers than for farming and failed to justify his contemporaneously glowing reputation.