18 September 2003 Edition
Changing times in agriculture
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
What's this I hear about Gerry Adams going to the ploughing championships next week? Didn't know he was a ploughman as well as everything else. Does he think he is going to win that as well?
Next week is the great farmers' gathering at the annual ploughing championships, to be held this year in Kinnegad, County Meath. For the first time ever, Sinn Féin is to have a stand there, a point of contact for farmers who come to the championships from all over the country to an event that is a shop window for Irish agriculture.
Why? Because, as Gerry McHugh, Sinn Féin agricultural spokesperson, says, the party has in recent years, made quite a considerable impact in farming circles because of its unique position on the massive changes occurring in farming across Ireland.
These changes are occurring in the context of the review of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy), which the EU has been obliged to undertake to meet new conditions of the expanding membership of the EU. Gerry also points to the World Trade Organisation negotiations and the obligation of rich countries to make concessions to developing countries. In particular, he says there must be an end the scandal of the EU subsidising agricultural exports to the world's poorest economies, which need to trade their way out of impoverishment, and can't be brought to economic sustainability through aid.
These are the issues on which Sinn Féin has consulted quite widely with farmers across the country, evolving a position that goes beyond the commonly understood demands of farmers, which governments have so often condemned as a greedy undeserving, increasingly irrelevant and declining sector of the economy.
Progressive on CAP reform
Sinn Féin has made an impact on the farming sector in recent years above all because of its strongly held position that Ireland as a whole has great potential to develop the agricultural sector, but that these opportunities cannot be exploited with Ireland partitioned. Two separate governments, with quite opposite agricultural agendas, negotiating what needs to be a single all-Ireland position in the EU, doesn't make sense and has plainly not worked.
The interests of agriculture and farmers in the Six Counties can never run parallel with those of the London administration.
There is also an urgent need for the Dublin government to adopt policies that address the demise of small farmers across the whole country, and ensure an environment and market opportunities for all farmers, large and small.
The current EU strategy of decoupling support payments to farmers away from quantities produced, and the greater discretion in the CAP to national governments in how to employ these funds to develop agriculture, present real opportunities for the rejuvenation of agriculture within the Irish economy as a whole.
These positions have been strongly pressed in Brussels by recent Sinn Féin delegations, including Martin Ferris and Gerry McHugh, when they spoke to the EU Commission last spring. At home, the Sinn Fein spokespeople have called loudly on respective ministers to consult with the farming community, and to listen to what they have to day, not just to follow the interests of the few very largest farmers in the country and dismiss the views of the rest.
They have pressed the need to implement policies to promote all-Ireland agricultural development, to develop niche markets, value added production, exploiting Ireland's image of 'clean green' agriculture. Through an all-Ireland Area of Miniserial cooperation, established under the Good Friday Agreement, the party worked to implement the urgently needed all-Ireland animal health policy. Disease doesn't recognise any borders.
Sinn Fein has urged Minister Joe Walsh to take a strong clear position in Europe, but also in Ireland, to resist GM foods and oppose waste incineration, both of which positions are a key to the future development of farming and the expansion of our agricultural exports within the EU.
As Gerry McHugh said recently: "Ireland as a food producer and a food exporting country, is facing huge change at present through CAP reforms. If Ireland is to have a future agriculture and food industry, it is vital to take into account the needs of the rural community."
But equally important to the whole current debate on the potential of agriculture in Ireland has been the WTO negotiations. The breakdown of the talks last week has potential importance for all of Ireland's agricultural and trading policies and opportunities.
It may well be that the breakdown is an indication of things to came - that the collective strength of the third world countries, impoverished over the centuries by colonialism, the rape of resources, and the decimation of opportunities to trade to mutual advantage, is about to exercise its growing power.
Ireland needs to bilaterally negotiate trading exchange with third world countries to mutual advantage. Such trading partnerships would enable Ireland to move beyond the inequalities imposed by global markets, dominated as they are by the rich countries of the world and the largest corporations.
Sinn Féin has spoken out strongly, calling on the Dublin government to take a progressive position on trading relations.