20 December 2007 Edition
INTERVIEW : Michelle Gildernew, Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development
Looking forward in farming and fisheries
MICHELLE GILDERNEW is the minister in charge of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), which also has responsibility for fisheries.
Can you give us a quick overview of where we are with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development?
Issues such as funding for the Farm Nutrient Management Scheme needed to be resolved quickly.
I was also determined to see early progress on the Rural Development Programme (RDP) that puts some £500 million directly into our rural communities. Key long-term priorities include a Rural White Paper and progress on an all-Ireland approach to animal health.
Bureaucracy and increased input costs remain crucial issues for farmers. There’s also the December Fisheries Council as well as the implications of the Red Meat Task Force Report.
What steps have you taken to tackle red tape?
There has been progress. We have assigned more staff to livestock cross-compliance inspection and combined up to 12 separate inspections into a single inspection.
In November, I also launched the ‘Better Regulation and Simplification Review’, along with Environment Minister Arlene Foster to improve the way the two departments regulate the agri-food sector.
Is there a way to support local producers more directly?
I have encouraged the use of local produce in the public sector. Initiatives such as the joint Hospital Caterers’ Association and RAFAEL project are a great example of how government can promote the use of local food in our health service.
There are ongoing discussions between Education Minister Caitríona Ruane, the Health Minister and myself to build on this approach.
The Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak in England caused huge concern. Do you feel the response helped the local industry?
Even before we had official confirmation of the outbreak in England I took the decision to close our ports to all produce from England. The steps we took mirrored those in the South with the express purpose of ensuring that we avoided any restrictions imposed by the European Union on Britain.
My main focus was protecting our trading status. I had to get the EU to recognise the unique position of the North and to emphasise to them that, for disease control purposes, we are a separate epidemiological unit from Britain.
The decision of the US Government to lift the restrictions on Six-County exports entering America was also a major boost that followed lobbying from both Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and myself.
What can the Rural Development Programme (RDP) achieve?
At the heart of the £500 million RDP is a determination to empower people living in our rural communities.
It covers 14 separate measures aimed at raising the competitiveness of the agricultural and forestry sector, improving the environment and the countryside, and contributing towards the quality of life in rural areas and diversification of the rural economy.
There are huge financial pressures on the Budget. How have you managed to prioritise the money in the department to protect our rural communities?
Everyone agrees that there is not enough money in the draft Budget. Within DARD the key is to prioritise and to look for imaginative solutions.
One of the early decisions I took was to sell off land at Crossnacreevy to generate £90 million to put the Farm Nutrient Management Scheme back on track. It was a difficult decision and I was criticised by the farm unions but it was the right decision.
We need to look at how we increase and develop our fiscal and financial independence. The economic and financial future of this part of Ireland will not be resolved within the Six-County context.
Under the Executive’s draft budget proposals, the DARD budget will increase by 2.5 per cent a year with extra gross capital allocations of £99.5 million, £41.2 million and £42.1 million over three years. I made a strong case to the Executive that we needed to make a firm commitment to the future of rural communities and the Executive has delivered.
The Programme for Government also commits us to a number of new actions, including bringing forward proposals for the Rural White Paper by the end of 2008 and a new £10 million package to combat rural social exclusion and poverty.
You have also focused on equality, women and childcare. Why are these issues important?
I made it clear that I want to see local people and local councils have a greater role in rural development. Two measures within the RDP – worth over £100 million – will be delivered using the ‘bottom up’ Leader methodology.
The new RDP will provide significant investment in rural areas to make them better places for everyone to live and work in.
The provision of accessible, affordable childcare facilities is something that would not only make a major impact on women but on the economic, social and well being of all families with young children. In June I began taking a fresh look at the question by founding a Rural Childcare Stakeholders’ Group.
The Ulster Farmers’ Union criticised your decision to retain the Agricultural Wages Board.
I have a good relationship with the UFU and all of the farming organisations.
Retention of the Agricultural Wages Board protects the rights of agricultural workers not represented by the UFU. It is not in the interests of the agricultural industry to allow it to become, as suggested by the Amalgamated Transport and General Workers’ Union, the ‘sweatshop’ for agricultural workers on these islands.
I am not prepared to sacrifice the rights of low-paid workers or the protection of migrants because of the lobbying of employers or because of the partisan position of some Assembly members.
What about the future of the fishing industry?
The December Fisheries Council is of vital importance to the fishing industries throughout the island as it sets out the fishing opportunities available to the fleet for 2008.
I’ve met with Mary Coughlan, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Fisheries about how we might support one another in Brussels.
Both our fishing fleets have a common interest in many of the Irish Sea fishing opportunities, particularly the proposals on haddock in both the Irish Sea and the Celtic Sea. We also discussed the need to resist the 25 per cent proposed cut on the Irish Sea cod quota.
Agriculture is an area of all-Ireland co-operation. Have you moved this forward?
I have developed working relationships not just with Mary Coughlan but also with Éamon Ó Cuív, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (DCRGA).
All-Ireland co-operation in rural development is vital to ensure the sustainability of all our rural communities. Our border areas have historically suffered from social, cultural and economic disadvantage and have been on the periphery when it has come to government investment decisions.
There have been many positive examples of working together, in particular through the current INTERREG and LEADER programmes. This cross border co-operation has supported the creation of new industries and jobs and reinvigorated our border areas. There is much more we can work on together.
Looking ahead what are the issues in the New Year?
This year saw the publication of the Red Meat Task Force Report. It was the culmination of several months of hard work and will help us to develop a five-year to ten-year strategy for the beef and sheep meat industry.
The commitment is to work to help those farmers who choose to stay in the sector and those who wish to change direction and take up other opportunities.
We all need to move forward in a genuine partnership approach to secure the future sustainability of our red meat sector and wider rural communities.