8 May 2003 Edition

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SF All-Ireland farming delegation visits Brussels

For the first time ever, a delegation representing the interests of all Irish farmers and people living in rural areas went to Brussels this week to discuss with the EU Commission on Agriculture future arrangements under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) review and how these will affect people in Ireland.

The discussions are taking place at a time of crisis in agriculture across the 32 Counties, where smaller farmers are failing to derive a living income from their enterprise and risk leaving the farming sector altogether. And now, severe cuts in the CAP support are promised.

The cuts are coming through the need to renegotiate the CAP to take account of sizeable agricultural-based economies in Eastern Europe joining the EU, and the strong demand on the EU by the World Trade Organisation to reduce the level of EU subsidisation of exports to developing countries, which allow EU member states to undercut third world markets and local producers.

32 County approach



Whatever the final result of these negotiations, the new proposals are intended to sever the level of subsidies from production levels ('decoupling' in EU-speak) and to tie income support to environmental improvement, animal health and 'future market needs' (proposals known as 'modulation').

Irish farmers have most specific and particular interests that need to be taken account of in these negotiations. In particular, there is an urgent need to ensure that governments gain sufficient flexibility in regulating these new arrangements to the benefit of rural communities and our important agricultural sector. This would help ensure that EU income support benefits smaller farmers and is not just a further tranche of monies paid to the richest 10% of farmers, and that money diverted through modulation genuinely is used to extend production to meet future markets.

This is the project that both Dublin and London have to date entirely failed to address, coming as they have done from a partitionist approach. To date, farmers in the Six Counties have been represented in CAP negotiations by the Westminster government. London's interests differ entirely from the interests of Six-County farmers. The very survival of small farmers is at stake, and there is a need to focus on the development of economic opportunities for small farmers and rural areas that have suffered extreme neglect under London rule.

Now, for the first time, farmers' common interests across the whole of Ireland are being represented.

Subsidiarity



Prior to this visit to Brussels, Martin Ferris TD, Assembly member Gerry McHugh and Armagh councillor Pat O'Rawe, engaged in widespread consultation with farmers and with people living in rural communities about their concerns, the extent of disadvantage, especially in border regions and in the west of Ireland, and the potential for agricultural development over the next decade.

The EU is committed to 'subsidiarity', which means the greatest possible decentralisation in policy making, taking decision- and policy-making back to where it belongs - in the communities affected by the decisions.

It is a policy entirely at variance with both London and Dublin agricultural departments, which have accrued obsolete and expensive bureaucracies in the administration and implementation of EU support measures.

Just how can farming communities take greater control, and wrest decision making out of the hands of these top-heavy departments, where administrative costs of the departments already represent over €4,000 per farm?

Representing the issues



One of the first meetings the delegation will have is with an EU official, Jean Francois Hulot, on rural development. It is an opportunity to raise at EU level the issue that a Sinn Féin delegation took to London Minister Ian Pearson when they met two weeks ago.

The failure, through bureaucratic mismanagement, to take up and spend the Peace II money, or LEADER monies, upon which disadvantaged communities so depend, are a scandal.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), under Pearson and before him, Bríd Rogers, failed to spend the substantial funds allocated. Two years ago, rural communities in the Six Counties were allocated £80 million of EU and government money. Now, DARD is set to have £15 million slashed from its Peace II budget.

As Gerry McHugh pointed out to Minister Pearson, the last figures available (September 2002) for spend under the Building Sustainable Prosperity programme show that out of £69 million, DARD has only managed to spend £7.78 million - a shortfall of over £60 million.

"Withholding this money," Gerry McHugh says, "is a way of ensuring the further decline of farming and rural families. At a time when investment is critically needed, DARD have shown themselves incapable of assisting or uninterested in the plight of rural families."

Where will this money go? Back to London? The delegation will be putting a strong case in Brussels that it must be spent, as it was intended, in the Six Counties and will argue that the deadline on Peace II be extended beyond December 2003.

CAP Reform


The delegation will also meet with Corrado Pirzio-Biroli, Chef du Cabinet for the Agricultural Commissioner, Franz Fishler, and with M Haniotis, who has direct responsibility for CAP reform negotiations.

They will be asking what provision can be made under the new CAP reforms to take account of the estimated 150,000 farmers who currently are not considered viable, to provide them with alternative and adequate incomes in association with agricultural development?

These key questions need to be addressed on a 32-county basis.

The republican representatives will be keen to stress the need to prevent the new regulations working to subsidise only the very highest income farms and farmers, to the neglect of smaller farmers and new entrants to the industry, upon which the other 80% of people living in rural communities rely.

They will ask how farmers in dairying, who have only average milk quotas of 40,000 gallons, are going to survive with milk price cuts projected at 90c a gallon.

On the Dublin government's planned implementation of the CAP proposals, we would see over half of the 27,000 dairy farmers in the state out of dairying altogether over the coming few years. And furthermore, an increase of 30% in land designated voluntary set-aside, in a world where so many do not have enough food.

What flexibility can an all-Ireland negotiating team secure to ensure that Ireland with its high comparative advantage in agricultural production does not collaborate in policies to starve the world on high returns to the biggest farmers?

The delegation will also be talking with EU officials about the delays in developing an all-Ireland animal health policy, which Brid Rodgers promised to implement back in December 2002, and where neither Agricultural departments have delivered, which is severely hindering disease eradication across the island.

They will also be taking up the issue of the tagging of Irish cattle from the Six Counties as British animals, which works to the disadvantage to Irish producers who cannot then market their produce as Irish produce, with all the advantages that accrue to Irish agricultural products as 'clean and green'.

Fishing


The delegation is also meeting with an official from the Directorate General of Fisheries, where they will be stressing the urgent need for renegotiation of the Common Fisheries Policy, where quotas agreed for Ireland have never reflected fairly the rights of Irish fishermen to fish their own national waters. Irish waters represent some 27% of EU waters, yet our quotas have restricted us to a bare 4%.

The delegation also intends to raise the whole issue of the Irish Box, seeking rights to fish consistent with conservation measures that Irish fishermen have tried to hard to institute.

As Martin Ferris points out: "This delegation is an important first step on the road to represent the common interests of all farmers and fishing people across Ireland, so that the real issues cease to be distorted at EU level by two governments that have shown very little concern for the crises facing these sectors in Ireland, and even less interest in the potential of these sectors for indigenous economic development and growth in the context of Ireland as a whole."

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