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Sunday 4 December 2016

Minister: New €25m sheep aid scheme will be an early test  for the new Dáil

Michael Creed is ambitious to make his mark in a ministerial role at a difficult time - coming after nearly three decades in politics

Published 18/05/2016 | 02:30

Minister Michael Creed concedes that he faces a challenging time ahead with farm prices taking a hit in recent months. Photo: Tom Burke.
Minister Michael Creed concedes that he faces a challenging time ahead with farm prices taking a hit in recent months. Photo: Tom Burke.
Michael Creed is presented with his seal of office from President Michael D Higgins and Enda Kenny. Photo: Kyran O’Brien.

Michael Creed will celebrate his 53rd birthday next month. But he has been in politics since he was coopted to Cork County Council in 1987 and was first elected a TD in 1989.

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A mixture of Fine Gael’s failures to win elections, and his decision to join the failed rebel heave against Enda Kenny in June 2010, delayed ministerial office until now. But his knowledge of farming and commitment to Irish farmers’ welfare are beyond question.

Prior to 2010, he was the main opposition spokesman and his 2009 draft Food Bill aimed to stamp out supermarkets requiring suppliers to pay them “hello money” to get their products into prime shelf space.

Speaking to the Farming Independent this week he conceded that he comes to the job at a difficult time with incomes down in most key sectors, a period of uncertainty in a “post milk quota world” and a host of external pressures on the entire farm and food sector.

“Objectively, we know from a host of indicators that there is economic recovery. But I also appreciate that many farmers believe that it has yet to come to their farm gate. It is our job to address that and spread the benefits of recovery all across the country,” he says frankly.

Today, just 10 days after learning of his appointment, he is in Brussels for his first EU Council of Agriculture Ministers. As part of his preparation he had a lengthy discussion with EU Agriculture Commissioner, Phil Hogan, last Thursday in Dublin.

The minister’s immediate concern is an attempt to have the tariffs on fertilisers lifted. It is estimated that this could save dairy and beef farmers up to €16 per tonne.

“That would be a welcome ease to their cost base. I’ll know better after that meeting and I’m especially keen to discuss this with the French Minister for Agriculture,” he says.

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The minister insists that there are a host of other things which can be done to support farm incomes. But he is brutally frank about the prospects for this hybrid minority coalition Government lasting any length of time.

“I honestly don’t know how long this Government can last. Everything depends on how all the parties and Independents behave. If they are reasonable and work with the Government, as I want to do with them, then we will have a chance,” he argues.

He says that he contacted Sinn Féin TD for Sligo-Leitrim, Martin Kenny, after he was appointed that party’s agriculture spokesman last week and sought a meeting. He believes the €25m aid scheme for sheep farmers, expected to be worth €10 per ewe per year, will be a big early test.

This national scheme, listed in the new government programme, will have to be drafted and then cleared by Brussels. The minister points out that time is short if they are to get everything in place for payments in 2017. The big fear is that the other parties could try to unpick things after the scheme gets EU clearance and cause further delays and complications.

It will in essence be a test of whether “new politics” really has come to Dáil Éireann, he argues. “The scheme is not a blank cheque — we will be looking for something back from the sector in improved standards,” he insists.

The EU talks on a major trade deal with the US, the so-called TTIP, continue and Irish farmers’ interests remain focused on ensuring the same stringent standards apply to US farm produce as they do EU farmers.

“I want to say that I am pro-trade. But trade must work in the national interest. We could get a TTIP dividend on beef sales — but any beef coming the other way has to be up to EU standards,” he sums up.

For the moment the trade talks with the Mercosur group of South American states are mercifully stalled.

He agrees that would have been a very bad deal for Irish beef producers and also concedes, that while the battle is won for now, this issue will return.

Apart from the impact on farmers, the new minister becomes positively incensed when talking about the prospect of beef being transported all the way from South America to Europe at a time when there is huge emphasis on cutting carbon footprint.

“Imagine all the implications for carbon emissions in the case of beef shipped or even flown in from South America.

“This is at a time when we struggle to establish the reality that we in Ireland, with our grass-based production, have the lowest carbon footprint.

He is equally adamant that whatever concessions the USA might squeeze out of any EU-US trade deal — there can be no yielding on the principle of a ban on hormone beef.

Like many within the EU, he is concerned that the TTIP talks are not more open.

While the EU stance is publicly stated the US tries to maintain secrecy.

“It is most unfortunate as secrecy breeds fear and misinformation,” he sums up.

The new Government programme pledges support for efforts to re-open sugar beet processing after the expiry of the EU sugar regime in 2017.

With the old Mallow factory abutting his own constituency, the small farmers of  his own Cork North West derived welcome extra income from the “beet campaign” each winter.

But the new minister strikes a note of caution.

 “A  lot of mistakes were made in the way the sugar industry was shut down. But the State is not going to re-open the sugar factories.

“We will do all we can to facilitate people who do want to revive the sector,” he stresses.

For now, he will not be revisiting his 2009 draft legislation on supermarket sharp practices in dealing with farmers and food producers.

Legislation was implemented by the previous government and he wants to see how that will work and also await EU initiatives on the problem.

Neither does he envisage linking farm safety to EU payments.

“The issue of deaths on farms sends shivers down my spine. We’ll continue to work on safety — but I prefer the carrot and bringing people with you.”

“At this time of year, with silage-making, there are extra hazards especially involving young children.

“It’s always a potential heart-break.

“Absolutely everybody wants to improve farm safety. But farmers too often work in isolation and either do not know or forget to take the risks on board,” he says.

“We have 6pc of the workforce involved in agriculture. But the death toll on farms is many multiples of this.

“One death is too many — but compared with some years ago — this year is somewhat better.

“We continue to issue safety advisory leaflets and we include farm safety in our discussion groups which involve our 25,000 younger farmers,” he adds.

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