independent

Monday 21 April 2014

O Cuiv's disappointing stance on CAP penalises hardest workers

Eamon O Cuiv, Fianna Fail's spokesman on agriculture, has many admirable qualities. I first encountered him way back in the 1970s as manager of Cornamona Co-op in Connemara.

This strapping youth, full of energy and ideals, had abandoned leafy south Dublin to live and work in the sticks.

Cornamona Co-op had started out as a small feedlot to add value to the local hill lambs. Under O Cuiv, it expanded into manufacturing fencing materials and supplying inputs for local farmers.

This person of conviction promoted local activity for the benefit of the local community.

Against this background, I'm surprised and disappointed in O Cuiv's stance on the latest CAP and Single Farmer Payment (SFP) reforms. Instead of supporting the linkage of the SFP to production, he has leaned towards the EU proposal for flat-rate area-based payments.

This policy is bad for Ireland. It is particularly negative towards the country's hardest working and progressive farmers.

In EU countries that have already introduced flat-rate area payments, such as Germany and Britain, the national cattle herds are shrinking fast. Is that what we want to see happening in Ireland too?

Illogical it may seem, but since decoupling in 2005, Irish cattle and sheep farmers have continued to subsidise production with their SFP.

And if ever there was an argument for linking SFP and farm activity, surely it came with the weather-related problems of 2012. The SFP cushioned the farmers against the extra weather-related costs and losses which were so widespread during last summer and autumn.

Even in the record good year of 2011 the Teagasc Farm Survey showed the average drystock farmer losing about €2,500 from actual farming. The SFP lifted this into a family farm income of just under €11,000 per farm.

Any Irish hope of shifting EU Farm Commissioner Dacian Ciolos off his proposed flat-rate area-based payment will be undermined by divisions within Ireland.

At this stage, the commissioner must be delighted at the split between Fianna Fail and the IFA. They have probably damaged each other in Ireland's overall lobbying effort.

Mind you, while the IFA want the new payment associated to production, linking payments for the next decade to what happened on farms in 2000 to 2002 is hardly credible at this stage.

The response of the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, and his department's to the Ciolos proposal has been minimalist.

The "External Convergence Model" circulated by the Irish Department of Agriculture, and for which Minister Coveney sought support from other EU States, envisaged some redistribution of cash from high SFP recipients to those on lower payments.

Under Coveney's proposals, farmers on €500-600/ha today would lose 13.6pc of their SFP payment, valued at €3,332 per average farm in that category.

Those on €50-100/ha would gain €2,078 per farm or about 72pc per hectare on current payment per average farm in that category.

To my mind, this model is a lazy effort by the department to address the SFP issues. It does not tackle the anomalies and inequities from the existing scheme.

Why should farmers who stacked entitlements continue to receive the stacked payment over a decade on?

Do former sugar beet growers (of which I am one) still merit compensation?

Should large feedlots, including factory feedlots, continue to benefit from the accident of having collected slaughter premiums, as well as 10 and 22-month premiums from 2000 to 2002?

Equally, should the specialist heifer producers and suckler farmers who sold their weanlings with the 10-month premium intact from 2000 to 2002 continue to be penalised forever?

At the very least we would have expected the minister and his department to protect the Irish suckler herd by grasping Ciolos' proposal, which would allow 10pc of the national envelope be directed towards a payment on suckler cows and ewes.

But no, the workshy Department of Agriculture rejects the administration that this would entail.

This is despite its comprehensive records and database and modern computer capacity.

Last week, Ireland assumed the EU Presidency at a critical time for both our country and the wider EU. Before any SFP reform is reached, the EU budget for the next seven years has to be agreed.

This and other issues will take up a lot of civil service and ministerial time but surely Ireland's Presidency is an opportunity to tweak the CAP reforms towards the issue of food security for the Union.

Even at this late stage is it a vain hope that we could get a national consensus on a SFP regime that is more equitable and that works best for Ireland and Ireland's economy?

Can we secure a regime that would promote activity and employment in rural Ireland?

Just like Eamon O Cuiv did when he took over the small co-op in Connemara all those years ago.

Stop politicking Eamon and go back to your earlier passion.

This administration needs more thoughtful and constructive criticism than you are delivering in opposition.

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