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Sunday 11 December 2016

Sheep scheme will test the depth of our 'new politics'

Downing on politics...

Published 08/06/2016 | 02:30

Competitors taking part in The All Ireland and All Nations Sheep Shearing and Wool Handling Championships, which took place over the weekend at Tullynally Castle and Gardens, Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. Photo: James Flynn/APX
Competitors taking part in The All Ireland and All Nations Sheep Shearing and Wool Handling Championships, which took place over the weekend at Tullynally Castle and Gardens, Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. Photo: James Flynn/APX

Even city slickers accept that it's a tough time for farmers with prices down in most key sectors and a lot of uncertainty in world markets.

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There may, however, be some good news in view for sheep farmers.

But it depends on how this "new politics" actually works out in practice.

So far, our "new politics" often looks just like the "old politics."

Now here's a big test for it in the shape of the €25m grant aid scheme which would work out at an average payment of €10 per ewe for each of the country's 2.4 million ewes.

Time is of the essence here as a draft scheme must be completed, agreed and sent to Brussels by June 30, to get EU Commission clearance.

So, there are just 23 days left to get broad sectoral consensus and, crucially, cross-party backing.

After June 30, the challenge will be to get the return package from the offices of Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan. Assuming that goes well, it will then have to be included in the Budget package in mid-October, and finally payments can be made early next year.

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That all puts the spotlight very much on the opposition, especially Fianna Fáil's agriculture spokesman, Charlie McConalogue, and his Sinn Féin counterpart, Martin Kenny, of Leitrim.

They are expected to meet with Agriculture Minister Michael Creed in the coming days and their response will be crucial.

The aid package was one of the schemes to emerge from "A Programme for a Partnership Government."

In fact, while that programme is rather like the curate's egg, good in parts, its section on agriculture is one of the better elements as it does offer some practical help to Irish farming.

The push for a sheep farmer grant scheme first saw the light of day at a Teagasc "sheep day" in Athenry exactly a year ago.

The IFA's first approaches to then-Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney, on the issue were met with a deal of scepticism at best.

Mr Coveney reasonably wanted to know where the money would come from to fund the €20 per ewe payment which was at that stage being sought by the IFA. The then-Minister argued that some other sector or projects would have to lose out if the sheep farmers were to gain.

But, in what was otherwise a year of considerable internal tumult for IFA, they kept plugging the case, clearly sensing movement was possible in an election year.

It may have been no coincidence that the IFA's sheep committee is chaired by Mayoman, John Lynskey, capable of getting the ear of another well-placed Mayoman.

The chaotic and slow bicycle-race period around the negotiations for this curious hybrid government were of course crucial.

Independent Roscommon-Galway TD and future Minister, Denis Naughten, was both sympathetic and helpful to the effort.

It helped that the Rural Development Programme (RDP) was identified as a likely source of funding with unspent money building up in the allocation worth some €450m per year. Brussels allows one change to the RDP each year and details must be filed by June 30 - hence this very tight first deadline.

Naturally, Brussels requires evidence that the allocation will lead to some improvement in the sheep sector and/or things like animal welfare and the environment.

That is at the heart of current negotiations with items like progress on electronic tagging, breeding improvements and better sheep health remedies up for discussion.

All sides are sounding optimistic on these issues. But time, now in very short supply, will tell us all very soon.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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