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States stunned by Irish farmer power

Secret government cables reveal US bewildered by reluctance of Ahern administration to rile farm lobby over GMOs and CAP

Published 21/06/2011 | 05:00

United States government officials were puzzled and bemused by the power of the farming lobby, a series of secret cables to America about Ireland have revealed.

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US officials kept a watching brief on agricultural policy, including WTO negotiations, Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reform and the Irish stance on genetically modified organisms (GMO).

Their comments are disclosed in the Ireland Cables, a tranche of more than 1,900 classified documents exclusively obtained by the Irish Independent from the whistleblowing organisation WikiLeaks.

One cable reveals that high-ranking Irish Government officials told the US ambassador that Ireland could not afford to be more flexible in EU discussions on the WTO agricultural negotiations, given domestic political sensitivities with the farm community.

The Irish officials told the ambassador of the "political dangers" if they reneged on EU commitments not to tamper with the CAP before Ireland's 2007 general elections.

Another cable details a meeting between the US ambassador and the then Minister for Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, Micheal Martin, secretary general for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Gallagher, and the secretary general in the Department of the Taoiseach, Dermot McCarthy.

"The officials adopted the uniform line that the Government of Ireland (GOI) had previously promised the farm community that the CAP would not be revisited before 2013," wrote US officials. "The GOI had relied strongly on those promises to sell recent CAP reforms, and any reneging on those commitments would be politically explosive ahead of the 2007 general elections in Ireland."

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The cable continues: "The officials noted that while Ireland's 50,000 agricultural workers and their families were a community in conspicuous economic decline, they formed a political constituency that the Government was reluctant to rile in the run-up to the 2007 vote."

The Irish Government's staunch defence of the CAP in WTO negotiations clearly puzzled the Americans, who described the Irish position as "atypical", since the Irish Government "prefers to stand behind EU consensus on divisive US-EU issues".

The officials added that Ireland's position was also "unusual" in view of the country's longstanding advocacy for developing countries.

Another cable details a meeting between American economic officials and their counterparts in the economic policy office of the Taoiseach's department. Irish officials told their American visitors that they were "preaching to the converted" in highlighting Ireland's potential gains from a Doha deal, particularly in services and manufacturing.

"They acknowledged that the Celtic Tiger period had pushed Ireland well beyond its former status as an agriculture-dominated society and that farm interests now figured less significantly in the overall economy," noted the Americans. However, the Irish officials insisted that farmers were "too important a political constituency to lose before the 2007 elections".

In a summary document, the Americans surmise that public statements in defence of the CAP from the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Agriculture Minister Mary Coughlan "reflect, in part, decades-old reluctance within the governing Fianna Fail party to upset the farm community, the party's traditional base of support".

Bizarrely, the Americans also refer to the Great Famine as a possible reason for Ireland's reluctance to sacrifice agriculture in favour of the services and manufacturing sectors.

"The 19th Century famine continues to make Ireland sensitive to increased dependence on foreign-sourced food," the cable concludes.

It describes the Irish Government reaction when US officials pointed out that a successful Doha round could take 300m people out of poverty in the developing world: "They concede the point, but shrug, citing the political difficulties involved in confronting Irish farmers."

US officials also monitored the Irish attitude towards GMOs, including holding talks with Aidan O'Driscoll, assistant secretary in the Department of Agriculture.

Mr O'Driscoll wondered if the US understood the complexity of the issue for Ireland and other EU member states.

"As far as he is concerned, the question of Ireland's domestic stance on GMOs has been settled: Ireland will allow the import of GMOs, specifically feed, but will not produce them domestically. He said that this is a sensible political solution given that Irish farmers do not produce much grain but are quite reliant on beef exports, which depend heavily on GM feedstocks imported from the US," noted the officials.

In a summary document, the Americans concluded that: "With a Green Party Environment Minister and junior Minister for Food, the Irish Government has gone about as far as it can go (at least publicly) on GMOs."

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