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Tuesday 16 October 2018

Ann Fitzgerald: Political system is letting farmers down as TDs look after their own

Minister Michael Creed. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Minister Michael Creed. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

What is the main job of a politician? To look after those in need? No. World peace? No, that's in beauty pageants. In the real world, a politician's priority - except for one-term positions - is to ensure their re-election.

Thus we saw very contrasting stances by two government ministers at different meetings last week.

A large crowd turned out to hear Agriculture Minister Michael Creed at the IFA's monthly county executive meeting in Portlaoise. Several suckler farmers expressed their fears about the collapse of the sector, but the minister maintained his long-held stance that existing supports are adequate.

"The €200 support payment (for suckler cows) is undeliverable; it would be dishonest of me to say that it was," he said. "I think the demise of the sector is a little exaggerated."

On my husband's return from Portlaoise, he said he had never seen morale as low in beef.

Meanwhile, Minister of Communications Denis Naughten was at another very well attended IFA meeting in Ballinasloe, in the heart of in his own constituency.

Viability

He said that "sucklers are the key to viability of rural Ireland" and "we need to ensure the sector's viability and long-term sustainability".

Maybe we need to look at the politics of the two Ministers to understand their differing views.

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Minister Creed's county, Cork, is home to 370,000 dairy cows, more than twice as many as second-placed Tipperary, and well over one-quarter of the country's total of 1.4m.

Within 20 years, though, suckler cow numbers in Ireland have dropped 30pc, from a peak of 1.248m (1998) to 864,000 (end of 2017), and that trend looks set to continue. The rate of drop has accelerated since milk quotas ended.

Cork has less than 63,000 suckler cows - just 7pc of the total, and less than a fifth its dairy cow population.

Minister Creed represents Cork North-West, which stretches from Charleville, down through the dairy heartlands of Newmarket and Kanturk, on through his hometown of Macroom and on to Crookstown and Crossbarry.

I couldn't come up with a breakdown of farmers by type for Cork. No doubt there are more suckler farmers, but dairying is seen as fashionable and suckling not - within agriculture, and outside.

As was said when Donegal native Mary Coughlan was agriculture minister, "if sugar beet was grown in Donegal, we'd still have a beet industry". No votes were lost in Donegal when sugar beet production ended.

One thing a reduced suckler sector would achieve would be to provide more scope for the continued expansion of the dairy herd, from a national carbon emissions viewpoint.

But if the suckler sector is being allowed to collapse, then I, as a suckler farmer, want the government to have to come out and say so.

However, this scenario also highlights one of the major failings of our political system: that decisions taken are seemingly dependent on whomever happens to be in the hot seat at the time.

Where important issues with long-term implications are involved, the least that should happen is that any actions - or inactions - would be discussed with all concerned interests.

Meanwhile, while the IFA held a protest last week about the lack of support for the beef sector, hours afterwards the IFA leadership was sitting down with Minister Creed to discuss its budget submission.

The Minister even tweeted a photo of the event.

Politics really is a funny old game.

Indo Farming

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