Darragh McCullough: The farming lobby may be overestimating their influence as a hard Brexit looms

Darragh McCullough eats, sleeps and lives farming. Photo: David Conachy
Darragh McCullough eats, sleeps and lives farming. Photo: David Conachy
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Picture: REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Darragh McCullough

Which way is up or down on Brexit? The more you look into it, the harder it is to figure out.

Up to recently, I was of the opinion that there was no point in trying to crystal-ball-gaze on the subject on the basis that it was all going to be sorted out at five to midnight in a smoky backroom somewhere between Westminster and Brussels. I suspect that most farmers will be taking the same approach.

But it's hard to ignore the subject as the political ante ratchets up all the time, and the news bulletins are dominated by the latest statement or fallout.

The EU leaders' summit this week is sure to provide more grist to the Brexit mill. This follows hot on the heels of President Juncker's visit to Dublin last week.

While he gave a nice little nod to the concerns of the farming community, there was one line in his speech that spoke volumes to me.

In reference to Ireland's success in attracting some of the biggest companies in the world, his script read "but with profits comes the duty to pay taxes. And the amounts going untaxed are both unsustainable and unacceptable".

It was a pointed reference to Ireland's cosy relationship with the likes of Apple and Google, and significant given that it was crow-barred into a speech on Brexit.

It is the potential of all these wider issues to become chips on the table when a deal is done that makes Brexit predictions so obtuse.

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But there are some facts that won't change between now and then.

Of the €95bn of exports that left these shores in 2016, only 8pc of them were food related.

That's a pretty astounding number when you consider all the guff about us being the food island.

The reality is that we export more tapes, cassettes and CDs than the total amount of beef that we sell to the UK.

Some 20 years ago the picture was very different. Back then, food and agriculture exports accounted for a quarter of Irish exports.

It's not that the agricultural sector has shrunk in the meantime.

On the contrary, it has increased the value of exports by nearly 50pc. But that growth is dwarfed by the growth in everything else - over 550pc since 1996. Growth in chemical and plastic exports has been such that it now accounts for two thirds of the total.

Rather bizarrely, blood exports, described as "human and animal blood prepared for therapeutic, prophylactic or diagnostic uses" accounts for more than all our agricultural exports combined.

I only mention these figures to give a sense of perspective on the importance of agricultural exports relative to the rest of the economy.

In addition, while close to half of our agricultural exports are reliant on the UK market, Ireland's overall dependence on Britain has dropped from 24pc of our total exports to 11pc in 2016.

Irish exports to China alone have increased more than a hundred-fold in the same period.

That's what economists are referring to when they talk about the transformative effect of international free-trade over the last 25 years.

Medical devices

But against these stark figures is another reality - only 6.5pc of our total exports is derived from indigenous goods. So while we might be pumping out world-beating volumes of Viagra and medical devices, very little of this economic activity is Irish owned, or utilising Irish raw materials.

In fact, agriculture accounts for the vast majority of our indigenous exports of goods.

So when Leo and Simon have the Brexit guns pointed at their heads at a minute to midnight on March 28 next year, these will be some of the thoughts running through their head.

Of course, turkeys don't vote for Christmas, and they will also be hyper aware of the disproportionate political strength of the farming lobby. Outwardly, at least, they will be fighting for the best deal to protect Irish agriculture.

But even on that front, all is not as straight-forward as you might think.

The line up to now has very clearly been that Brexit is all bad for Irish agriculture, and the only question now is how bad it will actually be. This narrative is firmly driven by the dairy and beef lobbyists who, rightly, point to the massive reliance that both sectors have on British sales.

But spare a thought for some of the other sectors that might actually welcome a hard Brexit. A 16pc levy on UK imports that have been undermining Irish prices in recent decades could have a transformative effect on the beleaguered tillage and horticultural sectors.

Potato imports

For example, an astounding 120,000 tonnes of chips are imported into Ireland annually - most of which come from the UK.

Our potato imports don't stop there.

The production of seed potatoes has virtually ceased in Ireland, with the annual 25,000 tonne requirement almost all imported from Britain.

And as any spud or vegetable farmer will tell you, when there is any scarcity of product in the Irish market, supermarket buyers immediately turn up the dial on UK imports. This effectively keeps a lid on the earnings in the sector, and has contributed to the shrinkage in the overall fresh produce sector here.

The same applies in the grain sector. So a hard Brexit could be good for some farmers, and colour politicians' views when it comes down to brass tacks.

And yes, I am a horticultural and grain grower. But I also have a (small) stake in a dairy farm. So no, I'm not campaigning for a hard Brexit, even if it does look more likely with every passing week.

Darragh McCullough runs a mixed farm in Meath and presents RTE's Ear to the Ground TV programme.

Indo Farming


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