Opinion: Pressure mounts on Fine Gael to put some rural gloss on Budget

Downing on politics

Minister for finance Paschal Donohoe (Brian Lawless/PA)
Minister for finance Paschal Donohoe (Brian Lawless/PA)
John Downing

John Downing

Even city slicker cynics will acknowledge that 2018 has been a pretty vicious year for Irish farming.

A softer end of September may have taken some of the edge off the two fodder crises farmers have endured this year, but it has not obviated the danger that a hard winter could create an unprecedented third shortage inside 12 months.

As Budget day looms just seven days away, some Fine Gael stalwarts fear that their auld enemy, Fianna Fáil, may get some traction out of claims that this Government, if not exactly 'anti-rural', is largely indifferent to the plight of farm families and country people generally.

The closure of 160 post offices, announced in August, has done some damage.

But it is also clear that, bar the odd detail of a reprieve here or there, the post office closures strategy is a fait accompli.

Many people will agree that much the same thing may well have happened on Fianna Fáil's watch.

But other irritants, such as a feeling of bullying by meat factories, the very slow progress on rolling out low-interest farm loans, and a serious query over the future of the suckler cow sector, will play to that Fianna Fáil tale of rural neglect.

Agriculture Minister Michael Creed may have some limited control over some of these matters, and precious little over others.

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He is, however, the man with whom the buck stops.

And at Leinster House there is a sense that there needs to be a rural gloss on next Tuesday's Budget.

That need will be pointed up tomorrow as the IFA escalate their conflict with Minister Creed. Their protests will intensify pressure for real action.

The IFA's demands for a €200 suckler cow premium would appear to be beyond the Government's means in an era of health spending over-runs and demands to ease the tax burden on low- and middle-income earners.

By one calculation such a payment would cost €180m. Hopes that some of this funding might be found in a rural development fund underspend have proved wide of the mark.

Something might be done via the beef genome scheme, or ANC payments, which got an extra €25m last year. But that might take time and involve farmers in additional bureaucracy through extra EU demands.

The delays on implementing the low-interest schemes, announced all of 12 months ago, do leave Mr Creed explaining. That is somewhere few politicians like to be. He has argued that the latest scheme is more complex than a previous one and requires cooperation from the banks in designing specific financial packages.

But it is clear that Paschal Donohoe will have to speak to this issue of delays come Tuesday next.

There is more optimism that progress can be made on giving farmers more tax flexibility to save funds in profitable years which could be accessed in tougher years.

Both the IFA and ICMSA have put forward a farm management deposits model aimed at easing income volatility.

In his budget speech last October Mr Donohoe ordered officials from his department and the Agriculture Department to assess progress on implementation of the Agri-Taxation Review and potential taxation measures to assist income stabilisation.

The question here is whether we are looking at more studies or real action. One senses that something concrete is required to assuage inflamed tempers.

Numerically, Irish agriculture may be in retreat. But seasoned country politicians are well aware that farming, agribusiness and rural Ireland generally still pack a hefty political punch.

The trick remains to convince those cynical city slickers about all of this.

Indo Farming

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