Farmers with low single farm payments (SFP) are being asked to sacrifice themselves in order to protect farmers with big payments, under Minister Coveney's CAP reform proposals, Fianna Fáil deputy Éamon Ó Cuív has claimed.
Speaking at a meeting in Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim on Thursday night, the Fianna Fáil spokesperson on agriculture said asking low income farmers to back Minister Coveney's CAP reform proposals instead of supporting the approach taken by EU Agriculture Commissioner Dacian Ciolos was akin to asking them to approve a policy that took money out of their pockets. The commission's CAP reform proposals would see €297m of Ireland's €1.3bn SFP allocation redistributed from farmers with the highest entitlements to those with the lowest. It would also guarantee farmers a flat rate payment of around €260/ha.
The farm organisations and Minister Coveney have steadfastly opposed such a move, claiming that it would have a devastating impact on farm incomes and overall production from the sector.
A counter proposal from Minister Coveney would result in the redistribution of €79m in SFP payments. However, this approach was criticised at the Carrick-on-Shannon meeting as being too conservative and not addressing the needs of low income farmers.
"In asking farmers to support his position rather than that of Commissioner Ciolos, the minister is asking guys with low payments to sacrifice themselves to support farmers with big payments," deputy Ó Cuív said.
The sharp variation in SFP entitlements was further highlighted by Department of Agriculture figures for 2011 that show a serious east/west divide in payments.
Five western counties had the lowest per hectare entitlements and the lowest average payments to farmers. In contrast, the highest payments per farmer and per hectare were in the southeast of the country.
Those counties with the lowest payments per hectare were Leitrim, Mayo, Sligo, Donegal and Galway. Those with the highest were Kilkenny, Carlow, Laois, Wexford and Meath.
Deputy Ó Cuív said the disparity in payments highlighted the need for more discussion and consultation on CAP reform before any major decisions were made at Government level.
"The conversation [on CAP reform] is not over, it is only beginning," he said. "The people are entitled to the facts and they are entitled to them in an understandable way.
"They must have an opportunity to discuss them thoroughly. Then and
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only then can our national policy on CAP be decided," he said.
The Fianna Fáil spokesman maintained that other alternatives were possible outside of the approaches taken by Commissioner Ciolos and Minister Coveney.
He suggested that capping farmers' SFP entitlements at €50,000 and at €500/ha would create a fund of around €70m.
He said this money, along with the €79m identified by Minister Coveney, would create a pot of around €140m -- allowing for overlap -- that could be used to make the SFP more equitable.
Deputy Ó Cuív claimed this money, if front-loaded on to the first 20ha of each SFP application, would give a €30/ha boost.
While deputy Ó Cuív conceded that his approach would have its detractors, he insisted that the debate on Ireland's position with regard to CAP reform was not completed.
He also warned that farmers should not be unfairly penalised for living in an area of poor land and he called on the minister to take this into consideration in the CAP negotiations.
"I am totally opposed to the idea that there would be land abandonment in marginal land areas due to the low return from the land," he said.
"This would lead to an ecological disaster in some of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the country."
This view was supported by Ireland West MEP Marian Harkin who told an IFA meeting in Carndonagh, Co Donegal, last week that farmers existed at all levels of production.
"Farmers have to produce on marginal land as well as good land and they have to produce in favourable as well as very unfavourable climatic conditions, so the argument [on the SFP] is much more nuanced than is often presented," Ms Harkin said.
"The EU parliament has a proposal whereby no farmer would be entitled to earn more than 30pc above or below the average.
"My own view is that this could be extended to 40pc, with proportionate increases for those close to the average," the Independent MEP said.
Ms Harkin called for a much wider debate on the future SFP, which she described as the "only game in town" due to the lack of a definitive budget for Pillar 2 of the CAP.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein's agriculture spokesperson Martin Ferris has reiterated his party's support for Commissioner Ciolos's flat rate proposal.
"Having met many farmers around the country over recent months and having looked at the proposal, I support a move towards a flat rate system.
"That would be a far fairer system and mean gains for a majority of farmers," Mr Ferris said.
"I do not believe that the current Government proposal goes far enough and my party will be proposing our own timetable for reform of the SFP, including a cap on payments above €100,000."