A team of EU auditors are due in Ireland next month to investigate over-claims within the single farm payment (SFP) and Disadvantaged Area Scheme (DAS), Agriculture Minister, Simon Coveney, told the ICSA annual conference in Dublin last Thursday night.
Minister Coveney warned farmers that unless they addressed the issue the country could face EU fines in excess of €100m. He said the Department had put a deadline of this Easter on clearing up the over-claiming issue once and for all.
The Department's updated aerial mapping system has revealed that 72pc of Irish farmers are compliant with the SFP land parcel rules, while a further 18pc are under the 3pc error threshold where no penalties apply but where refunds must be made.
The minister claimed that around 400 farmers were over-claiming on their eligible area for the SFP and DAS by more than 20pc.
"What is becoming very evident from the new maps – and the maps are crystal clear – is that ineligible funds are being drawn down," Minister Coveney said.
"Ignoring this issue is not an option. We can't tell the EU to get lost. And the people who will be looking at these maps are not fools," he pointed out.
"I have no choice. If we don't change this situation the EU will," he warned.
The Minister was replying to concerns raised by the incoming ICSA president, Michael Kent, who said Mr Coveney faced a storm of protest – not least in his native Cork – over the SFP land eligibility review.
"Farmers, especially in upland areas, on land near watercourses, and on marginal land had seen severe reductions in their single farm payment because the area over-claimed was in excess of 3pc," Kent said.
"The mapping satellites are picking up rocky parts of fields or some furze growth or trees that are commonplace in marginal areas. We have also seen big old oak trees being red-lined and in some cases the red line takes in the shadows being cast by the tree," Mr Kent claimed.
He pointed to an apparent contradiction of many farmers now being penalised on land which was designated as excellent habitat under the old REPS scheme.
Kent said that the ICSA, during his two-year term as president, would not tolerate the idea of imposing five-year retrospective penalties on farmers.
Thursday night's annual meeting saw Mr Kent (Wexford) succeed outgoing ICSA president, Gabriel Gilmartin (Sligo) and re-elected Malcolm Thompson (Donegal) as treasurer. James Reynolds (Longford) was elected honorary secretary.
Delegates pressed the Minister on the need for ICSA representation on public agricultural and agri-business boards, similar to the representation enjoyed by other farm representative bodies.
Minister Coveney said he would review this situation but could not make any "promises".