Farmers threaten to torpedo treaty over trade deal fears
More than 10,000 farmers took to the streets of Dublin yesterday over EU proposals they fear will destroy the beef and dairy industry and bring rural Ireland to its knees.
The protest coincided with the visit of European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso who told the National Forum on Europe that it would be in the interest of Irish farmers to have a quick resolution at the upcoming World Trade Organisation (WTO) talks in Switzerland.
Padraig Walshe, president of the Irish Farmers Association, said the decision to be made by EU Commissioner Peter Mandelson at the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in Geneva in May will have a huge bearing on the way farmers vote on the Lisbon Treaty.
He told the rally outside Leinster House that since the turn of the year Mr Mandelson had completely undermined the position of the Irish farmer and warned: "Sell us out and we will have our say on the 12th of June."
In a simple message of warning to the Government, Mr Walshe said to great applause: "Don't come back from Geneva having sold us out. Thousands of workers in the food industry will lose their jobs, hundreds of businesses will have to close down. Don't expect us to do your bidding in the referendum."
He attacked previous EU trade directives affecting agriculture, saying assurances given about the sugar beet industry before the Nice Treaty has seen that industry shut down.
In a clear indication of the effect the trade talks are having on rural Ireland, Mr Walshe made a simple observation: "We are all here today to defend our own interests, because if you shut down Irish farming -- you shut down rural Ireland. Our battle is your battle, we have had our battles with the meat factories in the past, but today we are on the one side."
Agriculture, industry and businesses closed down yesterday in a show of support for the farmers' protest, the largest in a decade. Major co-operatives, all 50 FBD insurance offices and 1,000 businesses, including livestock marts, closed their doors for the duration of the protest.
To a roar of approval, Jackie Cahill, president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA), warned: "Tougher men than Commissioner Mandelson have learned to their cost it is a mistake to underestimate Irish farmers and the population of rural Ireland."
Mr Barroso avoided the rally -- which moved from Leinster House to Dublin Castle -- by a matter of minutes. He was whisked into the castle grounds at speed to face questions from political parties and lobby groups at the National Forum on Europe, while the rally made its way up Dame Street.
In the forum, Mr Barroso heard questions concerning the WTO talks from both Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuiness and IFA representative Seamus O'Brien, both looking for reassurance on behalf of Irish farmers that the trade agreement will not be destructive to the Irish industry.
Mr Barroso was at pains to point out that the issues of concern to the farmers were outside the remit of the Lisbon Treaty, but he was happy to deal with the questions.
He said he was "very attentive to the concerns of the farmers in Ireland".
He made the point that negotiations on the Doha agreement and the WTO were ongoing and that the EU was intent on staying within the 2003 mandate.
He stated that the new deal would not affect the high-end of the agricultural market, which is where Ireland is placed.
Mr Barroso also said that, in the main, tariffs would hit only half of the low-end market.
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