The introduction of collective management agreements for commonages was being driven by Irish officials and not by the EU, a monster meeting of hill farmers was told last week.
The meeting was attended by more than 1,000 farmers in Connemara to hear that senior EU Commission officials had told an Irish delegation that there was "considerable flexibility" within member states on the eligibility criteria for environmental schemes.
Speakers also rubbished the notion that collective management agreements for hill and commonage lands were required in order to comply with regulations for environmental schemes funded through the EU's Rural Development Programme (RDP).
There was thunderous applause at the meeting at Peacock's Hotel, Maam Cross, when Brendan Joyce of the Hill Farmers for Action group insisted that the interpretation of EU rules governing the RDP supported the stance taken by hill farmers.
Hill farmers in Connemara, and along the west and south coast, have opposed moves by the Department of Agriculture that would require farmers to enter collective management agreements for commonage lands in order to qualify for GLAS.
A delegation of hill farmers recently met with senior EU officials in Brussels led by EU director of rural development, Josephine Hockman. The meeting was facilitated by independent MEP Marian Harkin.
Ms Harkin pointed out that during the meeting the EU officials confirmed that:
• There is a considerable measure of flexibility within member states on the operation of the Rural Development Programme;
• Arrangements for collective contacts are left up to member states to include. In other words, it is an option rather than a requirement;
• That member states should not set a rural or other requirement that discourages farmers from participation in an environmental scheme.
"The minister has the flexibility to sort this out in such a way as to ensure that individual farmers can access the GLAS scheme.
"We are in the final days to get this sorted out and the European Commission have made it clear that the ball is in our court in this country and it is up to the Minister for Agriculture to find a solution," Ms Harkin told the meeting.
The farmers, who had assembled from as far afield as Dingle, to the Comeragh Mountains in Waterford and Inishowen, endorsed a clear message of determination "to take whatever action is necessary" politically over the coming weeks to secure the right for individual applications to be accepted under the GLAS scheme in the hill areas of the country.
Brendan Joyce said that the voice of the meeting was clear. "We as farmers here in Connemara - and the western seaboard from Donegal to Kerry and other hill areas - require to be taken into the GLAS scheme under our own plan and we have the support of Brussels for that and we are not giving up on getting what we are entitled to," he said.
Hill farmers are seeking a meeting with Minister Simon Coveney before December 1.
As well as Ms Harkin, the meeting was attended by local TDs and by western MEPs, Matt Carthy and Luke Ming Flanagan.