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Creed happy to negotiate by candlelight to address crisis

Beef and Brexit challenges have put the agriculture minister in the spotlight, writes Wayne O'Connor

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TOUGH CHALLENGE: Agriculture minister Michael Creed admits it’s been a stressful period as the dispute over beef prices enters its sixth week. Photo: Fergal Phillips

TOUGH CHALLENGE: Agriculture minister Michael Creed admits it’s been a stressful period as the dispute over beef prices enters its sixth week. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Fergal Phillips

TOUGH CHALLENGE: Agriculture minister Michael Creed admits it’s been a stressful period as the dispute over beef prices enters its sixth week. Photo: Fergal Phillips

A power outage at the Department of Agriculture created massive upheaval last week. It had nothing to do with talks to end the ongoing row over beef prices, Brexit or climate change.

Some staff were kept from their desks last Wednesday morning as engineers worked to tackle the electrical issue at Agriculture House on Kildare Street, the Department's Dublin HQ. When they eventually returned to catch up on work missed earlier in the day, a fire alarm went off at points throughout the day. Officials from Leinster House next door called for meetings about the fault, because both buildings are on a shared power source. "There is never a dull moment," they say to each other on the way in.

The Sunday Independent is there to meet the Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed. The Corkman is busy preparing for talks aimed at resolving the beef dispute. He is due to meet farmers' groups when he has finished with us. An anxious air hangs in the corridors outside the minster's office as officials prepare.

A dispute over beef prices is now entering its sixth week. Creed admits it has been a stressful period, but the power outage should not distract from attempts to resolve the issue. "The background to this is there is a depressed market for beef in Europe," the minister explains.

"We export 90pc of what we produce and for our farmers, at prices of €3.50 per kilo, they are losing money. There's no bones about that. They are losing money.

"The challenge is also myriad in the context of changing dietary habits and flat-lining consumption in Europe. The growth markets are more distant from us and we are putting a lot of effort into those markets.

"In the middle of all of the difficulties, we had a Chinese audit team coming to approve factories for further export to that market, which is a very significant market in terms of their per capita consumption. Looking at new market opportunities, delivering income support, is part of the response," he adds.

In reality, this is probably not enough for farmers who want a fairer price for their produce. As a result, they have mounted pickets and blockades, disrupting operations at beef plants nationwide. The Chinese audit team the minister referred to only accessed factories after careful negotiation between protesting farmers and officials.

Farmers are determined to have their voices heard and people who have visited factory blockades over the past month recount stories of hay bales being set alight, farmers preventing trucks moving in and out of factories and a case where a child's buggy was planted in front of a lorry to restrict its movement.

Many of the farmers wear yellow hi-vis vests at the demonstrations, leading to comparisons with the French 'gilets jaune' movement. Two groups have formed out of the demonstrations. The Beef Plan Movement was established first and entered into talks with department officials, meat processors and an independent chairperson in the early days of the protests. Now a second group, calling itself the Independent Farmers of Ireland, claims to represent many protesters.

Farmers claim nobody cares about them, something the minister denies strongly.

The factories have taken no prisoners with some of their responses to protesters and have been in and out of the High Court seeking various legal actions. These include temporary injunctions against named farmers. Factories have agreed not to seek financial damages if farmers agreed not to blockade or trespass at meat processing plants.

The minister is reluctant to speak about the methods both sides have used, but seems most sympathetic to farmers, saying factories can do more for them. "You have to understand the frustration that is borne out of working in a low-income sector. I do understand that. We also need to realise there is a symbiotic relationship here. You can't have a processing sector without these producers of beef and vice versa. That is something the meat industry needs to work at. Good corporate social responsibility would demand better engagement on an ongoing basis, not just at a difficult time of market crisis."

That does not mean the farmers are without fault. Creed acknowledges they must change and adapt to new market pressures and demands from consumers, retailers and political realities brought on by climate change and the EU.

His vision for the future of farming is one where beef producers aim to service the premium end of the market, "marketing ourselves as a high quality, grass-based production system" that promotes sustainability. An increased uptake in the forestry sector will be critical, he adds, and will boost targets to offset carbon emissions. Delivering this vision will not be easy because of a resistance to forestry.

"I am not into this great social engineering. Farmers will have choices. The model I would like to see is some afforestation, some livestock opportunities and farmers making informed choices which deliver for them in terms of money in their pocket. What I want to achieve is the maximum number of farmers remaining active farming and delivering income to them.

"The way I would like to see that progress is not so much that a farmer quits and says, 'I am giving up. I'm going to plant the farm.' The model I would like to see promoted here is; 'I have a livestock operation, I have a bit of tillage and I have 20 acres of forestry as well' - a more European model. We have to acknowledge if we are to meet our sequestration targets, afforestation is a particular part of that. There is a resistance now to forestry and the narrative has got very negative. There is a lot of employment in the forestry sector, there is a lot of investment in it and there is a lot of change in terms of how we do forestry today compared to how we did it 30 years ago."

Any vision for the future of agriculture here is going to be manipulated by Brexit. It is a focal point of the department's energies and has been dominating everything it does, Creed says.

"A crash-out is calamitous. I often hear people say we are dealing with Brexit already and to say that is to fundamentally misunderstand what a no-deal Brexit will be like, particularly if we are to be hit with a wall of tariffs which have been published by the UK, in terms of our beef and dairy.

"The millions of litres of milk coming across the border, the 400,000 sheep that come from Northern Ireland in to the Republic for slaughter, similarly bovines over-and-back, all that granular detail is painfully aware to us in terms of trying to work through the solutions to all of that.

"If you want to see the madness and the folly of Brexit personified, go down to Dublin Port and see the investment we have put in there with the new inspection points.

"We are preparing for the worst and hoping for the best."

Brexit and further disruption to the beef sector is likely to have an adverse impact on rural Ireland, where Fine Gael has struggled for support of late. "A lazy narrative," the minister says.

While the recent local elections showed marginal gains for the party compared to 2014 (an extra 1.3pc of first preference votes and 20 extra seats), support has been stagnant since the 2016 general election when the party haemorrhaged rural support. An election looms and is likely to take place next summer. The minister acknowledges most of his responsibilities directly impact anyone living in a rural area. His responses to the various crises to hit these communities are routinely criticised but he is satisfied Fine Gael's record will stand up to scrutiny at the ballot box. How the beef dispute is resolved and farmers are steered through Brexit will have a large say in this.

Talks between the main farming organisations and meat processors continued with officials at the Department of Agriculture last night. Hopefully the lights stay on and no electrical fault will scupper efforts to resolve differences as discussions progress. "We'll negotiate by candlelight if we have to," Creed's advisor quips.

"It is only around the table that this can be resolved," Creed adds.

Sunday Independent