Ireland’s newest MEP, Colm Markey, expects his experience as a former Macra president to stand him in good stead as he balances the demands of his new role with running a fulltime dairy farm in Louth
In the late 1980s, as many of his friends headed off to college, Colm Markey faced a tough choice.
The farm next door to the teenager’s homeplace near Drogheda Co Louth was up for sale and his parents told him they’d buy it if he stayed at home to farm it.
“Ye may buy it so,” he said, and so began his career in agriculture.
He admits that he found fulltime farming a challenge at first as all his mates went off to college.
“They were having a great time and I was at home farming. Macra was a great help. It was my college lifestyle, it was my chance to get out and about,” says Markey.
“I almost felt after five or six years that the clock had turned and I was well used to being out in the world and when my mates left college they found it challenging.”
Despite his new role as MEP, Markey says he’s very much still dairying and is currently milking about 300 cows.
Earmarked for the role after the resignation of then Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan and Mairéad McGuinness’s appointment as Irish Commissioner last summer Markey only technically became an MEP in November.
“Believe it or not I haven’t been in Brussels yet which is an awful shame. I’ve been dealing with everyone over the phone or on Zoom, but it’s not the same thing as being on the ground.”
He says he has ‘massive shoes to fill’ and believes Ireland’s position in Brussels had been weakened by the tumultuous events of last summer.
“My perspective is that when we had Phil as Agriculture and Trade Commissioner, and Mairéad high profile in the parliament, it had been a brilliant position to be in for Ireland.
“It’s great that I have got the opportunity, but we need key people in key places as well,” he said.
Serving as Macra President from 2005-2007, and then as a local Councillor in Louth from 2009 to last November, has prepared him well for the position,” he says.
“In Macra, I was involved in social partnership and representing at EU level as well. I would have seen plenty of the wheels of both government and the EU at that stage.”
And juggling farming with politics will not be a problem.
“I am lucky that I have two guys working with me fulltime that are brilliant. We have had a great working dynamic for almost 20 years. I couldn’t do it without their help.
“Some people that come into politics remark that it is 24/7, but I had no problem with that — farming is 24/7 anyway. I am used to that lifestyle,” he says.
Like the other MEPs in his constituency, Markey faces the arduous task of representing one of the largest and most diverse electorates in Europe.
From the commuter belts around Dublin to the wilds of Donegal, there is no other constituency with such varied demographics.
And no more is this evident than in farming.
“There is every type of farmer and farming. For example, in Donegal an issue like fisheries is very important, you have lots of tillage and dairy in Meath, Kildare and areas of Cavan and Monaghan, and then beef and sheep are important in the west,” he says.
So is it possible to be all things to all farmers? According to Markey, the important thing is that farmers pull together.
“The big thing I would notice now versus 10 years ago is the lack of unity among farmers. I think farmers all need to pull together,” he says.
“That needs to be the strength of the farming lobby — we are all in it together. And in terms of the challenges facing agriculture, supporting the sectors under pressure has to be a priority.”
One obvious area where there are very differing opinions across his constituency is whether farmers’ payments should be further flattened.
He believes support should be directed at the sectors under pressure, the farmers within those sectors and farmers that rely on agriculture for their primary income.
“At the end of the day if the number of people farming gets smaller, then the importance of agriculture diminishes, and the multiplier effect it has on the economy diminishes.
“It is vital to support the sectors under pressure; however, the other side of that is that active and fulltime farmers must also be prioritised,” says Markey.
This is very difficult if the CAP budget remains the same or falls over time, he concedes.
“Making decisions at national level will bring a massive challenge and has the capacity to divide the industry.
“Division is the one thing that we have to avoid — whatever solutions are there, they have to be solutions that everyone can buy into.”
His role on the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee means he will have a role in shaping the next CAP as well as the implementing the EU’s new Farm to Fork and Biodiversity strategies.
He admits he is worried by many elements of the proposed new CAP, and says the dynamic within the Parliament has changed considerably since the last European elections.
“Those outside agriculture now have a greater influence and interest in agriculture policy.
“I worry that a lot of the agenda is being driven by people outside of agriculture that don’t have a realistic understanding of farming and the CAP.”
New EU targets such as a 50pc reduction in pesticides, 20pc reduction in fertiliser use and an increase of 25pc in the area farmed organically are a “big ask” for a country like Ireland.
Markey is a strong advocate for an impact assessment study on these proposals, and he highlights recent research indicating they would hit EU food production by 12pc and lead to a 10pc increase in food prices.
“The worry is that outside influences will look at populist and idealistic policies. It is vital if we are to progress in terms of agriculture and the environment, that the proposals have to be realistic.
I’d have a worry about keeping it real if you like,” he said.
At the 1998 Macra Conference, Colm Markey said he wasn’t in favour of the removal of quotas as they gave farmers a secure milk price.
Less than 10 years later, along with the then IFA president, Padraig Walshe, he met with the EU Agriculture Commissioner to put a “big push on” for quotas abolition.
So what had changed?
A number of things, says Markey, pointing to the fact that Europe’s share of the world market had diminished in the 20-30 years of quotas, inhibited by the restrictions on production growth.
“We were getting left behind by other parts of the world, and we had the potential to expand. I think the abolition of them in the last five years has proven that in terms of the competitiveness of our sector, including its environmental performance.
“Twenty years ago, we were in a fundamentally different position than we are today. At that stage, in many ways, quotas did protect the price,” he says.
However, he describes any thought of reintroduction of quotas as retrograde, and highlights his fears that other EU countries less competitive in milk production may try and reintroduce production controls.
One area Markey wants to see action on is red tape and the seemingly never-ending bureaucracy farmers face.
“In my county council role, the last thing the County Manager said to me as ‘when you get over there do something about the red tape’. It has been something of a bugbear all the way through.”
Markey says there is a need for policymakers to recognise that red tape is a drain on resources, increases costs and turns people away from valuable and progressive farm schemes.
However, he acknowledges that CAP moving to a goal-orientated system, rather than the compliance one of the past, might offer some hope to farmers.
But he adds that ultimately the red tape devil will be in the detail and warns that much of this yet to be agreed.
Generational renewal was one of his major priorities as Macra president and remains so today, as does improved access to finance for young farmers.
He has personal experience on the benefits of generational renewal, as his family utilised the original Early Retirement Scheme.
“In fairness to my father and mother, they gave me full control when they took the early retirement scheme. It was massive for me as it gave me the opportunity to make a few changes.”