Sunday 19 November 2017

Fine Gael TDs split over reform of EU farm payments

Fionnan Sheahan Political Editor

FINE Gael is deeply divided along "east-west lines" over EU farm payment reforms, which it's claimed will benefit small farmers at the expense of big farmers.

The farmers' organisations are piling the pressure on Fine Gael backbenchers over the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) reforms with suggestions of a "cabal" being organised in the party to counter the proposals.

Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney got tetchy when Fine Gael backbenchers queried his stance on reform of farming grants.

And accusations of "political agendas" and of failing to represent farmers were flying at a "robust" meeting between the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) leadership and Fine Gael backbenchers yesterday.

"There was a good bit of timber, but this is senior hurling," a farming source said.

At the core of the controversy is the structure of €8.4bn worth of CAP grants for the rest of the decade.

Mr Coveney is showing the strains of the pressure he's under on a number of fronts at the moment, between CAP reform, farm assets being included in college grant applications and the horse burger controversy.

Upping the ante, Mr Coveney's local constituency office in Cork will be picketed this weekend by farmers.

Next week, the IFA will protest at an EU Presidency meeting with the European Commissioner for Agriculture in Dublin Castle.

Mr Coveney was invited to a meeting of rural Fine Gael backbenchers this week, which some in the party described as a "cabal".

The meeting was organised by John Deasy and Heather Humphreys and attended by up to 20 FG TDs and Senators.

But his defensive attitude and personal attacks on some of the TDs present merely heightened the tensions.

"He was crotchety and cranky. Fine Gael ministers don't like Fine Gael people questioning them," a party source said. "He arrived full of anger and pronounced Deasy didn't know what he was talking about. It was unwise of him," another backbencher said.

Mr Deasy lead the charge on getting Fine Gael to force the Labour Party to back down on including farmland in college grant assessments.

Attack

Mr Coveney's attack on Mr Deasy is believed to have related to his public comments on that issue, causing the minister difficulty with Labour.

The minister's spokesperson insisted last night he was "happy" to go the meeting.

Mr Coveney is involved in devising a new system of farm payments at EU level.

The existing system of CAP payments is based on output per farm from 2000 to 2002.

But this payment was decoupled from productivity, meaning farmers didn't have to do anything to get the funding.

The current proposal from the European Commission is to move to a system effectively based on the amount of land the farmer owns.

Mr Coveney's proposal is for a two-tier payment, with a higher rate of minimum payment to be paid for a certain number of acres, and then a top up.

But critics say it penalises productive farmers and a senior Fine Gael source said there was an "east-west divide" in the party, as the west of Ireland has traditionally smaller holdings.

But other Fine Gael TDs object to it being characterised as an east versus west debate.

"There is a simplistic argument around that but it's far more complex than that," a TD said. "There is going to be that it will hurt in every part of the country," he said.

Irish Independent

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