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‘Talk of leadership change is very premature at this stage’

Irish Farmers Monthly editor, Matt O’Keeffe recently had the opportunity to sit down with Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConologue, and question him on just some of many issues impacting Irish agriculture and farmers including the contentious proposed Nature Restoration Law, derogation, farm safety, and whether he has party-leadership ambitions

One of the questions that has been crying out for an answer recently is the location of a second veterinary college. According to current stats, of all the vets that are registered to practice here, 65 per cent of them graduated in Ireland while the remainder completed their veterinary studies abroad. The call for a second veterinary college appears to be well justified, and there have been several expressions of interest from third-level facilities, outside of University College Dublin, where the only veterinary degree is currently offered. But the minister is tight-lipped on the location of a second offering.
“The process is ongoing in terms of assessing each of the applicants,” Minister McConalogue said.
“The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has a role in the process, which is being led by the Department of Higher Education, with the Higher Education Authority (HEA) also closely involved. It is a very thorough ongoing process as all three applicants hoping to host a new veterinary college are putting forward very strong cases.
“I am clear that we have a demand and requirement for more veterinary graduates, with a fair proportion of our annual needs being met currently by graduates qualifying in other countries. There has been no decision as to whether there will be one or more vet schools established. All this is under continuing consideration. As of now, there is no definite timeline on when a decision will be made. I expect it to be in the near future.”

Nature Restoration Law concerns

Addressing the issue of the contentious proposed Nature Restoration Law currently being debated at European level, and potential implications for Irish farmers, Minister McConalogue said: “I understand its importance in an Irish context to farmers. Through interactions both within government and among my European Agriculture Council colleagues, I have been working to ensure that the legislation accommodates our national circumstances, especially given the disproportionately large areas of peat-based agricultural soils in Ireland.
“We have made great progress in the last few weeks and there has been an accommodation at the Council of Ministers that reflects our national position. Regarding the 2030, 2040, and 2050 targets for rewetting, we would have the capacity to meet those targets fully from State-owned land as required. The Parliament has yet to agree on its position and then negotiations begin with the Council. My hope is that Parliament will come to meet the agreed Council decision. If that happens, we have the capacity to deliver sufficient area from national land. Obviously, we will be providing opportunities for farmers to voluntarily become involved in the process through schemes that will be put in place.”
But the minister insisted, given the enthusiasm among farmers to participate in the Agri Climate Rural Environment Scheme (ACRES) and other environmental schemes, that some may wish to be involved in rewetting all or parts of their farms: “Farmers are willing to have a blend of activities on their farms and I believe that some farmers may wish to participate in a rewetting programme on a voluntary basis provided they are properly recompensed for doing so.”

Derogation decision pending

Another major issue on the minister’s agenda is the ongoing Nitrates Derogation review: “We are now one of three countries with a derogation. That runs up to the end of 2025 with a mid-term review in the second part of this year. Under that review, part of the conditionality is that if water quality has not been improved then the derogation limits would drop from 250kg to 220kg (organic nitrogen) per hectare. We are planning to engage with the Commission on having a degree of flexibility on this.
“It all comes back to everyone involved in the agriculture sector taking measures that will ensure that water quality is improving. Ultimately, the continuation of the derogation is dependent on that. We have made it clear that initiatives are being taken to improve water quality and that time is needed to measure the success of those actions.”

A powerful regulator

The recent appointment of a CEO-designate at the office of the Agri-Food Regulator, Niamh Lenehan, marks progress in the move to establishing unfair trading regulations, according to the minister.
“Niamh Lenehan has been appointed as CEO and the regulator will have significant powers in relation to unfair trading. That will extend to being able to bring offenders to court and impose large fines up to €10m in individual cases where wrongdoing is proven.
“There is also going to be a very important role for the regulator in acting as an independent influence in the supply chain, working to ensure that the relationships that are in place between primary producers and retailers, as well as businesses deliver fair play for everyone. I have taken consultations and feedback from across the agri-food sector on board and I believe this will be a very robust body.”

Lively interest in liming

The financial allocation for the National Liming Programme, introduced by Minister McConalogue, has proven inadequate to meet demand but, he said, he is ‘committed to seeking additional funds for the scheme’: “It showed the appetite among farmers to improve their farms and soils and the aim is to get back to the kinds of lime tonnages that were spread several decades ago. We allocated €8m towards the liming programme. It was massively oversubscribed with €72m worth of applications.
“We are working to see what capacity we have to bring additional funding to the programme and back farmers’ enthusiasm for increased liming. I will do as much as I can to meet demand. There will be some tempering and adjustment required given the level of oversubscription. In doing that, I want to ensure that we back the farmers who have applied as far as possible.”

Farm safety

In recent weeks, the farming community has been rocked by a number of farm-related deaths. An elderly man from Co. Kerry died following an attack by a cow, and a 13-year-old boy from Co. Mayo died in a tractor accident. Reflecting on this, the minister said: “Unbelievably sad. It’s every family’s nightmare and our thoughts and prayers are with them at this trying time. 

“Deaths on farms are still commonplace and it is our objective to do all we can to reduce farm accidents. 

Even with increased regulation around farm safety, you are only one wrong step away on a farm from injury and worse.
“Farmers and their families cannot afford to be complacent or lose concentration. That is an ongoing message and an ongoing job on all farms to ensure that the surrounding environment and farm practices are as safe as possible. Minister of State, Martin Heydon, whose remit includes farm safety, has been very active in improving safety standards and raising awareness around farm safety.”

Leadership decision looming

With some speculation that Micheál Martin may step down as Fianna Fáil leader before the general or even local elections, various names are popping up as potential leadership candidates. Does the minister have leadership ambitions? “Fianna Fáil is working really well in Government. It is delivering and working hard on the various challenges facing the country. That includes agriculture and food production where there has been significant success in recent years. “Micheál Martin has provided great leadership, not just for Fianna Fáil, but for the country and it’s my objective to see him lead the party into the next election and subsequently to be re-elected as Taoiseach. We will then see what the future holds, but any talk of leadership change is very premature at this stage.” When pressed further on this, he added: “It is a question for away down the road. It is much too early to be making any judgements around that question. “My entire focus is on delivering for rural Ireland, and particularly for the food sector and for family farmers and increasing the contribution the agricultural sector can make to the country. Ultimately, whenever there is a vacancy, it will be for others to decide.”