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‘We were completely tied by the apron strings to the UK economy’

Former agriculture minister, Mary Coughlan, was just a child when Ireland officially became members of the European Economic Community (EEC), but she remembers it being a hot topic of conversation at home, she tells Bernie Commins

“I was just seven and, although I was very young, I do remember my mother and father having a lot of discussion – it was a political house, as you can appreciate – about what this would mean, and a bit of debate about what the impact would be,” says the former Fianna Fáil minister and tánaiste.

Fianna Fáil was, of course, in power at that time and promoted a yes-vote in the referendum – alongside Fine Gael. The consensus in the Donegal-based Coughlan family, unsurprisingly, was that membership ‘would have a hugely positive impact’. Mary’s uncle, Clement Coughlan, was a Fianna Fáil TD from 1980-1983, while her late father, Cathal, was a TD from 1983 until his death in 1986.

“We were a small, poor country at the time, in the context of the other members who were large, fairly well-established economic entities. So, certainly, without a doubt it would be for the betterment of Ireland. And if you remember, there was resounding support for our entry with more than 80% of people supporting it. The view was that we were a small state and that without a doubt, this would make Ireland better.”

Part of the reason for such strong referendum support, Mary says, was down to the fact that Ireland was so reliant on the UK at that time for our exports. 

“We were very reliant on the UK, we had huge emigration [there], we were completely tied by the apron strings to the UK economy and there were concerns about how long that would last if anything happened in the UK that would have a detrimental effect on us.”

But the impact of membership on these close ties also caused some trepidation, she says, and the status of Northern Ireland, which was ‘in turmoil’ at the time, was cause for concern too.

“The other thing to note is that politics, at 

the time was such that people were starting to open up. Civil servants were opening up their views and their perspectives, and were very driven about the necessity of driving this State and particularly agriculture, and that we saw opportunities in the context of that overall EU membership,” she said.

Contentious talks

Mary served from 2004-2008 as Fianna Fáil’s agriculture minister, and was the first female politician to do so. In terms of EU headlines from that time, what stands out are the contentious World Trade Organization (WTO) talks and the threat to Irish agriculture through proposed changes to EU farm subsidies and free access to EU markets. Of that time, she says: “It wasn’t easy and wasn’t perfect, and we would have had needs and priorities that had to be met in the context of Irish agriculture. We would have been aligned, at the time, with the French view, or that of the southern Mediterranean countries, as opposed to the Nordics when it came to agriculture,” she said.

“From my perspective, and as a former agriculture minister, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was really the only common discussion that took place in my time. And all members [EU Council of Ministers] participated, whereas interaction in my other portfolios wasn’t the same. 

“We [EU agriculture ministers] all knew each other very well, and had a very good relationship. We had a deep understanding of each other’s agricultural sectors and their needs. We certainly worked within the context of consensus to the best of our ability and, further on, we had to work with the Parliament with co-decision making, and we worked very closely with our commissioner. 

“I know it used to be talked about in European circles as a club, and it was a club, but it was a good club in that we had that opportunity to pick up the phone and talk to someone if we had a concern because we knew them very well. That interaction was hugely important,” she says.

Despite the perception that Brussels made decisions and Ireland followed, and to a certain extent, still do, Mary says: “I appreciate that farmers have the view that Brussels is telling us what to do but, overall, in my view, being a participant in the EU was hugely beneficial for Irish agriculture. It gave us access to new ideas, to new markets, it has certainly supported the food industry massively, and because we have a competitive edge over our colleagues with regards to our grass-based farming practices, that gave us the opportunity, when things like the removal of the quota happened, to develop and sustain an industry.” 

She agreed that there were occasions, of course, when Brussels issued a diktat, but being part of the EU meant that there was a process whereby everyone could work together to negotiate the best deal possible, she says.

And there have been challenges along the way, including the burden of bureaucracy: “If you talk to any farmer, the biggest challenge they have is the challenge of paperwork, inspections, and accountability. 

“And that has had a considerable resource impact on the likes of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to the extent that one tick of a box, and you may not get your scheme, you know, such was the lack of flexibility.

“Now, it is all computerised of course, but these are things I would have picked up on as a politician, that people had an anxiety about, and the need for simplification.”

And the negatives? 

When asked about the potential negatives of our EU involvement, its impact on our smaller farmers is mentioned. Despite the increased spend on agriculture under CAP, the numbers of farmers in Ireland have dropped; the most productive enterprises have thrived, while others have not.

“There has been an ongoing difficulty between the large and the small farmer and determining what is viable and otherwise,” she says. In rural areas, where depletion of farming has occurred, it may have had a knock-on effect on terms of the mental health of farmers; the local economy; the social aspect of the local mart, for example. 

Now, with a more concentrated focus on the environment and the impact of climate change, there is also the challenge of finding a balance between sustainable farming and food production.

“So, how are we going to sustain farming life as a consequence, and how are we going to make an economically viable option for the larger farmers, and still be able to support smaller people on the land, and where are the new opportunities?

“Organics, for example, have become hugely important, getting that premium for your product. It is about what Ireland can do differently that will be accepted on the European market and on the world market.”

Female farmers

Recently, Mary has been asked by Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConologue, to lead a dialogue here in Ireland about the role of women in farming. It is recognised that more than 58,000 women are working on farms in Ireland without official recognition or status. Has the EU done enough throughout the decades to promote women in farming, does she think? 

“Policy-making in the past was definitely gender-led. Now, we see that it [recognition of women in agriculture] is part of the CAP, so having it within that context is going to be hugely important. The minister [McConalogue] is very supportive and is anxious that this dialogue will take place – in the new year – and that we will have some actions that can be realised and supported. We have to be ambitious with regards to gender equality and ensuring that there are opportunities there for women. 

“There have been a lot of women behind the scenes [in agriculture] who were the bedrock; they did the paperwork, they were there when the vet came, they were there for calving, were very much part of the family farm. But they didn’t own the farm, or they weren’t in partnership. 

“The fact that this is supported now within the CAP framework means that, at long last, gender will be part of those conversations.”