Sinn Féin spokesperson on Agriculture, Matt Carthy TD, has said that he was disappointed that Minister Charlie McConalogue has not delivered additional new supports to Sheep Farmers despite the challenges faced by the sector.
Speaking during Dáil statements on the Irish Sheep Sector on Thursday, Deputy Carthy said that the Minister had indicated that he had asked officials to examine potential supports.
However, in this week’s debate Minister McConalogue said that officials were simply monitoring developments.
Deputy Carthy said that the failure of government to deliver Brexit Adjustment Reserve funding to this sector is inexcusable and he accused the government of failing to adequately support sheep farmers.
Teachta Carthy said:
“I am disappointed that the Minister and Minister of State have spent 20 minutes of Dáil statements outlining that there are no new supports to be provided to sheep farmers.
“When I raised this issue as a priority oral question at the beginning of March, the response stated that the Minister had directed officials in the Department to examine potential supports. Here we are at the end of the month and the Minister tells us that officials are now being asked to continue to closely monitor developments. We are actually further away from what sheep farmers need, which is direct new supports, than we were a month ago.
“Sheep farmers have weathered an unprecedented confluence of challenges over the past couple of years. We have had the pandemic, Brexit, the utter collapse in wool prices and the huge input cost rises. Sheep farmers are now under incredible pressure.
“There must be recognition of the crucial economic difference these farmers make in delivering over €476 million in exports alone. They are driving economic activity in parts of the country that otherwise would not see it. They are doing this against the backdrop of Governments that have not acted accordingly to provide the support they need.
“One of the arguments often lost in the debate is just how important and crucial the sheep farmers are to our sustainability goals. As it stands, the majority of sheep farmers are very close to being organic farmers.
“The reason why farmers do not move to fully organic, as the Minster is encouraging them to do, is because there is no market yet for organic sheep products, at the level that would be required to encourage farmers to do so. That is because the Minister has continuously failed to act on Sinn Féin’s call for Bord Bia to have a ring-fenced budget for organic produce.
“It is simply not good enough to continuously say that the Government has no role in the market; that the agrifood regulator for example, should have no role in competition; or that the sheep sector cannot meet the high test, as described by the Minister, required for European supports.
“Farmers understand the swings of the market better than anybody. That is why sheep farmers always set money aside during good times to carry them through to the bad times. They try to match and prepare for the economic cycle and invest when the opportunity arises. However, they cannot take punch after punch without assistance from Government.
“Just as farmers put money aside in good times to prepare for the bad, Governments have to also invest to foster an agrifood system that has in-built resilience to help them absorb the blows during more economically challenging times.
“The truth, and the problem is that the Minister has not invested sufficiently in our sheep farmer. The sheep welfare scheme which provides an additional €2 per eligible ewe does not even cover the level of inflation that has been faced by farmers. What is required is a scheme to the tune of €20 per ewe, as Sinn Féin has advocated.”
Wool prices “through the floor”
“Wool prices have been falling through the floor for years now. This was once a very valuable commodity from which farmers derived an income. Wool is now considered – unbelievably – to be virtually a waste product; something to be disposed of. This does not have to be the case.
“As the Minister will know, Sinn Féin proposed an emergency package for the wool sector to cover the cost of sheering. Unfortunately, Government kept responding that there was a wool feasibility study emerging and said there would be no funding provided in the meantime. When that study was actually published, rather than answers to the questions that were put, what we got were the questions being repeated. All the while we have had farmers left to carry the can, wondering if their enterprises and farms can remain viable and certainly wondering whether they will be in a position to pass it on to the next generation.
“In terms of prices, the crux of the problem our sheep farmers suffer is the consequences of unchecked, often cartel-like practices in the meat processing industry. The Minister brought forward a Bill on an agrifood regular. The heads of Bill were clearly not fit for purpose, a view that was shared by the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The Minister has accepted many of the recommendation from that committee, along with some of the amendments Sinn Féin put forward on Committee Stage. There still remains a particular chasm between the approach of Government and the approach that is actually required. If the regulator is a position to make a different to sheep farmers and other vulnerable sectors, it has to be able to address anti-competitive practices that might not fit into the narrow definition of an unfair trading practice, but which are crucial to the operation of meat processors and the fact that vulnerable and important sectors are very regularly operating at below cost level.
“I am astounded that the Minister managed to make an opening address on the Sheep Sectpr without referencing Brexit. Few sectors are as exposed to the consequences of Brexit as the red meat sector. British trade deals which we now see on the go with New Zealand and Australia pose a significant threat and will only be compounded if the EU proceeds to sign its own deals without having protections in place.
“Yet Ireland was one of the few countries that had the potential for dedicated supports to offset the worse impacts of Brexit. It was the stories and the potential impacts on our peripheral farmers, particularly those in the west and in Border regions, and the implications of Brexit, that ensured the European Union established a Brexit adjustment reserve fund. It was the stories of those farmers and the communities from which they came, that ensured Ireland got the bulk of that funding to the tune of €1 billion. Yet virtually no money has gone directly to those very people who secured the funding in the first place; in fact the Minister has apparently signed off on siphoning money from the Brexit adjustment reserve into other funds. When asked, the Minister retorts with the complications and the frustrating bureaucracy involved with deriving money from the Brexit adjustment reserve and giving it directly to farmers. However, there was no difficulty in taking the first €100 million of that money and providing it to meat and food processors. They got a fair share but farmers have not.
“Our sheep farmers are under enormous stress and little fluctuations in the price will not address that. What they want is direct support through a welfare scheme, as Sinn Féin have advocated for in successive budget submissions, and we need Government to intervene. We need a strong intervention both domestically and at a European level, to ensure the Brexit adjustment reserve fund is used to support the people it was established for in the first place.”