Comment: Government from the Taoiseach down wants farmers to accept agreement

Comment: Government from the Taoiseach down wants farmers to accept  agreement
A truck is prevented from entering a Kepak site in Cork earlier this month. Picture: Larry Cummins

Processors have seen that protesters won’t listen to the established farmer organisations, and may feel that closure or recourse to the law are the only ways to proceed, writes Stephen Cadogan

Cattle farmers still protesting at factories believe that profiteering by beef processors and retailers has left them on their knees.

They are adamant that if processors and retailers want to continue beef profits, they have to pay extra, in the form of higher base prices for all cattle, not just higher bonuses for in-spec cattle agreed last week by farmer representatives with processors.

It’s an unprecedented stand-off in Irish farming politics.

If the protesting farmers are “defeated”, and beef profitability does not improve, they are likely to give up cattle farming, weakening the industry that employs over 10,000 generates over €2.5 billion in annual exports.

Defeat is a real possibility, because the government, from the Taoiseach down, wants the farmers to accept the agreement made with processors last weekend.

And farmers must know from long years of negotiation with beef processors that they don’t roll over easily.

They may be unwilling to improve the terms of last weekend’s agreement, leaving them looking like weak negotiators, having entered talks last weekend for the second time in a month. After two rounds of talks, they are now as likely to go on the offensive as to negotiate again.

It is notable that beef processors’ representatives at every opportunity now describe protests at their gates as “illegal blockades”.

The tone has changed.

In late August, Meat Industry Ireland (MII), representing processors, said peaceful protest is a right of all, but any disruption of normal processing activity which impacts businesses, staff and farmer suppliers is unacceptable.

In the first week of September, MII said its members remained ready to work constructively with any process the Minister might establish with a view to ending protests.

Now, it says illegal blockading shows an absolute disregard for the law of the land, and it has called on the Minister and all farm organisations to ensure that illegal blockades are removed, for last weekend’s agreement to enter into effect.

One presumes that attempting to manipulate prices by blockading factory gates is even more illegal than talking about prices in meetings, and that is why processors always describe the protests as illegal. Therefore, more injunctions, or appeals to the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission to intervene, are likely.

The owners of Meadow Meats in Co Laois are not ruling out the plant’s closure, maybe others will make similar announcements.

The loss of control by organisations of the protesters is another unprecedented feature of this dispute.

Processors have seen that protesters won’t listen to the established farmer organisations, and may feel that closure or recourse to the law are the only ways to proceed.

ABP Foods already went the legal route against protesters at their C&D Foods plant in Co Longford, separate from and managed independently from the ABP beef business, and manufacturing pet food mainly from chicken, using less than 5% beef. Protests there are blamed for 187 layoffs and putting 425 more jobs in jeopardy.

Time is running out for both sides. Processors say that customers are going elsewhere in Europe for their beef, it may take a long time to win these customers back, and the Government may then be forced to look for market support measures from the EU.

Fine weather is giving protesters some leeway, thanks to good grazing conditions. But that cannot last, with some rain forecast this weekend. With a backlog of cattle for processing, if the weather turns against farmers, they may yet be at the mercy of processors.

It’s not only cattle farmers who are under pressure.

Processors say there is a serious build-up of factory-ready lambs in the most sheep-intensive regions, and sheep will not meet market specifications on weights and fat scores, due to delayed sale after their owners didn’t pass protesters at two West of Ireland plants where both sheep and cattle are processed,

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