By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Noel Baker, and Joe Leogue
The Government has warned protesting beef farmers the future of their industry is “hanging in the balance”, insisting they will cause “irreversible damage” to their families and livelihoods if they refuse to end their stand-off with the State.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, and Agriculture Minister Michael Creed warned the sector is now at “tipping point” as they said the Government will be unable to stop the damage caused if it occurs during a potential no deal Brexit.
Speaking as President Michael D Higgins waded into the crisis at the national ploughing championships and as Kepak said it has “indefinitely postponed” a €6.5m beef plant investment due to the protests, the Government said the stand-off must end now.
Opposition Dáil parties said the Government has given farmers a “go with this or get nothing” deal and demanded fresh talks to save the deal from collapse.
However, despite the calls for new negotiations, Mr Coveney, Mr Varadkar, and Mr Creed insisted the deal is the only one on offer and that failing to agree it will cause “irreversible” damage to the economy.
Mr Coveney said: “I can understand farmers’ anger. Many farmers believe they have been blackguarded by factories for many years, they’re angry about that, and prices have been low now for a sustained period of time.
“But we are at a moment that is very close to a tipping point for the Irish beef industry.
“The Taoiseach and I, and others, are working night and day to get an outcome in Brexit that will protect the Irish agri-food industry and beef farmers in particular.
“And, really, I would say the continuation of the boycott effectively on meat factories across the country is, and I think we’re very close to this moment now, is potentially going to do irreversible damage to this sector.
“The people who will suffer the most as a result of that will be farmers and their families. By continuing to boycott factories we risk the loss of contracts, the loss of reputation, and potentially do permanent damage to an industry that has taken decades to build.
"I would rarely intervene on this unless feel as strongly as I do about it,” he warned.
Speaking in the Dáil as it returned from summer recess yesterday, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was equally clear, saying he is “deeply concerned” about the ongoing stand-off and that “anyone who cares about rural Ireland, who cares about employment” is aware the crisis “could do long-term, irrevocable damage”.
His view was repeated last night by Mr Creed, who issued the starkest warning yet by saying: “The future of the industry is now hanging in the balance.”
However, despite the warnings, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald claimed farmers are being told to sign up to a “go with this or get nothing” deal and insisting fresh talks are needed.
During a Dáil debate last night, protesting farmers continued to receive support from opposition TDs, with unaligned Independent TD Denis Naughten saying that “there is a serious lack of trust” in the discussions and Fianna Fáil TD Eugene Murphy saying that the entire stand-off can be “sorted out in 48 hours” if farmers “move a little bit”.
The farming stand-off comes just six weeks out from a potential no-deal Brexit, which risks devastating Ireland’s agri-food economy, and could play a key role in the upcoming general election and by-elections.
It emerged last night the four bye-elections — in Wexford, Cork North Central, Dublin Fingal, and Dublin Mid West — are likely to take place on a single day in the second half of November.