Minister Simon Coveney looks to future as public prepares to decide upon his political fate

Daniel Hession puts questions to Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney, whose term formally ends today.
Minister Simon Coveney looks to future as public prepares to decide upon his political fate

SIMON COVENEY became Minister for Agriculture in March 2011.

Now, almost six years on, he speaks to the Irish Examiner on his term as Minister.

Looking back on your term as Minister how would you sum it up? Did you do a good job?

I’ll let someone else judge that, I don’t feel comfortable judging myself.

We tried to do a number of things for agriculture in terms of strategic change, creating a new optimism and positivity around the Agriculture and Food industry and indeed Seafood.

If you look at the number of young people choosing the agriculture and food industry as a career now, it has dramatically increased.

Agriculture colleges are a good example of that, less than 10 years ago people were talking about how many Ag colleges would have to close.

Now all of the Agriculture colleges are full … there is certainly a lot more confidence in farming and agriculture and we have worked hard to try to generate that.

The big test for me during the last five years was renegotiating a CAP that was good for Ireland, I think we did that.

Certainly, the big objectives we set for ourselves were achieved.

We had to dramatically change the EU Commissions proposals effectively to redesign the CAP in a way that suits progressive agriculture and the kind of agriculture we have in Ireland- family farming.

It was agreed under the Irish presidency and I had the opportunity to chair the negotiations and I think we got a very good deal.

We had some testing times in terms of potential setbacks for farming and agriculture, the horsemeat crisis that we had to deal with, I think Ireland has come out very strong from that.

What has been the highlight of your term?

Probably renegotiation the CAP, I was and am very conscious… that my negotiation has direct impact on the income of every farm family in the country.

I was really determined to get an outcome that was fair, progressive and would help to modernise agriculture but also get a very good deal in terms of money and financial support not just for the big farms but also for farmers in disadvantaged areas.

We then matched EU funds in terms of the Rural Development Programme almost fully with exchequer funds. We have now a certainty that for every year between now and 2020 the Ag budget is going to increase.

I think this is an example of Fine Gael and Labour in government prioritising agriculture and the food industry as the heartbeat of rural Ireland but also the most important sector in the Irish economy.

I hope the biggest thing I have done is change the perception of agriculture… to an agriculture and food sector that is highly dynamic.

Would you accept that you have been a minister more so for the dairy sector at the expense of other sectors?

Absolutely not, the facts just don’t bare that out. If you look at what we have done with the CAP we have deliberately prioritised beef that’s why we have a €300m Beef Genomics Scheme, …that’s why we set up the Beef Forum and why we are now setting up Beef Producer Organisations to negotiate collectively on behalf of farmers to get them better deals.

The biggest winners in the redistribution of Single Farm Payments in the CAP has been the sheep sector. In the last five years the sheep flock has increased in size and stabilised.

The perception around me that because I have been part of the dairy quota abolition and because I am ambitious for the dairy sector that’s all I have been doing, actually when you look at the policy changes, taxation changes, CAP changes and the rural development programme the sheep sector has been a big winner.

In our manifesto we are making a commitment in the mid term review of the CAP to look at a new support programme similar to the BDGP for the sheep sector … we may do something more on beef but we are committed to sheep.

Overall we have prioritised small family farmers as well as bigger ones and certainly disadvantaged ones.

Minister Coveney on supporting the pig and poultry sector

Poultry farmers are universally supportive of government at the moment because for the first time ever the poultry sector has TAMS support which never happened before.

We negotiated compensation payments from the EU Commission because pig meat prices were terrible last year and we also renegotiated the reintroduction of the Aid to Private Storage for pig meat. I’ve also introduced TAMS for the pig sector, which I think they are reasonable happy with.

Tillage sector

We have applied for an amendment to the Rural Development Programme to the EU Commission for a new arable specific TAMS scheme to support farmers in terms of putting better storage and drying systems in place as well as putting one pass systems in place.

Beef Forum

Farm organisations want to keep the Beef Forum going… we solved a huge amount of problems, there was a total breakdown of trust and communications between farming organisations and factories.

The Beef Forum is a meeting that has to achieve consensus its not a lobbying exercise… The Forum was never there to set prices or conditions.

At end of 2014, we got a written agreement between processors and farming organisations to do a whole range of things and this was to last 12 months which it did.

At the end of the period processors decided that they would no longer apply what they had agreed to for 12 months which was to apply no penalties on weight. Of course, I would like them to continue to apply no penalties on weight but I can’t force that.

Beef price:

There is no dual pricing, there is a grid system… there is a single base price which we agreed in the forum and which factories have an obligation to implement.

If there are bonuses or penalties attached to the base price that is an issue for factories and farming organisations ABP proposed takeover of Slaney Meats and Irish Country Meats:

It has been refereed to the CPCC and I have written to the CPCC expressing the concern of farmers and asked them to take a robust look at whether this proposal would impact on the competition in beef markets.

Priorities if electorate votes to return Fine Gael to government

Would you hope to return as Agriculture Minister if Fine Gael is re-elected?

“I would love to, I’m very passionate about this portfolio and this industry.

"Irish farmers are very good at what they do but we can get better. Rural Ireland needs a vibrant agriculture and Agri Food industry and we are well on out way to achieving that.

"I can assure farmers that if Fine Gael are re-elected agriculture will be a big priority in government… I genuinely believe that it’s in the best interest of farmers and agriculture to vote Fine Gael.

What would be your principal priorities if you were to return as the Agriculture Minister?

We have a clear plan for growth and expansion and sustainability in agriculture called Foodwise 2025.

We want to increase our food exports by 85% in value terms in the next 10 years to €19bn. It’s also about protecting farm incomes … supporting them on innovation and better ways of doing things.

Supporting rural areas?

We introduced a new CAP and strong supports for young farmers.

Look at tourism, we have rolled out one of the most innovative tourism projects that rural Ireland has every seen along the Wild Atlantic Way.

We have prioritised the most important industries across rural Ireland tourism and Agri- Food.

We are generating jobs and looking at ways of growing new business in rural areas.

Every school, house and business in rural Ireland will have high speed broadband within the next five years.

Final message?

When I went to Ag college when I was younger, I left UCC… I went to Gurteen Ag College and knew very little about agriculture at the time.

I was fascinated by it and really interested in it and I never thought then that some day I would be Minister for Agriculture for a really crucial period in terms of the Irish economy and for Irish agriculture.

It has been an extraordinary privilege for me to be working with farmers and their families for the last five years.

I hope I have earned their trust and respect, I have certainly done everything I can to try and do that over the last five years.

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