Ex-Agriculture Minister Barry Cowen has demanded documentation to show why an evaluation committee shot down an immigrant investment programme application by an investor planning to set up a meat processing plant at Banagher, Co Offaly.
The immigrant investment programme was introduced by the Government in 2012 to encourage inward investment from outside Europe, including making a secure residency status in the State available for investors and certain categories of family members.
The Laois-Offaly Fianna Fáil TD said he worked with investors over the past 12 to 18 months on their planning application to locate the plant at the site of Banagher Chilling, which was previously used as an abattoir.
Some of the investors involved applied under the immigrant investor programme, open to applicants who invest more than €1 million.
However, an evaluation committee has refused the first such application, “to my utter dismay and disbelief”, said Deputy Cowen.
“The committee concluded, it would appear, that the proposed project is not an appropriate project for approval,” he told the Dáil last week.
“The committee concluded the project does not align with Government policy on the beef processing industry, having regard to the fact it is not currently policy to pursue the development of additional plants where there is no established deficit in capacity.
“I might have been the Minister for agriculture for only 17 days, but one would hardly need a green certificate to recognise this conclusion in no way reflects the Irish farming sector’s understanding of Government policy which has, for example, over the past ten years, sought to open Asian markets, which this plant and project would exclusively supply.
“How then can a €40 million project, which has the approval of the State’s planning authority, the co-operation of Offaly County Council, the support of the community in the region, the backing of beef farmers, the support of Bord Bia and the support of the Chinese Embassy, be subject to disapproval by an evaluation committee that oversees this scheme?”
Demanding documentation on the evaluation committee’s decision, Deputy Cowen said, “We need these answers and we need them fast if we are to secure and proceed with the realisation of 250 jobs in construction and 150 jobs in the plant’s operation.”
He revealed he has seen documentation pertaining to this case from officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and from the Chinese embassy, and Bord Bia, and that Bord Bia says the proposal is particularly opportune, given that Ireland became the first European country to gain access to China for beef exports, in 2018, and six Irish beef plants have been approved to export there.
Bord Bia revealed recently that a €29m increase in beef exports to China year-to-date has contributed to a 59% increase in beef exports to Asia, and strong sustainable demand is expected when the China market returns, after a temporary closure for technical reasons.
Responding in the Dáil, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said she could not respond directly on a specific case, but explained how the immigrant investor programme process managed by her Department.
She said the applicant is subject to rigorous screening by her Department as to suitability for permission to enter into and reside in the State, and their enterprise, fund or project is subject to detailed examination by an independent evaluation committee, including experts from relevant government departments and Irish embassies. If the committee deems the project suitable for funding under the programme, a submission is made to her for final approval.
“The investment should also be aligned with overarching Government policy,” she said. Investment in social infrastructure, especially social housing and nursing homes, is a key priority as set out in Project Ireland 2040, but agricultural projects are included in the programme also, according to the Minister.