Filling Mary Coughlan’s shoes

AGRICULTURE certainly is not the worst senior ministry Brendan Smith could have started with.

Unfortunately, he begins the job on the back foot, trying to persuade farmers that they have nothing to fear from world trade talks, and that they shouldn’t express their fears by voting No to the Lisbon Treaty.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen told the Dáil his immediate task is to ensure ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. But it looks like ministers around the world will still be trying to agree a framework trade deal on agriculture, as we go to the polls in the referendum.

It will be hard to get a Yes vote from farmers against that uncertain background.

And world trade is not the only issue for them. Minister Smith should beware of any complacency due to high prices for milk, cattle and grain, which ended a period of low profits for farmers during which many farmers generally became rather disillusioned with their lot.

And no sooner did prices for their produce rise than galloping inflation hit the prices for farm inputs equally quickly.

Meanwhile, pig farmers are losing money, and farmers have the CAP health check hanging over them, as well as the world trade talks.

But Minister Smith’s experience as a junior minister in agriculture will help him hit the ground running.

Also he has been a TD since 1992, and farmers were generally happy with his work as a Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food with special responsibility for Food and Horticulture.

It doesn’t hurt that he comes from west Cavan, a small farming area where his brother runs a dairy farm.

However, he has a hard act to follow. Even hard-to-please farmer organisations like IFA and Macra had good wishes for Mary Coughlan last week as she switched from Agriculture to Enterprise Trade and Employment, and also accepted the promotion to Tánaiste.

She will be remembered by farmers as sympathetic to their cause. She made them feel she had their interests at heart.

Farmers found her approachable, she was happy to listen to them, and she had a good record of attendance at events organised by the farmer organisations, where she was well-known for departing from her script in order to address pressing issues raised from the floor. On such occasions, she showed her mastery of her portfolio and confidence to go off-script.

And she wasn’t in a hurry to rush off if farmers wanted to talk, even though trips home to Donegal added to her heavy workload.

Hopefully Minister Smith will be equally accessible.

Those in farming and the food industry will also hope he gets a sympathetic hearing in what some urbanites are calling a “culchie cabinet”.

Unfortunately, many of the crucial decisions for the agri-food industry are made far from Ireland, but there is reason to believe our representatives in the EU and further afield will travel with the best interests of rural and regional communities at heart.


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