Agriculture Minister Michael Creed is refreshingly candid about the challenges ahead but his commitment appears solid, says Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe.
He has an unenviable job, having to oversee complex sectors and to protect Ireland’s farming and fisheries communities now facing catastrophic challenges from Brexit.
Nonetheless, sitting in his Kildare St office on a muggy summer’s day, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed showed little sign of a politician discouraged by daunting tasks ahead.
Only hours after reaching a resolution with sit-in protesting tillage farmers at the department, Creed sits down calmly opposite me in his rolled up sleeved shirt in what emerges as a very frank interview.
The Cork North West TD has no qualms talking over a range of political matters, including Britain’s deteriorating Brexit plans, his difficult position during the recent Fine Gael leadership contest, the need for regional development, his upcoming budget wish-list and even the finicky media.
The Macroom native, having served as a TD except for one term since 1989, has seen his share of political heaves and leadership contests. Many agree he was left out in the cold for years after supporting Richard Bruton’s Fine Gael leadership challenge to Enda Kenny in 2010.
So during the recent race to succeed Mr Kenny between Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar, Creed was reluctant to back a winner. He stayed schtum on his favoured candidate. For the first time, he outlines the dilemma he faced and what he told both men.
“I took a decision early on, and I communicated this to both candidates, that I wasn’t entering into the public realm. Both canvassed and I said I wouldn’t be making public my intentions, public or private to either candidate.”
But was this difficult, especially with the huge support for Mr Coveney locally in Cork?
“I’m very friendly with Simon. I’m very friendly with Leo, I’m very friendly with members of my organisation who were actively involved in both campaigns.
“I would say it is true, and reflected in the membership vote and obviously being from Cork, a lot of my members would have been openly supporting Simon Coveney.”
Mr Creed was getting calls and knocks on the door at home to back Mr Coveney.
“There was a lot of that, yes. But my view was that this was a secret ballot and I was perfectly happy with the decision I reached. And both candidates respected that.”
The Minister for Agriculture also believes that, despite Mr Coveney losing, his Cork cabinet colleague was not damaged politically.
Nonetheless, despite the significant coverage Fine Gael secured during its leadership race, Creed has little praise for how the media covers politics, and goes as far as suggesting that our stance is sometimes disproportionately “anti-government”.
However, he firmly believes Mr Varadkar — who last week featured on the front of Time magazine — represents a new generation and may reshape media coverage of politics.
“We have been through an extraordinary decade as a country since the economic collapse,” he says. “I think it is right that the new chapter is emerging now. Certainly there are a lot of people still bruised from the recession and the damage.
“I think he is a straight thinker and a straight talker. He doesn’t pull his punches. Sometimes we get accused of speaking in riddles, that is not something you would likely say of Leo. He doesn’t do that.
“He is the perfect challenge to the cynic that is out there in terms of politics. He embodies a new Ireland. And I think he will be a very exciting leader for Fine Gael.
“In six months time though, the gloss goes off and it will be judged on the work that he is doing.”
Of course though, for the agriculture minister, a lot could change in that time too, particularly for worried farmers and fishing communities looking to ’Ag’ House for direction on Brexit.
Britain’s signalled withdrawal from the London Fisheries Convention and a wider closure of its waters when it leaves the EU is the “first serious shot on Brexit”, fishing bodies say. Creed agrees.
“If the UK leaves and takes its territorial waters, its 200-mile zone, with it — that’s where we catch 60% of our mackerel fishery. It is where we catch 43% of our prawns.”
The closure of British waters to Irish fisheries would not only see the cost of fish rise in supermarkets but would also mean huge losses for a sector that employs 11,000.
In the meantime, Mr Creed outlines tactics being used by the Irish government to push EU counterparts into pressing Britain to negotiate a softer Brexit.
This includes warning other member states, that any loss to our fishing areas or significant beef market with Britain with see a huge spillover into their sale areas and regions, Creed explains.
Brexit-proof measures will also be top his agenda during negotiations for the budget.
“Some will need to integrate further into the UK market and work with their suppliers there, meet the challenges head on. Others might say it might be prudent to diversify the risk and put 20% of my product into EU markets, other than the UK, and to look at markets outside the European Union.”
Equally, more emphasis should be placed on supporting rural and regional development, Mr Creed maintains. He hopes that huge infrastructure projects on hold in Munster, including the long-awaited N20 between Cork and Limerick and the N22 Macroom by-pass will be prioritised under capital projects being finalised by the Government.
“We do need to have a real counter focus to the Dublin [region]. The N20 and N22, they are all critical to that.”
But the incoherence coming from the British government is damaging Ireland’s Brexit preparations, insists Creed, outlining in extraordinary detail chaotic messages emerging from London.
“It is very difficult to see any coherence around what they are trying to achieve at the moment. It seems to change from day to day. And that makes it exceptionally difficult for us to kind of know, are they in for a soft Brexit, hard Brexit, no-deal mode? Are they in for transitional arrangements, whether it is Boris Johnson one day, David Davis another day?”
He says British businesses are the ones now “filing a vacuum which is there in terms of leadership” on Brexit. “I think it is important above a lot of the kerfuffle that we are hearing from various commentators and ministers in the UK.”
He believes “there is going to be a leadership challenge to Theresa May and until that issue is firmly resolved, there will be no coherence around their strategy”.
Just like the new Taoiseach, it looks like Michael Creed will not be pulling his punches, especially when it comes to negotiating on Brexit, farming, and fisheries in the months ahead.
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