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Ard Fheis 2004 - CAP reform must be used to aide Irish farming

28 February, 2004

Sinn Féin TD Martin Ferris introducing an Ard Chomhairle motion on CAP reform said 'We need to use the reform of CAP to move Irish farming from its traditional role of supplying bulk and relatively low value live and raw produce to other markets, to a new one based on high quality and oriented towards an expanded domestic processing sector.'

Sinn Féin was the first party in this country to come out in favour of full decoupling as part of the proposed reform of the Common Agricultural Policy. We engaged with the debate on reform when all of the other parties and indeed the Irish Government were either stating total opposition to any change or afraid to say anything for fear of offending someone.

The attitude of some farmers leaders was similar. They refused to countenance any change to the CAP and appeared to believe that everything would be fine if we continued as we had been for the past 30 years. If everything had been fine, we would not be in the current situation where the number of family farms has been decimated, farm incomes falling and many farmers trying to cope with massive debts.

The CAP had undoubtedly brought benefits but it had been at the expense of smaller farmers, and a distortion of Irish farming. Farmers were producing in order to draw down subsidies as they retained less and less control of the decisions they had to make in order to survive. Sinn Fein had always been critical of CAP from that point of view and we had no problem in pointing out where we believed change could be implemented.

What was also clear from our own contacts with farmers was that most farmers also realised that something had to be done. They knew that and were light years ahead of both the Department here, of the other political parties and of many of their own leaders. We don't claim to have had any crystal ball. But what we did do was to examine the proposals, listen to people involved in farming, and were not afraid to put forward our own proposals.

Unfortunately because the Department and others here refused to engage in the debate -- something that the Agricultural Commission told us in Brussels last May was baffling to them -- many of the issues of importance to Irish farmers went by default. Sinn Fein, on the other hand, put forward detailed proposals regarding the upper and lower limits on modulation, on rural development and decoupling.

Indeed I have to laugh when I hear some of our political opponents talk about our lack of impact in Leinster House because on this and many other issues we are the only party that is actually saying anything of importance. The fact that certain newspapers choose to conceal that fact is another issue.

Of course the final CAP reform package that emerged contained elements that we did not like, but we were prepared to give decoupling a chance and again during the course of the consultation process argued in favour of full decoupling as we also did in the consultation held by DARD in the Six Counties.

Decoupling is not a panacea. It does however, for the first time since 1973, open a window of opportunity through which farmers may be able to guarantee a set income through the single farm payment, and with that security go forward and develop production systems that will be of more benefit both to farmers themselves and to the overall interests of Irish consumers and Irish food processing.

It must be stressed however, that this will not be sufficient in itself. For Irish agriculture to prosper requires a radical overhaul of the current strategy being pursued on both sides of the border. Minister Joe Walsh has recognised that to the extent of appointing a group to review the Vision strategy but the composition of that group does not inspire confidence that they will come up with anything innovative.

We need to use the reform of CAP to move Irish farming from its traditional role of supplying bulk and relatively low value live and raw produce to other markets, to a new one based on high quality and oriented towards an expanded domestic processing sector. That will pay dividends in terms of the survival of the family farm, in boosting farm incomes and in creating jobs in processing. It will also have benefits for consumers if we can replace processed food imports with those made at home.

That is the strategy that Sinn Féin will be pursing over the coming years, and which we will implement when in a position to do so.

However, as other motions here indicate, rural Ireland is not simply a collection of economic units. It is a community of communities that must be sustained through a period of radical change.

Not everyone in rural Ireland is a farmer and that must be borne in mind when framing the type of policies that we recommend here. Policies which we believe can not only help rural communities to survive, but to prosper in a manner where real decentralisation can take place and Ireland becomes a more balanced society in which urban squalor and rural isolation are a thing of the past.

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