Thank you Michelle and although I don’t have much time, let me first of all congratulate Minister O’Neill and her staff on the amount they have achieved in the past year for the farmers and rural dwellers of the North, particularly her initiatives to tackle rural poverty and isolation and her movement towards flattening the CAP payments.
In the South too, she has tried to be of help when the government sat back and the beef crisis unfolded. The issue of nomad cattle became a significant problem on which we decided to act on a North South basis, with Michelle, as minister in the North co-operating with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine in the South, to resolve the labelling issue.
We held a joint meeting, in Ballinasloe at which Matt Carthy and Martina Anderson MEPs attended and at which the livestock mart managers and the main farm organisations participated.
The main issue, however, was that the meat factories and the big multiple retailers were calling the shots and that the government in the South was not standing up to them on behalf of farmers. I said it in the Dáil at the time and I say it again now, Sinn Féin in government will challenge the beef barons and stand up for farmers.
It was one of the highlights of the year when we had the opportunity with Liadh Ní Riada MEP to host a delegation of inshore fishermen to Brussels so that they could outline their concerns about their sector and their survival under the weight of regulation from Brussels.
Again it is a section of our people who have been let down by government and who need a strong voice to defend them in Brussels where quotas and regulations are depriving them of their livelihoods in fishing.
In the past couple of weeks, now that they get the whiff of a general election, it is like a lightbulb has gone on over Enda Kenny’s head and he has discovered rural Ireland.
You wouldn’t think the man was from Mayo the way he is so removed from the reality of the lives of people living outside the cities. Rural Ireland has been devastated under this austerity government: post offices, garda stations, schools, banks, community welfare offices, hospitals and health centres all have been cut and cut again out of the heart of rural Ireland.
Last week, however, Enda talked about recovery in rural Ireland. Then stood back and watched Bus Eireann cut 100 routes from the towns and villages of rural areas and all for the sake of profitability. This is the only bottom line that this government recognises. Hardship and suffering for the people has never been a reason to shout stop. The welfare of their rich friends, bailing out banks and looking after their cronies has always taken precedence over the welfare of the working people of this state.
Sinn Féin in government will have some job to do to repair the damage done to rural communities, most particularly by Phil Hogan, before he fled to a soft and well-padded seat in Brussels. The Leader programmes, water charges, septic tank charges and the decimation of local democracy has been his legacy.
We have a job to do comrades, but I have no doubt that the people of rural Ireland, the country people, will come with us in our quest to improve the lives of rural dwellers, to revitalise our beautiful towns and villages and to take back control of our destiny in an island of equals, which includes equality of rural and urban.
Just because someone lives outside the cities, does not mean that they have to settle for second best, in jobs, in education, in services or in health. Sinn Féin will shortly introduce a bill to the Dáil which will legislate for the rural proofing of all laws, to give rural people and rural areas the equality they deserve under the law.