Fine Gael has been accused of “childish politics” by Fianna Fáil figures following an intervention by the Taoiseach over the ending of a derogation on EU nitrates regulations for Irish farmers.
Following a meeting with the Irish Farmers Association last week on the fringes of his party’s think-in, Leo Varadkar said he would invite EU environment commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius to Ireland.
Mr Varadkar’s intervention came despite Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue’s insistence that the commissioner’s decision to end an exemption for Irish farmers was not going to be reversed.
It has led to a backlash within Fianna Fáil, with Senator Erin McGreehan saying it was “childish politics” and said the Taoiseach was “saying what [farmers] wanted to hear” after they protested at the Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil think-ins.
The commission has lowered the maximum nitrate allowance for Ireland from 250kg per hectare to 220kg per hectare. Some 3,000 Irish dairy farmers will be affected by the deduction, which will force them to reduce their herds or find additional land.
Fianna Fáil TD Jackie Cahill, who chairs the Oireachtas agriculture committee, said the commissioner had been “absolutely emphatic” that the decision would not be reversed and that it was “very important that we’re straight with farmers and give them the factual position”.
Speaking on RTÉ’s This Week programme on Sunday, Fine Gael Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture Martin Heydon insisted that Mr Varadkar had not gone over his Cabinet colleague’s head, adding that Mr McConalogue was “happy enough” for the letter inviting Mr Sinkevicius to be sent. He said there were plenty of good reasons for the commissioner to meet farmers and hear about the Irish farming sector.
However, Fianna Fáil figures were privately scathing of the Taoiseach’s intervention. One senior Fianna Fáil source said the intervention was a “declaration of election time” and argued that it was a move to shore up support for Fine Gael among farmers at a time when Irish Farming Association elections are also under way. “[Fine Gael] have lost on farming,” the source said, arguing the party had been “poor on farming stuff for years”.
“It looks like one of Leo’s old tricks,” the source said. “What’s it going to achieve? Nothing.”
Another Fianna Fáil TD said their Coalition partners “know well it’s not going to be revised and they haven’t the balls to say it to the IFA”.
Asked about the directive on Sunday, Green Party Minister of State Ossian Smyth said water quality had to be borne in mind. “We need fresh drinking water and we need rivers that can support biodiversity and fish and whatever we can do to help farmers move away from expensive fertilisers is a good thing.
“I don’t expect that there will be [changes to the derogation],” he said. “But I think that we can always look at the implementation and I think the conversation has to continue.”