Cards from well-wishers still adorn the office of Tom Hayes who was appointed Minister of State for Agriculture in June, but it was a bittersweet moment for the Tipperary man when he sat behind his desk for the first time. He was director of elections for the man he replaced – Shane McEntee, who died suddenly in December.
“It was sad for everybody that knew him and worked with him,” he says. “No matter where I go, Shane McEntee’s name comes up all the time, what he had done and what he intended to do. He had a lot of plans in place and he didn’t get to realise them.”
Hayes's appointment came as a surprise to some, with media speculation centred around two names – Meath West TD Damien English and Wicklow TD Andrew Doyle, who chairs the Oireachtas agriculture committee.
Not unexpectedly, Hayes (61) says he wasn’t surprised to be chosen. “My name was mentioned in dispatches,” he says. “I’ve been chairman of the party, I’ve done a lot of service for the party and worked behind the scenes for many years. I’m from a farming background and I always dreamed of it, but I didn’t know if it would ever happen to me.”
From Golden, Co Tipperary, he runs a 140-acre drystock farm and believes his farming experience will stand him in good stead in his new role. “Obviously with politics I haven’t given it maybe as much time as I would like to,” he says, but the farm gets by with the help of his three sons and others.
If he thought he didn’t have enough time on the farm before, he’ll have even less time from next month when the Dáil swings into action with a referendum looming and an early budget.
Farm families have been concerned about proposals to include capital assets in the means test for third-level student grants. On the day he was appointed, he ruffled the feathers of Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn by saying the proposal had been scrapped. Quinn quickly shot back that it hadn’t but the plan does appear to have been put on the back burner for now. Could it resurface? He hopes not.
“I hold the view that it’s very wrong to include the value of land as income, which it’s not. It’s unfair to do it and I think the Government has realised that,” he says.
“I really believe in rural areas there are families who would not get a chance at third-level education if these assets were included.” In his own case, he says that if he was totally reliant on the farm income and capital assets were included in the means test for a grant, then his sons would not have gone to college.
“I think the Government understands it . . . they are reasonable people and I would hope that the policy [to exclude capital assets] will prevail,” he says.
When the Dáil resumes he says he will be urging Minister for Enterprise Richard Bruton to push for the early introduction of a code of practice for the grocery sector. The code, which would protect suppliers from sharp practices by retailers, has been awaited for some time and the Government failed to introduce it before the Dáil broke up for the summer holidays.
“I understand that some time early in the new Dáil session, legislation will be brought forward to deal with this. I would be anxious, and I would be talking to Richard Bruton to ensure that it goes through.”
Hayes is responsible for horticulture and fruit and vegetable growers have been warning that the relentless drive by supermarkets for cheap food is forcing many growers out of the industry.
He says he understands their concerns. “It’s a competitive business and a tough business. Obviously some of the growers are under a lot of pressure but when the Minister for Enterprise and Trade acts on what’s promised, I think it will help those people. I intend to work with them to deal with the problems they have.”
Ash dieback disease
Forestry is also one of his areas of responsibility and the outbreak of ash dieback disease is a key concern. He is waiting for the outcome of a summer survey of ash plantations and hedgerows that is now under way. Most of those results are due in about five weeks. "Obviously one has got to be concerned while that is going on," he says. "It's a worrying time for me because if there's a spread of this it's a whole new ball game for the department. It would be devastating for ash trees."
There have been 85 confirmed findings of the fungal disease since it was first confirmed in imported trees in a Co Leitrim plantation last October. While the Forest Service received criticism for not acting quicker to stop the importation of ash plants, he says “from what I’ve seen, a lot has been done and I can’t see what else could have been done”.
Food safety is also in his bailiwick, but luckily for him, he was not in situ when the horse meat scandal emerged in January. He recently attended a food safety conference in Rome and says he was congratulated for the way the Irish authorities had handled the horse meat crisis. “We were the first to discover what was a European- wide problem. They were saying, only for us the scandal would have continued all over Europe.”
During the crisis, there was criticism for the major fall in the number of meat plant inspections by his department.
Some 10,114 were carried out in 2009, compared with 7,189 in 2011. He says there were 5,963 inspections last year and 1,194 in the first three months of this year. Is that enough? “If there is need for more then that can be dealt with . . . but we are living in very difficult times and the whole department is under pressure to keep costs down so we need to have the best service at minimum cost.”
On the question of whether anyone will be prosecuted over the horse-meat scandal, he says if people break the law they must be held responsible. “There is no room in the industry for people that do irreparable damage to our industry.”
Perhaps though the area of responsibility closest to his own heart is the greyhound sector. He follows greyhound racing and, as the owner of a share in two coursing dogs, he robustly defends hare coursing.
“I attend many coursing meetings and the standards in coursing are so high that there is not this cruelty that is being portrayed in the media,” he says. “People should understand that the animals are so well looked after. I wouldn’t be in favour of any cruelty to animals . . . and if anyone has any other ideas for protecting animals, I’ll be only too willing to look at them.”
He adds he would gladly take anyone to a coursing event and talk them through it. “It’s part of a culture in a rural part of the country that people have been part of for generations and nobody is more protective of the welfare of animals than the people that are involved in those sports.”
Greyhound sector review
He says the whole greyhound sector provides 10,000 full- and part-time jobs and is worth an estimated €0.5 billion to the economy, according to Bord na gCon.
He is commissioning a review of the sector and says there is huge potential for growth. “We need to look at the whole structure of an industry that can create a lot of part-time jobs and be good for our tourism industry. The terms of reference will be signed off shortly and we’ll advertise then for outside people to look at the industry, warts and all.”
So he has a big “to-do” list but how hard will it be to put his own stamp on the department with such a prolific senior minister as Simon Coveney? “I think we will complement each other. I’m on the ground. I attend marts. I know the industry upside down from a practical point of view and I think we can work that to both our benefits. When the next election is called, I have no doubt that we will have left our mark.”