There is growing concern that talks aimed at resolving the beef crisis will not go ahead on Monday evening after the grassroots farmers’ organisation that has organised protests in recent months said it would not take part in the absence of meat processors.
Talks involving a number of farming organisations and Meat Industry Ireland (MII), which represents processors, were to take place chaired by former Department of Agriculture secretary-general Michael Dowling.
It is understood Mr Dowling was to hold bilateral meetings with all the groups throughout Monday afternoon before a plenary session involving a roundtable discussion with all parties was to begin at 7pm.
However, MII said on Monday it was suspending its involvement in the negotiations due to the ongoing blockading of factories.
Eamon Corley, a co-founder of the Beef Plan Movement, the grassroots farmers' organisation that has organised protests, urged processors to return to the negotiating table.
While he said the group would adopt a “wait and see” approach throughout the day, he added that the Beef Plan Movement would not take part in the talks “if there is nobody there to talk to”.
Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed expressed disappointment at the developments and urged the parties to engage in a positive way to resolve the current impasse.
“I have this evening engaged with the chairman of the beef talks to receive a report on today’s proceedings,” he said in a statement on Monday evening.
“MII indicated today that it is unwilling to enter talks in circumstances where factory gates continue to be blockaded. Despite this I have made the chairman of the talks available to all parties with a view to determining a basis to get the parties back to the table. I remain convinced that that the only way to resolve these significant challenges for the sector is by negotiation, and that progress can be made on key issues if the parties approach talks in a positive spirit,” he said.
“I can certainly understand farmer frustration at market conditions that see many producing beef at a significant loss and of course the closure of meat plants is in nobody’s best interests. I am concerned that today’s events will only serve to entrench positions and risk prolonging this very damaging dispute. Processors and farmers are mutually dependent and the future of the beef sector depends on the development of a commercial relationship built on a recognition that this is the case,” he added.
Mr Creed urged all stakeholders to consider their positions carefully and take a step back from action that he said has the potential to be damaging for the sector as a whole, in order to allow space for meaningful talks to take place.
Negotiations got under way last month after beef farmers, who claim they are not getting a fair price for animals at the factory gate, agreed to suspend blockades of factories, while the meat industry suspended the threat of legal proceedings.
While those talks concluded in agreement on a broad range of issues, the Beef Plan Movement could not convince its members to ratify the agreement.
Subsequently, fresh blockades of factories and distribution centres of most major retailers have taken place.
While the Beef Plan Movement insisted it has had no role in the blockading of factories, which are thought to have been staged by individual farmers, the group said on Sunday it will be involved in “peaceful protests” at retail centres.
In a statement on Monday, MII said that while it had arrived at the Department of Agriculture’s headquarters in Celbridge, Co Kildare, for talks, some 20 plants representing 80 per cent of processing capacity remained blockaded.
“During an initial engagement with the independent chair and government officials, MII communicated that protestors had failed to step back from factory gate blockades and had instead intensified these illegal blockades,” it said.
“MII requested the Minister and independent chairman to use their best endeavours to have blockades lifted to enable talks. The MII delegation adjourned its participation in the talks until all illegal blockades are lifted.”
The group expressed frustration at the refusal of protestors to step back from blockading and to “observe the norms” that apply in talks aimed at resolving disputes. It reiterated that blockades are placing factory employees at risk of layoffs.
Furthermore, the blockades “have put in jeopardy” national and international customers of Irish beef.
“MII members companies accept the rights of individuals and groups to hold peaceful protests,” it said. “But it reiterated its stance that unless illegal blockades are suspended immediately, it cannot continue to engage with the talks process.
“The clear implication of the failure to secure a suspension of illegal blockades also demonstrates the absence of leadership capacity to deliver a successful outcome to any such talks.”
The main bone of contention for farmers in the dispute is the price of beef. However, the issue cannot be discussed in the talks due to the fear of flouting competition law.
The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) held a meeting with the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) on Friday, and, following the meeting, said the CCPC had “put no impediment to cattle prices being discussed” at the talks.
IFA president Joe Healy said: "Our own legal advice is that under current EU and Irish legislation, prices can be discussed at the meeting.
“We made it very clear at the round of talks last month that price had to be part of the discussions. When we attend the talks this afternoon, we will be making price an issue. Farmers cannot survive at prices below the cost of production.”
However, the CCPC has disputed the conclusions drawn by the IFA from the meeting. It said on Monday it had “reminded those in attendance that discussions on pricing are generally prohibited under competition law”.
It said the IFA “should seek its own legal advice to clarify what is permitted under the law”.
“The CCPC is the statutory body with responsibility for the enforcement of competition law, and as such the CCPC strongly refutes any suggestion that it ‘would not put any impediment in the way of prices being discussed at the talks.’
“Competition law is a well-established feature of Irish and European law and all parties to the meeting are expected to take this into consideration in participating in the Beef Stakeholder talks.”