Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has insisted that an EU decision to cut nitrates allowances will not be revisited despite a commitment by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to discuss the matter with the EU Commissioner with responsibility for the area.
In an apparent over-ruling of Mr McConalogue on Friday, the Taoiseach said he would write to the EU Commissioner for the Environment Virginijus Sinkevičius inviting him to Ireland to discuss the issue. 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. The decision to reduce the allowance for the use of fertiliser was taken because of EPA reports which fund that agricultural run-off was a contributory factor to pollution in Irish rivers.
However, after meeting a delegation from the IFA on the margins of the Fine Gael parliamentary party meeting in Limerick, Mr Varadkar agreed to write to Commissioner Sinkevicius, inviting him to Ireland to meet himself, Minister McConalogue and a delegation from the sector. If the Commissioner is unable to attend, he will ask him to meet sector representatives in Brussels.
The intervention by the Taoiseach was hailed as a significant development by the IFA and by its president Tim Cullinan, who led a protest over the issue in Limerick on Friday.
In a statement, Mr Cullinan said that at the meeting it was clear the Taoiseach “understood the large impact that any cut in the nitrates derogation limit would have on Irish farmers and the wider sector”.
It was also taken as the Taoiseach over-ruling Mr McConalogue. However, the Department of Agriculture said on Friday evening the Taoiseach had given no commitment to reopen the decision on the 250kgN/ha limit.
“Mr McConalogue has already invited the Commissioner to Ireland and the Taoiseachs invite is entirely consistent to the Government approach to this matter,” a spokeswoman said.
Mr Cullinan said that the Taoiseach and Minister of State for Agriculture Martin Heydon also promised to have a look at the issue of delayed payments for farmers during 2023, which have mainly affected farmers in the sheep and beef sectors.
Ireland is one of only three countries which gets a derogation under the Nitrates Directive, which is designed to reduce the impact of fertilisers on water quality throughout the EU. Ireland’s derogation has been more generous due to the grass-based nature of dairy and beef farming. However, the rapid expansion of the dairy sector since the end of quotas has resulted in almost a doubling of the herd size and increased use of fertilisers. Run-off from dairy farms has been identified by the EPA as a significant contributory factor to increased pollution in rivers and lakes. The agency has found that over 50 per cent of Irish waterways are now polluted.
Earlier Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald had criticised the Minister for Agriculture for not travelling to meet the European Commission in person to make the case for Irish farmers in relation to the nitrates directive and the cut in Ireland’s derogation.
“I am with the farmers in this respect and I think it was absolutely remiss of the Minister not to meet directly with the Commission on this matter. For the life of me, I cannot understand how he could have imagined that a virtual conversation at a distance would suffice,” she told RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland.
“I think all of us have to be aware and committed to water quality, and the farmers that I talk to understand that very, very carefully. I think in terms of the derogation, it’s a question of managing this matter and managing it well. And at Government now I would say that they are going to compensate farmers and we want to see what exactly that is going to look like.”
Ms McDonald said farmers had told her many times over the years of their very deep frustration at not having “a joined-up conversation” with Government on all of these matters.
“Sometimes they tell me that they are just getting the deaf ear from Government and that in itself is not helpful. These things are difficult. They need to be managed, but they can only be managed when you’re properly co-ordinated and when a Minister is actually prepared to travel and to make the case in a comprehensive way.”
The European Commission has previously said it would not revisit the lowering of the threshold, pointing out that Ireland had been one of only three EU member states getting a derogation.
At an Oireachtas committee hearing on Friday, shortly before the Taoiseach’s intervention, McConalogue reiterated that the battle now is to keep the 220kg limit for dairy farmers, which is due to fall to 170kg per hectare from 2026, the limit that applies in most states.
“It will never have never been more critical that Government, industry and farmers all work together over the next two years to deliver water quality improvements and facilitate maintaining the derogation at the maximum limit possible,” he said.
“Farmers will be supported through this period, my department have engaged directly with Teagasc and with private consultants this week to provide farmers with the necessary assistance to manage their way through this period.”
He sais his department will issue interim 2023 nitrogen and phosphorus statements to all farmers in the coming days, with figures based on cattle numbers on farms up to the end of August.