Barry Roche, Southern Correspondent, Cork
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been heckled by farmers demanding increased Brexit support.
Mr Varadkar was greeted by shouts and chants of "Where's the beef, ye vegan?" as he arrived in Cork on Wednesday for a Government meeting.
Members of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) staged a demonstration outside City Hall on Wednesday to coincide with a Cabinet meeting being held in the building.
When asked to respond to the heckler, Mr Varadkar said he was not vegan and that he was “very much an omnivore”.
The chants were made in reference to comments made earlier this year by the Taoiseach that he was cutting down on eating red meat for health and climate change reasons.
The remarks were not well received by farmers.
Over 300 IFA members had gathered when the Taoiseach arrived shortly after 10am. Amid jostling, some farmers surged forward, but they were held back by gardaí and heckled Mr Varadkar, jeering and shouting at him “Pay us our money”.
Mr Varadkar said the government is working closely with the European Commission to find a way to provide extra income support for Irish beef farmers who have lost over €100 million in income over the past year.
He said the government was well aware of the difficulties facing Ireland’s 75,000 beef farmers and the impact falling beef prices were having on their livelihoods and the rural economy.
“There are of course lots of reasons as to why beef prices are so low - partly due to sentiment related to Brexit, partly due to the weather conditions last year but it’s also due to the fact there is lot of supply and supply isn’t being matched with demand and all of those factors have caused beef prices to fall.”
Mr Varadkar said that Irish beef farmers probably receive more in income supports and subsidies than any other sector of the Irish economy but notwithstanding that, the government was committed to finding further ways of providing support which are compatible with European Union regulations.
“We want to do more to help beef farmers and we’ve made a submission to the European Commission around what we might be able to do to provide additional income supports so we are working closely with the European Commission on that and we will be pursuing that over the next week or two.
IFA president Joe Healy said up to 70,000 farmers nationally are involved in beef production and they have been losing money on animals for the past six months at a rate that is no longer sustainable.
“We have farmers all over the country that have lost a fortune – they have lost everything from €100 on steers to €400 and €500 on bulls and that’s just not sustainable. We need support but we need it now, there’s no point in talking about next October,” said Mr Healy.
IFA Munster regional chairman John Coughlan from Buttevant said that Irish beef farmers have already had "a hard Brexit in the beef industry for the past six months". He said beef finishers in particular were suffering to the point where they are struggling to "put food on the table" for their families.
“If you were involved solely in beef, you would need to be finishing 300 to 400 animals a year on a profit margin of €100 per animal to get any sort of sustainable income. But this year, those farmers are losing €200 to €500 per animal so they are not making a living and eating into their already meagre reserves.”
Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed acknowledged beef farmers are going through a particularly difficult period at the moment, despite the Government putttng €45 million into support schemes for farmers in recent times.
He said the Government is looking at developing new markets and he pointed out that already the volume of Irish beef sales in China for the first quarter of 2019 is almost equal to the entire volume of sales there last year.
He said he also expects the Turkish market to open for Irish beef later this year.