30th March 2003
Sinn Fein Ard Fheis 2003
Martin Ferris TD, speaking on the Agriculture and Rural Development section
In supporting this motion, I would like to emphasise the vital importance of these issues to huge numbers of people throughout this country and therefore to our party, especially as it strives to make further breakthroughs in parts of the Six Counties and throughout most of this state where we as yet have no elected representation.
As the motion states, rural life encompasses far more than farming although farming obviously remains a key factor and one which is the basis for much of the other economic activity that takes place in rural communities. The growing importance of broader rural development issues has been highlighted by the breakdown of traditional voting patterns in many constituencies in this state including those where we now have TDs and Councillors but also where a number of genuine Independent TDs have been elected on the basis of their championing of local communities against the withdrawal of public services, economic decline and high levels of poverty and isolation.
While recognising the integrity of those Independents we as republicans also know that to really set about addressing those problems and to solving them will require that Sinn Fein becomes the party that people in rural Ireland looks to for a radical alternative to the current set-up. That is why it is vitally important that we engage on every level with communities in their struggles and why we need to develop and publicise our policies on everything to do with the economic and social life of rural communities.
As I said before, farming is still an important economic activity and at present is undergoing a major crisis. Income levels have fallen over the past period, and growing numbers of farmers are finding themselves massively in debt with many forced out of farming altogether. On top of all this the sector is now facing into potentially the most radical reform to date of the Common Agricultural Policy.
While Sinn Fein has consistently pointed to the deficiencies of CAP, and called for changes to enhance the position of small to medium farmers, we have as yet come to no definitive position on the current Fischler proposals. In general terms we can see that there might be benefits to be gained from de-coupling EU payments from production and from increased funding for rural development, but as yet we do not know what the final shape of the reform will be.
The serious phase of negotiations in fact is only beginning and that is why it is vital that the Dublin Government comes up with concrete proposals that will help to safeguard the interests of Irish agriculture. They have made none to date and this was referred to this week by Commissioner Fischler who pointed out that his proposals are not written in stone and that it was up to the Department here to make concrete proposals.
Because of this the Fischler proposals have already undergone some revisions that we would regard as harmful. We would also be unhappy with the manner in which modulation is currently being talked about. There is no guarantee for example that modulated funds will be retained in the same country and much has already been ear-marked for purposes other than rural development.
But even with regard to rural development the proposals as they currently stand refer only to farm based payments connected to environmental and animal health and welfare. There is nothing here for what we would describe as broader rural development encompassing the entire rural community outside of those engaged in farming. We would argue that this is something that needs to be altered in order that the EU live up to its own commitment to developing rural communities in the broadest sense.
But whatever the outcome of the CAP reforms, they will still be carried out under the broad remit of EU agricultural policy which ever since the Mansholt Plan has been to rationalise the sector and now to supposedly make it more responsive to the market. All of what has been done to date has been at the expense of the smaller farmers and the consumer. So while we will take an active part in the debate on Fischler we do not regard CAP in whatever form as the solution to the problems facing Irish farming.
For that to happen will require a much more radical approach around access to land, farm incomes, farm structure and the control of the food industry which is more and more becoming the preserve of large corporations acting as a cartel against the interests of both farmer and consumer. Perhaps it is time that we looked anew at modernising the principle of co-operativism and something similar to the old Land Commission that might intervene in the land market to ensure access to land at reasonable prices to smaller farmers and those wishing to enter farming.
What we also need to do is to become actively involved in local community projects. Many of you will already have experience of some of the EU funded rural development programmes on both sides of the border. You will also be aware that while bringing certain benefits, they tend to be short-term, not self-sustaining and not genuinely democratic. The demand for this to take place, and for a much more serious approach to be taken encompassing the sort of issues referred to in the last part of the motion should be the core of our policy. We are the only party that has always been committed to real decentralisation and local control and we need to put that to the forefront of our work in rural communities.
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