I welcome the opportunity to speak in this positive debate. A great many of the contributions have been highly constructive. However, it speaks volumes about where lies the interest of the Opposition parties in rural Ireland, after all the bellyaching in which Opposition Members have engaged in recent weeks and months. This is the industry that probably has the potential to lift every single community in the country out of the economic mire into which Fianna Fáil and its colleagues landed it. While they claim to have the heart and soul of rural Ireland, not a single Member from Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the new party or the Independents is present in the Chamber. Not for the first time, they have walked out on rural Ireland. They also walked out on it in 2008, when they pulled out the door behind the country. The fact that the Opposition benches have been left empty this evening, with no spokesperson on agriculture present for anybody, speaks volumes.
The farming organisations are actively engaged in ensuring the political representatives from rural constituencies are attuned to the needs of rural communities and should take note of this spectacle that is the interest the Opposition parties are showing in rural communities this evening. It is an absolute disgrace but it is not their first time since I came into this House. It is a growing trend that the Opposition takes an à la carte approach to the Dáil and it should be a matter of record that this is the level of interest the Opposition is showing in an industry I reiterate has the potential to lift us out of the mire in it landed us in 2008.
To return to the dairy sector, I come from County Limerick, where every parish contains people who still are deeply involved in active farming. Farming has been and is the backbone of the economy of County Limerick. It is no different to most other countries, in that it is a necklace of small towns and villages across wide open countryside in which the contribution of family farms is of massive importance. I did not grow up on or come from a farm but my mother did and given my involvement as a member of Limerick County Council and in meeting people on a daily basis in my home town of Newcastle West and towns across County Limerick, I am acutely aware of the importance of the contribution the farmer plays in the local economy. Moreover, it is not only the farmer but also his or her extended family in terms of putting money back into the economy. The abolition of milk quotas has been referred to recently and given the strong affinity County Limerick has with places such as Listowel, Mitchelstown and Charleville, in which huge levels of investments have been made by the plcs that own the milk processing plants, it has a spin-off that is magnified across counties like Limerick. For instance, the workforce is derived from towns such as Dromcollogher and Ballylanders and similar places in the peripheral parts of County Limerick. In addition, it also applies to people working on farms, be it relief milking or in fixing milking machines or the provision of the basic services that are required to keep the family farm going. All of that money winds up back in the local economy and is generating real jobs in real communities for real families in which the Opposition appears to have no interest this evening.
One point on which the Minister of State should deal when responding to the debate concerns the future of farming from the perspective of the young farmer. I have mentioned this in the Chamber previously but I refer in particular to the pressures under which the agricultural colleges are operating. As the Minister of State is aware, one of them is situated in my constituency, in Copsewood College, Pallaskenry, which for many generations has provided a top-quality education to young farmers and those taking on the family farm at home. More investment is needed in respect of teaching staff, which never have been busier and the colleges have never had such numbers or the clamour to get into them as exists at present. This is a good thing because it ensures the next generation of young people will stay at home and will play an active role in their communities socially, culturally or politically. However, the agricultural colleges must be resourced and assisted. I appreciate there are resource constraints within the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Teagasc but the agricultural colleges around the country should be acknowledged. My colleague, Deputy Connaughton, is in a similar situation and these colleges have provided a terrific level of service and should be acknowledged.
Members of the Opposition sought an opportunity to play politics regarding what the Minister might or might not be able to do in respect of agriculture.
We need to bear in mind, however, that in recent budgets the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, has been to the fore in ensuring that Irish agriculture takes a central role in Government policy on rebuilding the country's recovery, together with industries like tourism.
It is not that long ago that Ministers for Finance stood up in this House, before the last general election, and if agriculture got mentioned at all it was very lucky. More often than not, however, agriculture never received a mention. One had to check an appendix in the back of the book to find any such reference, and if it was referred to it was in terms of what the government would cut from the agriculture budget.
The difference now is that the Government acknowledges the agriculture sector has played a major role in our recovery. One only has to look at the St. Patrick's Day festivities around the world to see the proof of this. Wherever our Ministers went during St. Patrick's week, Irish food brands were centre stage.
In my own constituency, there is a plant in Askeaton, County Limerick, that is close to being the number one producer of infant formula derived from Irish milk. That is the future for the dairy sector and family farms that can produce added-value products for the emerging populations of China, India and Africa. In the latter continent, we are inclined to overlook the fact that there is a burgeoning middle class with large incomes who want to consume good quality food. Where better to source it than from Ireland? Some people may moan about the cost of sending Ministers abroad, but it should be recognised that such visits are a prerequisite for marketing and selling Irish food products.
The Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, is very active in that role. He recently visited my constituency where he promoted an important food fair to take place this summer in Croagh. I was delighted to be able to invite him there to perform that task.
My constituency is predominantly rural and dependent on farm incomes, so yesterday's announcement by the European Commission on easing access to credit is fundamental. The abolition of milk quotas is all very well but unless farmers can invest in their yards, buy machinery and deliver products in the required volumes, it will mean nothing.
Banks have been slow to release credit to farmers and other small businesses. In that context, therefore, I welcome yesterday's initiative launched by the European Commission. We are lucky that Ireland has the Commissionership for agriculture. I know we are not supposed to say that Ireland has it, but Commissioner Phil Hogan was a Member of this House for long enough and he knows the value of Irish agriculture. That is why I believe yesterday's announcement by the European Commission was no accident. Commissioner Hogan knows that releasing credit will generate jobs in communities such as in County Limerick which will make a real difference to people's lives.
I will not repeat what other speakers have said, but I am disappointed with the level of engagement by the Opposition in this debate on the dairy sector. We need to build an economic recovery based on agriculture, tourism, services and construction. The previous Government built an economy on one leg, which was totally founded on construction. If we can spread the recovery on multiple legs, then if one of them sustains an unforeseen shock, the remainder should be able to sustain it. That is why the old reliables of agriculture and tourism are hugely important.
This debate is also important in terms of where we want to take agriculture and the dairy sector in particular. As I said at the outset, however, the lack of any engagement by the Opposition is disappointing, to put it mildly.