Private Members' Business. - Beef Industry: Motion.

I move:

That Dáil Éireann, mindful of the central economic importance of the beef industry to the Irish economy, condemns the Government for its failure to deal with the BSE crisis since 20 March last, deplores the failure of the Government to clarify Ireland's position in relation to the EU Commission's proposals to re-organise the beef regime under the Common Agricultural Policy and calls on the Government to defend and protect the interests of the Irish beef sector in the present negotiations before the viability of thousands of Irish farm families is fatally undermined.

I wish to share my time with the leader of the Opposition, Deputy Ahern.

Carlow Kilkenny): Is that agreed? Agreed.

This is the House's first opportunity since the recess to debate the crisis affecting the country's biggest industry. Since 20 March last BSE has been the most serious problem facing the Irish economy. It has been serious for all economic sectors, but it has been a catastrophe for farming. In the past six months the problem has worsened rather than diminished.

From the start of the BSE crisis, scientific evidence has been thrown around like snuff at a wake. There is a clear, but as yet unanswered, need to collate the available scientific evidence in one authoritative forum. This offers to the Irish Presidency an issue on which to achieve progress. Inexplicably, the Minister has refused the opportunity. If a credible forum were in session, the Oxford study could not have been used recently as a spanner in the works by the UK.

The Florence Summit of 21 June was the only occasion on which a coherent strategy emerged regarding the BSE crisis. Agreement was reached after months of hesitancy and disagreement. It was followed by a package of measures agreed by the farm Ministers in Luxembourg the next week. In retrospect, the Florence Summit was the high point of the efforts of governments to forge a solution to the BSE crisis.

The package of measures agreed at Luxembourg, worth £70 million in the face of losses approaching £200 million, was inadequate. It has since emerged that its administration has been blatantly unfair. When one considers that farmers were suffering losses of over £200 a head, the suggestion that a top up suckler cow premium of £22.40 or a special beef premium of £15.08 would in some way render viable farmers who were losing their shirts at marts and meat factories throughout the country was just another attempt to turn an abysmal failure in negotiating terms into a success.

When one considers that the £13 million discretionary grant given to the Minister, which was supposed to be targeted at those who suffered most, went to the wrong people, it gives an indication of the type of administrative chaos, political mismanagement and incompetence that lies at the heart of how the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry and the Government has handled the issue. While farmers sold cattle at marts, it was to dealers that the Minister, Deputy Yates, chose to direct the discretionary funds. It was always within the capacity of the Department to avoid that scenario and ICOS offered its logistical support to assist in making proper payments.

Commissioner Fischler's proposals were published at the end of July. Apart from an unfulfilled promise to bring forward his own proposals, to date there has been no intelligible response to the proposals by the Minister, Deputy Yates, or the Government. The only quoted response so far has been that the proposals are "not radical enough". The Minister should use this opportunity to state the Government's exact position in relation to the serious measures which emphasise the issue of controlling supply but which do not do enough regarding increasing consumption.

At EU level it is a measure of the Minister's Presidency of the Council that he has proven totally unable to achieve a consensus of views on the action required to deal with BSE. Having in the Presidency achieved the ultimate post of political responsibility, the Minister, Deputy Yates, failed in his fundamental political responsibility to forge a working agenda. This failure was fully evident in Killarney earlier this week. The Fischler proposals demonstrate the extent to which the Government has failed to impress on the Commission the special dependence of Ireland on beef, and the export of beef in particular. The failure to date to make any cogent response to the proposals has allowed what is known as the herd option to gain ground. This option, for the slaughter of calves, is equivalent to eating seed corn. The beef sector would not be the main beneficiaries of compensation under such a policy initiative and it would undermine the cattle industry for years to come, having spent millions building up a suckler cow herd.

There is a good news story about Irish beef which has not been told. Ireland has an extensive grass-based industry, producing quality beef in an environmentally friendly manner. The need to secure recognition of our particular dependence on the beef sector and the extensive nature of that sector is an overriding policy imperative. Some 94,000 Irish farmers qualify for extensification payments. Just as BSE is not a problem of our making, intensive oversupply is not a feature of Irish farming.

Ireland should also exploit the advantages enjoyed as a grass-based industry which produces a quality product in an environmentally friendly manner. In the position paper on the reform of the beef regime, Commissioner Fischler put heavy emphasis on a future link between direct payments and environmental concerns. The Government has failed to exploit Ireland's advantage on the quality environment issue. If consumers are to be assured about the production process, cattle rearing across Europe must move to something closer to the Irish model. Irish style non-intensive cattle production would do more for consumer confidence than the panic reaction control measures being mooted.

The Minister assures farmers that nothing decided by the EU will hurt Irish farmers, yet in the same breath he wants farmers to take a beef price of 82p a pound. If that is to be the price of beef, there must be full compensation measures for farmers. I demand that the Minister spell out his bottom line. If the price of beef is to be permanently positioned downwards, he must produce proposals for compensation. Even the Minister's friends in the media are starting to wonder about the Minister's exact strategy.

It was pointed out that in 1983 beef was £1 a pound. There is no point in the Minister, Deputy Yates, wringing his hands, saying beef producers must learn to live with 82p pound and that nothing can be done about it. They say much can be done about it because, as the Minister said, it is a managed market. If it has been a managed market since our export market was closed because of the bungling of the UK position, why does the beef management committee not appear to favour in any way Ireland's position in relation to price?

As President of the Council of Ministers and the beef management committee, which has effectively decided the price of beef throughout Europe for the last six months, one would have expected some degree of Irish influence in terms of the type of price mechanisms it is suggesting at present. A price of 82p a pound is way below anything suggested in the CAP reforms under the Fianna Fáil Commissioner, Mr. Ray MacSharry. When one takes into account the devaluation which has taken place since 1992, there is no question but that, at a minimum in a managed market, the price of processed beef should not be below 90-92p a pound.

The Minister is representing our national interest at beef management committee meetings, presumably under political direction to fight Ireland's corner on behalf of the Government, but we have ended up with an uneconomic and non-viable price for Irish beef in a managed situation. I call on the Minister, the Taoiseach and the Administration to start influencing what is happening at official level in Europe through the beef management committee. It is deciding the price of beef and putting an increasing number of farmers into a non-viable position to the extent that thousands of farmers and farm livelihoods are at risk as a result of the bureaucratic bungling which is ongoing in the managed market situation.

The political failure of the Minister's Presidency of the Council goes beyond his failure to achieve any worth-while progress on that front. On his watch, the Florence agreement unravelled. Incapable of any positive achievement, his resources were inadequate to shore up existing measures. The failure to uphold, not to speak of enforce, the Florence agreement has ensured that no decisions have been taken to actively tackle the BSE crisis. The Minister's statement that the agreed cull in the UK was a matter for them and that they were entitled to renege on the Florence agreement was appalling political cowardice. When leadership was required all the Minister had to offer was damage limitation.

The unravelling of the Florence agreement must also weigh heavily on the Taoiseach. We were told the EU Presidency would help Irish agriculture, not hinder it. The agreement was reached by the heads of Government and the Taoiseach took his full share of credit at the time. It is extraordinary that the Taoiseach has not been involved in efforts to resolve the crisis. His recent reticence is only the latest in a series of no shows on the BSE crisis from either the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste.

He has the farm rented.

As the EU market for beef has contracted sharply because of BSE, the opportunity for exports to third countries has become a life and death issue for our cattle trade. In the six months that have elapsed the Minister has made two forays. He visited Russia where we have an operating market. I am anxious to hear his prognosis of sales for Irish beef to Russia in the comming months. The Minister's other trip was to Libya but, following a long delay, it transpired to be politically under-resourced. He was unable to speak with authority on issues of interest to Libya, returned empty handed and his promise of future developments remains unfulfilled.

Within three weeks of the BSE crisis erupting on 20 March, Fianna Fáil took the initiative and went to Iran to assist our beef exporters. The Minister's spin doctors said our visit was unnecessary. He told the local and national media that the issues outstanding with Iran were minor and would be resolved within weeks. That was the official line and I refer the Minister to news reports on television and radio while we were away. However, those issues are still outstanding. A ministerial visit to Iran has not taken place and there has not been a meeting of the Joint Trade Commission, despite our advice to the Taoiseach on Question Time in the House. The record will show that I asked him to make sure that our visit would be followed up by a ministerial visit or by a meeting of the Joint Trade Commission which was set up under the direction of the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Andrews, to improve trade between Ireland and Iran, but nothing happened. As the Tánaiste was not prepared to put the national interests before a concern about what people might think of him visiting Iran prior to holding the Presidency of the Council, I subsequently asked the Taoiseach to allow the Minister of State, Deputy Mitchell, meet Mr. Velayati's counterpart at junior Minister level so that a meeting of the Joint Trade Commission could take place. Based on our face to face contacts over three days last Easter we knew that was the political response required to deal with the issues which, as the Minister had discovered, are not merely technical.

On my return from Iran, the Minister told me these were technical matters. There are much more than technical issues involved and while Dr. Montelabi will be here next week to deal with those issues, that alone will not reopen the Iranian market for us. Furthermore, as the most export-dependent beef sector in the European Union, it is appalling that the September contracts with Iran have been secured and, because we were not in the ballpark, we did not get any of them. We did not make ministerial visits to Iran or hold Joint Trade Commission meetings, a reflection on the incompetence and complacency of this Administration. Not only has Denmark, which was not in the ballpark last Easter secured a contract for 8,000 tonnes of beef, but New Zealand also secured a major contract with the Islamic Republic of Iran and we know they secured contracts for September and January. September is almost over and the export of 40,000 cattle, which could have been secured through processing factories here, to the Islamic Republic of Iran is no longer an option for us. As one who visited Iran and, despite the Minister's attempts to portray otherwise, is seeking to assist the Irish cattle sector in its hour of need as this party has done previously from Opposition——

That is the only time it does anything.

——I know the Minister will have to sign more than a Protocol to open up the Iranian market. The former Minister, Deputy Dukes, who appears to be able to get a half page in the Irish Independent as a sort of desk expert on what is happening, spoke about my naivety and noisy and futile trip. Before he next goes to press in Independent House, he should telephone the Irish Meat Processors' Association to find out what it thought of Fianna Fáil's trip to clarify the confusion about a consignment of 10,000 tonnes of beef. He should also ask it about the extent to which Fianna Fáil Members worked with the Iranian Ambassador to ensure payment was ultimately obtained for those consignments. Furthermore, he should talk to the farm organisations that thanked this party for taking an initiative in the face of the greatest crisis facing our beef sector for more than two decades. The noise in the wings is coming from Deputy Dukes's door and the futility of the Government to reopen the market with Iran is positive proof of this Administration's inability to deal with the magnitude of the crisis facing it.

It is clear that resolution of the technical issues alone will not make the Iranian market operational. There must be political progress and, in particular, a meeting of the Joint Trade Commission. Fianna Fáil has repeatedly charged that the Government has failed miserably to act politically to maintain sales of Irish beef to third country markets. I repeat that charge tonight. The Minister's travelling circus that recently went around the country creating a world of make-believe included claims from him that it was Government priority at ministerial and diplomatic level to reopen markets in Libya, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Minister's visit to Libya was the first diplomatic visit there in the lifetime of this Administration. I did not conclude from my meeting with the Iranian Ambassador this morning that he believed that this Government considered the Iranian market as a priority. On a couple of occasions during Question Time the Minister queried, in a manner that was not commercially smart, the bona fides of that market.

Our relations with third countries show the extent to which the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have sat out the BSE crisis. Flights from Farranfore can reach any global destination except a possible beef market.

An hour late.

The Tánaiste prefers to carry on his grudge match with the beef trade rather than work in the national interest. The Taoiseach, carefully handled in a minimalist style of Government, likewise has elected to stay above the fray. His handlers cannot see any easy points for a budding statesman selling beef and he has been told to stay at home. The Government's response to the BSE crisis has been minimal and the results have been nil. Among the most disturbing aspects of the Government's response to the crisis has been the cynical news management from the Minister, who has repeatedly outlined an imminent doomsday scenario as the months of negotiations have passed. His cynical tactic has been that anything short of catastrophe makes him look good. By setting the bottom line so low, effectively he has been selling out the interests of our farmers. The Minister's overarching concern is to avoid the possibility of a politically damaging defeat at any cost. To serve this personal political strategy he has perfected to a fine art the tactic of avoiding meaningful political engagement. Distancing himself from Britain's decision to renege on the Florence agreement is a case in point. He dumped the national interest and abdicated his responsibilities as President of the Council rather than risk his political capital. Farmers are the pawns in the Minister's game. As we read in the Sunday Tribune he has bigger ambitions but he will always be seen to look good. Like pawns, they are of little value except for what they can achieve for more important protagonists like himself.

The most disturbing and cynical of this Minister's pronouncements has been his almost casual prediction of a collapse of farm numbers after BSE. His speech to the Agricultural Science Association, which was not circulated, stated that the number of full-time farmers could soon be down to 60,000. It was a chilling statement, bereft of any political philosophy worth the name. Not since former Commissioner Mansholt in the 1970s has any political figure suggested this scenario.

What about former Commissioner MacSharry?

If it were not for him Deputy Creed would be crying now.

We will remind Deputy Davern of that.

Acting Chairman

Deputy Cowen without interruption.

Transforming Ireland from a land with 160,000 family farms to a mere 60,000 holdings may be the Minister's agenda but it is not mine and it is not this party's. In his time in office his inaction has amounted to a campaign of attrition against small and marginal farms. Investment schemes put in place to make a viable difference to small enterprises have been allowed wither or collapse. Resources have been withheld from Teagasc to enable it to fulfil its mandate to smaller enterprises. It is as the Mansholt of the 1990s that the Minister seems to want to be remembered. The difference is that Mansholt was not allowed to get past talking about his apocalyptic vision for rural communities. The Minister's handling of the BSE crisis, however, threatens to turn this most appalling of doomsday scenarios into a reality.

Yesterday was probably the most patronising day of all; in Killarney, the Minister accused farmers of biting the hands that fed them. They rained on his parade, perhaps, but they cannot be accused of the other offence in his case. In 1994, the last year for which full figures are available, 75,864 farmers received less than £3,000 each from all payments for headage, premia and arable aid. Some 57,000 farmers received less than £40 per week in direct payments from the EU. Yet the Minister accuses farmers of biting the hand that feeds them. He has not been overly generous to many dry stock farmers whose average income is less than one-fifth of the bigger enterprise dairy farmers that the Minister has in mind on most occasions when he speaks about agriculture. Thousands of dry stock farmers are suffering severely.

The best year was 1995, as a result of the CAP reforms negotiated by Fianna Fáil and instigated and implemented by a Fianna Fáil Commissioner. However, there were many differences within sectors. One arm of this Government seeks to stereotype the farming community as money grabbing social welfare recipients. These are hard working farm families, many of whom have an average income of £5,000 per annum but luckily having an off-farm income to supplement their holding as they could not rear their families if they were involved in agriculture full-time. Some 48 per cent of the total number of farmers who received direct income payments when they were at their highest, in 1995, suffered a drop in income. As I said, those payments are less than £40 per week for 57,000 farmers and for dry stock farmers, that cheque in the post represents 82 per cent of their total farm income, according to Teagasc. That is how important these issues are for the thousands of farmers throughout this country who are looking for leadership and political will to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. It ill befits any Minister, particularly an Irish Minister responsible for agriculture, patronisingly to suggest on a plinth that people are biting the hand that feeds them.

What we have achieved in CAP reform, in order eventually to reduce prices to world levels, is a slow process whereby investment in farming will make it more competitive. It must be underpinned, however, by a political philosophy that is not as chilling as the one the Minister enunciated last Friday at the Agricultural Science Association. This party will fight tooth and nail to avoid the scenario that only 60,000 people in this country will be able to call themselves farmers.

This party has been the bedrock in ensuring that small and medium sized enterprises have a prospect of viability and of rearing their families to continue in the tradition that has been dear to them for generations. In the face of this crisis it does not befit the Minister to suggest that 30,000 farmers can be written off with a stroke of the pen. That has nothing to do with political leadership; it is the antithesis of what politics is supposed to be about. This party will stand for a philosophy far different from the Minister's throughout these negotiations and beyond.

Since the Minister has been in charge of the Department it has suffered more industrial chaos than under any of his predecessors. His bungling, his incompetence and his view of what constitutes modern industrial relations is unbelievable. His description of his staff as "opportunists in the extreme" is an outrageous claim, even allowing for his personal familiarity with opportunism. He should not abuse hard pressed staff in his Department who are trying to keep the show on the road. Unlike the Minister, I have spoken to staff members and met them in my home. They are reasonable and would like to resolve this matter with the Minister, if they could speak to him, but not alone has he not done so, he has not spoken to the trade union IMPACT which represents 40 per cent of the Department's staff.

I had them to lunch.

Those people are trying to keep the intervention grading and carcass classification work going. The Minister should meet and talk with them, because there is a solution. The staff told me that at no time did the Minister or anyone with his authority suggest to them that they suspend their action on the basis of re-entering genuine talks. Yesterday the Minister's spin doctors sought to suggest that informal talks were happening between the trade union and departmental officials but Mr. Paddy Keating of IMPACT had to deny that today. This is further evidence of how out of touch the Minister is from the real position.

Those officials get up at 5 a.m. and sometimes do not finish until 10 p.m., having inspected product lines at three or four factories in different locations to ensure processors' tenders are being honoured and steers, heifers and cattle are taken in. In that section there are 12 vacancies which the Minister has been unable to fill. It is time we had a realistic idea of what is required to ensure industiral peace so that farmers, who are anxious as we enter the autumn slaughtering season, are not left high and dry as a result of the Minister's administration of his Department. As I said yesterday, it is time for the Minister to get real and cop himself on.

The report of the Comptroller and Auditor General shows another example of the innovative musings of this Minister in paying last Christmas £600,000 in overtime payments in advance, which still has not been earned. Instead of lecturing his staff the Minister should start taking lessons in modern industrial relations. He should ditch his Neanderthal approach.

As I pass over to the Leader of the Opposition, I will summarise. The Council of Ministers has failed to speak with one voice, resulting in the continuation of this crisis, and has failed to satisfy consumers of the safety of beef. Co-ordinated strategies incorporating the scientific evidence have still not been pursued and compensation to date has been totally inadequate. It is time the Minister stopped posturing as the Mansholt of the 1990s, stopped opening this appalling vista for rural communities and did his job. The Tánaiste would not even take a question from Deputy Burke about what he as Minister for Foreign Affairs was doing about the Iranian question. Let us hope there is a stop to this incompetence and that we get down to defending the interests of thousands of Irish livelihoods.

The Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, was smiling at what Deputy Cowen said about the Tánaiste.

The Tánaiste has done a lot.

The Minister of State will have an opportunity to speak later and we will take great interest in what he has to say. I support the motion tabled by our agricultural spokesperson. Some of the important points made by Deputy Cowen in the last half hour deserve an answer during this debate, particularly the issues concerning Iran. How has the Government managed to avoid answering the serious questions raised by Deputy Cowen? Is it not the case that we have lost major contracts in fish, beef and other areas during the past six months that could have been secured if the Government had moved to set up a meeting of the joint commission, which operated successfully for many years since 1980, particularly when Deputy Andrews was Minister for Foreign Affairs? If nothing else emerges from this debate, I would like an answer from the Minister as to why he is refusing to hold a meeting of the joint commission and who is forcing him not to hold it. From reading the newspapers the Minister is as aware as I am that the French have gone solo; they are doing their own thing and he is being left behind. He knows from his French colleague at the meetings yesterday that the French have decided to ignore the European Council Minister's decision and to actively spend their marketing budget to gain access to Middle East markets. They do not give two damns about what is happening at the Council of Ministers meetings and when they drank the wine and enjoyed the Minister's hospitality, about which I do not have any great difficulty, the Minister allowed the French to make that decision. We deserve an answer on this matter in this debate.

BSE has created the worst crisis experienced by Irish farmers in over 20 years. Nobody in the House disagrees with that because the Minister has talked it up all summer. All over the country I and my colleagues, whose interest is this debate is evident, have spoken to farmers and farm leaders about what is happening. They are facing the prospect of serious losses about which nobody disagrees and some farmers may be pushed over the edge. While some limited measures have been put in place to alleviate the worst effects, the crisis still persists and may well get worse as autumn progresses. Prices have dropped by at least 16 per cent across the European Union along with the drop in consumption and long-term confidence in the industry is severly affected. As a country that exports 80 per cent of its beef, we are one of the most vulnerable and worst affected.

Butchers all over Europe hasten to assure their customers of the local provenance of their beef. French customers want to eat French beef, Germans want to eat German beef, which in normal circumstances is not in the European spirit, but one can understand why they want to do that. None of us can say how long this crisis will continue or whether it may be permanent or have permanent long-term effects. The Minister has access to An Bord Bia's records which show a continuing shift away from red meat. This might lead to a long-term problem.

The response at national and European levels has been inadequate and ineffective. I am not surprised at the anger of Irish farmers yesterday because they have waited patiently for an adequate response for six months. Farmers face the same situation they faced many months ago. They have put their case for six months, and waited for action, yet as autumn progresses they do not see any measures that will help them. Very little has been decided and the decisions taken on the British beef cull have now unravelled — I am sure the Minister will explain the detail of that later.

Farmers need to know quickly how much additional compensation they will receive. We need firm decisions from the Council of Ministers so that farmers know the position they face and can make the best plans possible to deal with it. Their banks are asking those questions and I am sure the Minister is aware of the position the banks are spelling out to farmers. The Minister will also be aware that although there are many aspects of the economy, most of the key banking economists have been working on agricultural issues only since the summer, considering the position at first hand. The Minister who is in the Chair needs to give decisive leadership and we will make that point strongly in this debate.

Some Ministers appear primarily to be treating the Irish Presidency as if it were a tourism promotion or a constituency benefit. While we would all agree that good hospitality should be provided for our European colleagues, the business in hand must come first and meetings should not be just an excuse for a lavish junket. I am not referring only to the Council of Agricultural Ministers.

I am not satisfied that the Government is doing all it can to open up third markets. We have had a joint committee for some years and I wish the Minister to spell out the position in that regard. I have made a point on that and I will not pursue the Minister further on it. The French Government decided to target the Middle East with a massive marketing budget and I want to hear the Minister's view on that. As President of the Council of Ministers, in what way does he feel compelled to stay within the confines set? On the day other Agricultural Ministers came for the informal council meeting the French, as reported in Le Monde, which I am aware officials in his Department were examining on Monday, acted against the principle of what the Minister was supposed to be trying to achieve.

We have an independent foreign policy and we should not let anyone else dictate it for us. Fianna Fáil-led Governments always had good relations with Middle Eastern countries, which helped underpin our beef exports. Third country exports are vital to our farmers and the Government is not doing enough, presumably because of political difficulties or because somebody is on the telephone telling the Tánaiste not to move. The position should be spelt out. Let us hear if that is the difficulty, if he is handcuffed or if there are some other inhibitions. Let us hear why he is refusing to talk to the Iranians. I gather that the Minister for Agriculture went to Libya a few weeks ago inadequately briefed. It was not his fault because the Department of Foreign Affairs held back on broader political issues on which he should have been able to speak with authority on behalf of the Irish Government. Perhaps the Department asked him not to comment on matters that were holding up contracts.

The market ought to some degree to be self-correcting. If demand falls, retail prices should fall to the point where they begin to push up demand again. There has been a lack of vigour by the Government in encouraging beef promotions and ensuring the price reductions are passed on, if necessary by highlighting profiteering in the retail trade where it is occurring. During most of the summer is has been left to Members on this side of the House to try to do that.

If one stands back from the present problem, the absurdity is clear. There are many risks to life and health but, on present evidence, the chances of catching a new form of CJD is one of the least of them. There are far more risks associated with smoking cigarettes or driving a car. There is absolutely no solid evidence to support the theory that an incipient CJD mass epidemic is about to hit us. It is a wise precaution to eliminate any risk of contaminated foodstuffs, though there are also other theories as to the cause of BSE, and to take measures to rapidly reduce its high incidence in the British herd, with a view to BSE elimination. However, the positive health effects of eating meat should be highlighted and the fact that the human risk of CJD is statistically tiny. On present evidence the CJD scare seems a nonsense and it is time to expose it. Will the Minister explain why European Ministers cannot say that loudly and clearly? Why keep beating about the bush when there has been only a handful of cases? Why are we running scared of it? Where is the evidence? I have tried to read every article written on it and I have listened to all the farming and medical groups. More people have been shot by contract killers here than have suffered death as a result of contracting CJD. The Minister should explain why all the European Agricultural Ministers duck the issue and do not put a strong case forward.

There is no leadership.

This question has given an unwelcome boost to protectionism in Europe, which the Minister and his ministerial colleagues are allowing to happen under the Presidency. We thought we had seen the end of protectionism in Europe, but it has re-emerged. The vacillation of the British Government and its reluctance to keep its agreements are an added problem. Firmness is required. Uncertainty is always destructive of confidence. If a strategy were adhered to, the whole business would cease to occupy the front pages and public fears would recede, but there is no strategy. That is why we and the Council of Ministers are experiencing deeper problems, not only here but elsewhere throughout the Community.

Months ago, and long before the Minister took any apparent interest in the matter, I called for Northern Ireland to be treated separately from the UK. I welcome his interest in the plight of Northern farmers, however belated, and I am pleased that he now supports the position I expressed in this House before the summer recess.

It is clear that as matters stand Irish farmers will lose several hundred million pounds this year with serious knockon effects for the entire Irish economy. If the crisis is prolonged it may be the final blow to the viability of many family farms. Will the Minister indicate his plans for dealing with the crisis? The purpose of this debate is to get answers.

The Minister had an easy time over the MacSharry reforms as the subsidies negotiated by the former Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Deputy Joe Walsh, reached their peak and the stringent health regime introduced by the former Minister for Agriculture and Food, Senator O'Kennedy, following the wise counsel which he followed in 1988, saved the situation when the BSE crisis first arose.

The Minister's tactics appear to be the same as the Tories in England: put the gloomiest face on the situation so that the credit may be claimed when matters turn out not quite so badly.

Like the Tories in Ireland.

The Deputy is one of them.

Will the Minister explain what he meant when he told the Agricultural Science Association that we could be down to 60,000 full-time farmers? Yesterday's decision amounted to little more than a rearrangement of the deckchairs. Farm Ministers are not making any serious financial commitments to tie over the difficulty.

We know that the Minister can preside over good times. Last year he spent the money that the former Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Deputy Joe Walsh, had successfully negotiated. However, he is also good at spreading doom and gloom when the situation gets too much for him. The BSE crisis is a test of the Minister's mettle. Can he stop the British reneging on the Florence agreement?

Can he get adequate compensation quickly for Irish farmers?

Can he reopen vital third markets?

Can the Minister, as President of the EU Council of Agriculture Ministers, take measures to restore confidence in beef consumption from present crisis levels in Ireland and in Europe?

The Minister's body language says no.

On the evidence of yesterday's proceedings, the Minister is not succeeding on any front. The period 1987-94 was one of considerable prosperity for Irish farmers. The BSE scare has been handled badly in Britain and in Europe. Can the Minister halt and reverse the disastrous drop in farm incomes?

On this he will be judged, especially as he is more than half way through his stewardship of the EU Council of Agriculture Ministers. We are watching his performance, but as the Dáil resumes we want to see, more than anything else, the Minister outline a strategy for this country, and an explanation why, as Chairman of the EC Council of Agriculture Ministers, he is allowing his colleagues to adopt a strategy that is against Irish interests.

The French Agriculture Minister has travelled to the Middle East on a marketing campaign that is contrary to the interests of Irish farmers. The Minister has an obligation, in the first instance to this country as the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, and second as President of the EU Council of Agriculture Ministers to provide an explanation for this.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That" and substitute the following:

"Dáil Éireann, recognising the importance of the beef industry to the Irish economy and the serious difficulties being encountered by the beef sector, endorses the action taken by the Government to alleviate the effects of the BSE crisis on Irish producers and approves the approach by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry to the European Commission's proposals for reform of the beef regime.".

I listened with interest to Deputy Cowen and Deputy Bertie Ahern. Not one new idea has emerged throughout the summer from the Fianna Fáil Party on how to deal with this crisis.

The Minister has no idea.

I listened carefully to see if a better way other than the Fischler proposals was suggested, or if other ideas were proposed regarding certain aspects but there was not one new idea.

Tell us about Iran and Iraq.

What is the problem? Listening to the Deputies on the other side of the House, speaking with a degree of political opportunism, one would think that this was a political problem foisted on the farmers of Europe. The reality is that the biggest single consumer scare on a product in the history of the CAP has occurred. There has been a price to pay for this because consumption has dropped by 16 per cent, not just in Ireland but across Europe. This is not my fault, nor is it anybody's fault. The reality is that we have a serious imbalance between production and consumption. This is a consumer problem.

I have a clear strategy. The first step was to reassure people, through An Bord Bia, the diplomatic service, etc., as to the safety of Irish beef. The next step was to realise that we had a fundamental problem if consumption dropped. When one is already 104 per cent self-sufficient and then becomes 120 per cent self-sufficient in beef in Europe — we are the biggest beef exporters in the northern hemisphere — one has a crisis on one's hands.

The first thing I had to do was to ensure that a floor price was put in place and that a market was found for this beef to replace the consumers who had disappeared. This is what I have achieved. First, I have secured the restoration of intervention, which will take up to 1.2 million tonnes of European beef. We have already taken in excess of 30,000 tonnes here. Second, I secured a floor price for beef of 82p per lb. Naturally I would have preferred if it was 92p per lb., but the reality is that it is a floor price above the safety net price — the 60 per cent of reference price — agreed by my predecessor under the CAP reform introduced by the former EU Commissioner, Mr. MacSharry. I did not set the safety net price. It was a price set by the then EU Council of Ministers and it is worth approximately 78p per lb. to this country.

I have obtained the agreement of the EU Commission that we will avoid the safety net at all costs. In recent weeks I obtained a derogation on the weights. We are the only country that has a problem with the heaviest animals in Europe. Carcase weights have increased by 10 per cent over the past nine years.


Absolutely. Farmers will have to change their breeding and slaughter policies because this is only a temporary derogation. I have obtained a lifting of a grade restriction on 04 grades and an increase in the processors' margin. I am hopeful that there will be further progress on these issues on Friday. I have got the very short-term market managed in a very difficult environment when the EU Commission and others were making it clear that intervention was over. If one reads over what Mr. MacSharry and others said, it is clear that intervention was to be a vehicle of the past.

I do not object to Deputy Cowen asking me to clarify my position on the Fischler proposals because I will do so willingly. However I must answer the question — what happens this time next year when the intervention stocks are 1.2 million tonnes — when we are up to the freezing capacity and when there is still over-production? What will we do with the next million tonnes? We must cut production.

Commissioner Fischler has introduced proposals to prevent production occurring. These include the killing of animals at a lighter weight, killing calves and preventing them from turning into adult animals. This is something I support. I support the concept of cutting production. However, there are elements of the Commissioner's proposals vis-á-vis extensification premiums and other changes where, following three six hour sessions, there emerged a total dichotomy of views in Europe between intensive and extensive bull beef producers. My job is to construct a qualified majority of 58 votes because there is a blocking majority in both directions.

The biggest sufferer from a failure to cut production will be Ireland. We produce 550,000 tonnes of beef and consume approximately 50,000 tonnes. We are the European surplus. Europe has 84 million bovine animals, three million too many. They must be taken out of the system.

That is like saying we are on the wrong part of the globe.

This is an essential reality and the Deputy would be the first to criticise me if I failed to address these issues now. I will be unrelenting in the pressure I put on my colleagues on the EU Council of Agriculture Ministers to bring this about.

Given that there is an unavoidable price drop we have secured the first round of compensation — £70 million or 10 per cent of the compensation despite the fact that we have 7 per cent of the animals. For the first time ever money is being paid on our animals exported live, on heifers and bulls. I secured that compensation. I am the first to admit there is no way Brussels or anybody else will come up with 7 billion ECUs of compensation for farmers. The funds are not there. Before this the total beef budget was 6.7 billion ECUs. I cannot make money that is not there. especially as 1997 is the reference year for the Maastricht Treaty criteria and budget rebates have been agreed. I obtained in Killarney £400 million that would have been sent back to member states, which will now be kept in a beef budget awaiting a decision on how it will be spent. I obtained a raising of the intervention ceiling for an extra 100,000 tonnes of beef. Allegations to the effect that no decisions were made in Killarney are extremely wide of the mark, as are reports of measures in relation to promotion funds.

There has been much reference to third country markets. I have absolutely nothing to hide. I will tell the House exactly as it is. The position about Iran is that not a fortnight goes by without my talking to Minister Fooreesch or their ambassador here. I did not disapprove of Deputy Cowen's trip in any way. What I said was that to expect, as he appeared to indicate on return, that the Iranian problem would be resolved overnight, was not realistic.

The Minister's people in Ireland said that when we were in Iran and I will quote it to the Minister tomorrow.

I will stand over what I said. In 1989 there was a ban placed by Iran. How long did it take to have it lifted? Three days, three months? No, it took three years when Fianna Fáil was in power.

Was it the same issue?

The party opposite speaks about the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs as though he would not speak to the Iranians. I might remind them that last week he had a lengthy detailed discussion with Minister Velayati about the beef position. Dr. Montelabi, their chief veterinary officer, said directly to the Irish authorities that he will not lift the ban on Ireland, especially bearing in mind the extra number of cases of BSE. Deputies opposite will be aware that the number of our animals affected has more than doubled and this, unfortunately, may increase to an even greater extent this year. It is better to be transparent and eradicate the disease once and for all. Because of our tightly knit population I am very confident that we are in the final phase of eradication.

With regard to Iran, I want to make it clear that I am prepared at any stage to go to Tehran. Arrangements will be made very rapidly after Dr. Montelabi's visit for me to visit Iran in the next couple of weeks. I have been advised at all times diplomatically and administratively that there is no point in going unless there is a reasonable prospect of success.

Until the Minister can bring back good news. He will not go if, on return, he has not good news to tell.

I must appeal to both sides of the House to allow the Minister continue.

There was no such prospect until their chief veterinary officer had been here and made his recommendations.

The Minister's public relations people would not let him go.

In relation to Libya, I have been the first Minister of any European Cabinet——


——to visit Tripoli since the Lockerbie disaster. A delegation has been selected to come here. I am experiencing difficulty in agreeing a date with the Libyan authorities but I will persevere. Libya may take 30,000 cattle but out of 500,000 cattle we must get rid of in the next eight months, that will be a marginal factor only. I am doing everything possible and there is no political problem involved.

Some of these countries are not democracies and we must remember the enormous responsibility on veterinary officers with regard to safeguarding human health. Twice in the last three days I was in touch with Minister Faqih in relation to the very difficult position in Saudi Arabia. France, ourselves and others are caught in a dairy and meat ban at present. The issues are all technical. The questions they ask via-á-vis the cross-Border position are not political ones.

I might move on now to the Russian market, the most important one. I and the Minister of State at my Department have been there. A veterinary delegation is due to revisit Russia, by far our most important market to which I devote enormous attention.

Has the Minister anything else to say about it?

In relation to promotion at home, last week I launched a campaign by An Bord Bia costing £500,000 which will continue over the next three months. The reason it was delayed was that beef consumption picks up in the winter months. There is a seasonal factor, when children return to school and so on. It is money well spent.

Through Europe we give an almost 100 per cent-funded suckler cow premium, headage payments in disadvantaged areas, a ten month premium, a 22 month premium and DSP, which I have secured into the future, amounting to approximately £450 per animal. Then we give an export subsidy of 64p per pound to get such an animal out to Egypt, which means we are giving over £1,000 for an animal which is worth some £200. Given the realities of GATT, which stipulates a 21 per cent volume and a 36 per cent value cut in export refunds over a six-year period as negotiated by the Deputy's party in Government——

Why did the Minister not give it back?

The point I am endeavouring to make is that with all this beef in intervention, we will have used up the entire GATT quota. Where are we to go with our beef? It must come back into the European Community since there is a limit on the volume one can sell out of the EU which is reducing by 100,000 tonnes annually.

We know that. A response is what we want.

That is why I was critical of the party opposite not coming up with one suggestion on how we might resolve that crisis.

What suggestion has the Minister made?

Acting Chairman

Deputies, please, allow the Minister to continue.


Acting Chairman

Please, Deputies, these interruptions cannot continue. I refer to both sides of the House.

I have set out a clear strategy on the imperative need to cut production. I will take on all comers in so far as it is in the best interests of Irish farmers now and into the future.

In relation to the detail of the Fischler proposals, I have no particular problem with the single premium. I am opposed to one aspect of the amendment of the extensification premium. In relation to the cut in the special beef premium quota, unlike other countries, this is unused quota in Ireland. If we revert to one million head of cattle it will have been a totally painless cut for us. In relation to both the calf slaughter and the weanling intervention, the only obligation will be on member states to make it available. It will be entirely voluntary for farmers but the reality is that there may be many dairy farmers who will twist my arm to gain access to this scheme. We are not prepared to agree to a price being set for both the weanling intervention and the GATT which would distort our market. The availability of measures to cut production is not only imperative but is in the best interests of the largest country responsible for the surplus of beef production within the EU.

What does Teagasc say about that? Will the Minister publish its report?

Teagasc made a load of false assumptions and, when I told them so, they decided to scrap their report. That is the truth of the matter. I have more information than that agency. I have got Teagasc back to its role as a national advisory service.

The Minister sought the report.

That is not true.

Acting Chairman

For the last time I must ask Deputies to cease interrupting.

What did the Minister mean? Did he not look for the report?

Acting Chairman

I must ask Deputy Cowen to desist from interrupting.

The role of Teagasc is to ensure that we can produce beef at 82p per lb, representing better grassland management, better beef conversion and better animal husbandry.

Teagasc is putting in place a national advisory service, including individual clinics for farmers, which will provide appropriate information as required. I am glad Deputy Cowen did not peddle one of the myths he peddled during the summer which was to propose, as some farm organisations have done, that one of the ways of meeting the crisis is for us to begin incinerating culled cow beef.

I never suggested that.

I was watching the Deputy speak from Tullamore on the 6.15 p.m. news last Friday. I was unable to give the interview myself but the Deputy kindly obliged. Whether or not the Deputy is in favour of this proposal, that we take out culled beef and incinerate it to restore consumer confidence and balance in the marketplace, the Commission is totally opposed to it. Once one begins, one cannot stop. People would want to know if beef was edible.

Cows that live that long without developing BSE are safer than any other animal. It would be disastrous for the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry to advocate incinerating cow beef. We could never sell cow beef again. Converting culled cows into beef does not solve anything, its removal from the food chain is how the production balance is affected. Some two million tonnes of cow beef would have to be taken out of the food chain which would cost 3.6 billion ECU and this is totally unaffordable. I am glad people have pulled back from that proposal.

The future is about managing change, and that is my responsibility. We do not have a collapse but the market requires restructuring. Some three million animals out of 84 million animals is not an unmanageable problem, but we must have equilibrium when the short-term market management measures are no longer available. This time next year the Russians will say they bought 110,000 tonnes of beef from Ireland worth 325,000 animals, but they may now buy it out of intervention.

What will be done with this beef in intervention? Given the GATT import requirement and so on, most of it will have to be put into transformed beef to undercut the imports. It cannot form part of our GATT quota. If Deputy Cowen and others know of better ways of cutting production, I am open to constructive suggestions. I have seen a proposal from the Germans in the last few days in relation to the 500,000 to 1 million imported calves, that we slaughter them at source and pay for them. We have to address the issue of cutting production when the stop gap measure of intervention, which will create an overhang in the market, is resolved.

A number of permanent changes will come out of this crisis. The first change will relate to lighter weights, the second to traceability. The consumer will demand to know from what animal and farm the joint of meat came.

The House will be aware that, since 16 September, I have put in place a new scheme whereby a female animal here cannot be slaughtered unless it can be traced back to the herd. This is the first step in a detailed programme to have a complete animal passport and system of traceability. I intend to put a Protocol in place in meat factories in due course. I envisage that in the next three or four weeks the European Commission will publish a labelling directive which will deal with traceability and we will have to make the changes necessary, even though they are very unpopular with farmers and will involve bureaucracy for marts and so on.

The third change will relate to the rendering industry. The leader of the Opposition asked me the view on the link between CJD and BSE. I am not a scientist, but if I was to say where we went wrong in this, I would say that we departed from nature by feeding to animals their own offals. By next April I can see a new EU Directive being put in place that will mean those offals will have to be removed from the animal food chain. This creates a major problem for Ireland, because unlike Holland, Britain and France which have national incinerators or a disposal system, we do not. At the moment depopulated herds and herds which have been caught being smuggled across the Border have to be rendered into meat and bonemeal and stored. We have no place to dump this at the moment, but I see that changing.

I am concerned about the increased number of BSE cases. From 17 October next there will be additional controls on mammalian meat and bonemeal and animal feeds containing such meal. This is set out in a new order under the Diseases of Animals Act, 1966. This supplements the existing ban on feeding meat and bonemeal to ruminant animals, which was introduced by the then Minister for Agriculture, Deputy O'Kennedy, in August 1990. Having looked at the situation and at some of the cases of BSE, I feel this ban has not been properly implemented. If it is left entirely up to people selling meat and bonemeal, it is not possible to guarantee they will observe the law. We have records of people buying pig and poultry rations which have meat and bonemeal in them who do not keep pigs or poultry. The new arrangements involve the introduction of extended controls at various levels including the manufacture, retail and farm stages.

At manufacturing level, a special licence will be required in future for the manufacture of meat and bonemeal as well as for those engaged in the manufacture of feeding stuffs containing meat and bonemeal intended for feeding to non-ruminant animals or poultry. Strict controls on the possession of meat and bonemeal at feed manufacturing premises are being introduced and intend that, in future, mills producing feed for ruminants will not be permitted to have meat and bonemeal on their premises.

A licence will also be required to purchase any such meat and bonemeal with the exception of packages less than 5 kg which would be for horticulture, flower fertiliser and so on. A licence will not only be necessary to produce it, but to buy meat and bonemeal, which means such products will not be generally available. Labelling requirements for such packages will be introduced with effect from 1 January 1997. It will be an offence to sell meat and bonemeal to any person who does not hold a licence, unless it falls within the exception already outlined.

Stricter controls will also be introduced at farm level. It will be an offence to feed to a ruminant animal any animal feed which is intended for non ruminant animals or poultry. Farmers who have cattle, deer, sheep or goats will also require a special licence to have on their land any meat and bonemeal or animal feed in which meat and bonemeal has been incorporated. Persons who store or transport meat and bonemeal or any animal feed containing meat and bonemeal will be under a strict obligation to ensure that these products do not contaminate any other product so stored or transported.

The granting of licences will be subject in all cases to requirements as regards the keeping of records which will enable the location and distribution of meat and bonemeal to be verified at all times. Conditions will also be attached to such licences to ensure proper controls on meat and bonemeal. Additional powers to enforce the terms of the order have been given to officials of the Department and the Garda. I will make it an absolute priority to ensure that there will be strict compliance with the new controls. Any person found to have contravened the order will be liable to prosecution and to have his licence revoked.

Another area that concerns me in relation to the more than 30 cases we have at the moment is that I have heard rumours that an allegation is being made that BSE animals may in some way be traded. I have no evidence of this, but even hearsay is enough to cause concern. I am changing the depopulation compensation so that there will be no incentive for anyone to cull cows. Compensation will be not subject to voluntary depopulation negotiation. Farmers will not have the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry over a barrel in regard to compensation. Depopulation will be compulsory in future. I am determined to ensure that no question can be raised in that regard.


A scare story was put out tonight and I would like to deal with it before it gains any credence.

The IFA conference last Friday was on "Irish Agriculture — Future Policy". I said that by the year 2006, some 60,000 farmers will be able to compete with anyone in the world. They can produce milk or meat cheaper than anyone else. The rest of our farming population will require either social support or off farm income to survive. These kind of predictions always involve a certain amount of crystal ball gazing. The Cummins report made much more drastic predictions at an earlier date as to what would happen. These farmers will be able to compete with an economy of scale and an efficiency of operation as world prices increase and European prices decrease, which is the inevitable trend over the next 20 years.

Let us look at the realities of BSE. The price of poultry and pigmeat, which are more popular than beef, is 68p per pound. Premiums, which were negotiated under the MacSharry reforms, are worth 26p per pound. The floor price of beef was due to be decreased even if we never experienced BSE and the world price of beef is 42p per pound.

I welcome this opportunity to outline that a clear Government strategy is in place and I am absolutely satisfied that nobody else would do a better job.

After that performance farmers will not be dancing at the crossroads.

I tell it as it is and farmers respect that.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Kirk, Noel Treacy and Keaveney.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? Agreed.

The last time the crisis in the beef sector was on the agenda in this Chamber was mid-April. On that occasion much helpful advice was given to the Minister by all sides of the House and the Minister gave undertakings which we expected would have far-reaching and more dramatic results than we have seen. It is very interesting to read the Minister's April speech, particularly the amendment tabled by the Government at that time which states: "Dáil Éireann, mindful of the importance of the beef industry in Ireland and the essential national interest involved, commends the efforts of the Government to confront the crisis in the industry, to restore consumer confidence in Irish beef and to secure the reopening of vital export markets". That more than any other statement underlines what the Government considered vitally necessary at the time, but it has sadly failed in that regard. I will not embarrass the Minister by quoting other excerpts from his speech, which he has great difficulty in living up to.

Farmers are looking for action and it is most worrying to hear the Minister engage in a congratulatory spiel which has no substance in terms of results. Irish farmers must accept £200 per head less on average for their animals than they had expected, and that trend seems set to continue. It affects the ability of farmers to meet bank repayments and other financial obligations and to look after their families. It is fundamental to farmers continuing in business. This matter needs to be addressed urgently.

Great hope was placed in the Minister's role as chairman of the Council of Ministers. He is now considered as a man who looks after the big farmers and he must work to change that perception. Farmers need him to deliver on their behalf. Not enough attention is given to Ireland's dependence on beef exports. That is the nub of the Government's failure. The Minister's announcement tonight underlines the wrong direction taken on this issue. What the Minister should be saying and what can be argued at any forum is that Irish beef, which in the main is produced from grass, is of the highest quality and can be presented anywhere in the world. The Minister's approach suggests that things are still wrong in the Irish beef food chain. He is continuing to undermine Irish beef here and abroad.

There is grave concern among farmers — some of them have told the Minister so directly — at the cull proposal. They consider it a panic measure which has no short or medium-term benefit and which in the long term undermines the ability of farmers to make an income. That proposal is doomed to failure. A huge proportion of farmers' income comes from the EU. The Minister is in a position to alleviate hardship by bringing forward payments. That would have been difficult two years ago but the process has been set in train by which it can be done at relatively little cost to the Exchequer.

The Minister made a grave mistake by engaging in lecturing farmers on the bite-the-hand line, which has invited them to accuse him of wining and dining at taxpayers' expense. By that approach he has undermined our position in terms of the EU and certainly has not contributed to a united front on the part of farmers and the Department.

There is grave disappointment that only £70 million of the £700 million compensation package is destined for Ireland and it is entirely the fault of the Minister and the Department that much of it has gone to dealers rather than farmers. There is a fear that the £400 million in savings, referred to by the Minister, will be likewise divided, that Ireland will get a derisory share and that it will not be directed at those who most deserve it. It is possible for the Minister and the Department to ensure that we get the greatest amount possible and that it is directed to the right people. Much of the solution to this crisis is in the hands of the Government. Farmers have every right to be disappointed and feel let down at the manner in which the crisis has been handled.

I thank Deputies Cowen, Byrne, Nolan and Ellis for giving me the opportunity to contribute on this issue. The beef crisis has not gone away. It may have passed on to an extent from winter finishers to suckler cow farmers, but the result is the same — chronic hardship and serious losses for thousands of individuals and families. The only real answer that can be seen to be given is on the Border. While the work is often long and tedious for gardaí on duty there, the Garda presence is very welcome and much appreciated, but it is not a long-term solution to the issue.

Consumer confidence must be restored and markets reopened. We must be positive in terms of fully implementing the Abattoirs Act, 1988. We must put in place a full inspectorate to look at each animal entering the factory pre-slaughter, examine the carcase post-slaughter and confidently stamp our beef. That should be done under the auspices of the local authority to ensure jobs in smaller factories are safeguarded. We do not want a reduction in area aid. If the £200 or so deficit from each animal is to be met, markets must be opened and consumer confidence restored. Farmers have already been badly hit by this crisis and money should not be taken out of one pocket to put into another.

Fianna Fáil has visited Iran but we still await a Government visit to Iran and Egypt and further interest in Libya. These markets must be visited by senior Ministers, whether by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs——

There is no fear of him going.

——or the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry. We are losing contracts even as we speak. How much longer must we wait for action on a crisis that affects not only beef farmers, big and small, but also related businesses and grain growers? This matter must be seriously addressed. The Minister should not write off farmers, as he seems to be doing.

I am disappointed at the attitude of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry. His inept performance in recent months has left the agriculture industry in a serious situation culminating in the protest by farmers in Killarney yesterday — something we have not seen for 30 years.

What about the sheep incident?

That was a different scenario. At least we did not insult international visitors until yesterday. This shows how serious the situation is.

I listened with interest to the Minister. He mentioned a figure of £1,000 in additional investment by the European Union in livestock which are only worth £200 per head. As somebody who worked in the livestock marketing sector for 14 years I cannot accept this. If the Minister considers that prime beef cattle are only worth £200 per head the industry is in a serious situation.

That is what one will get from the Egyptians.

Farmers are losing £300 per head compared with what they were getting in 1993.

The Minister who has been in office for the past two years asked for suggestions. In Britain, where there is a traditional policy of cheap food, statements have been made which have not been substantiated or confirmed. We are the victims.

As President of the Council of Agriculture Ministers which regulates beef marketing in the European Union the Minister has a fundamental duty, irrespective of what happens in a particular member state, to ensure equality of opportunity and that incomes both here and in other member states are protected. He has not told us the whole story. He has been told by his French and German colleagues on the Council of Ministers that they intend to take unilateral action to subsidise their farmers, irrespective of what decisions are taken at European Union level. He has a fundamental duty, in the interests of the industry here and across Europe, to ensure that this does not happen. There are ample resources available to the Commission to pay adequate compensation to those incurring losses.

There are two issues which the Minister must address. There must be an aggressive marketing campaign to reassure everybody not alone here but abroad, to maximise market share and ensure an increase in the consumption of beef so that we can continue, as a primary producer, to move animals out of the country. The Minister must also ensure there is competition between the meat factories and exporters. No matter what negotiations he enters into with third countries, unless there are adequate transport facilities we will go nowhere.

Are the Government and the European Union committed to resolving this problem? The Taoiseach, after the Minister, has the ultimate responsibility as head of Government to resolve this problem. The Tánaiste has never liked the beef industry and has made no major effort to assist the Minister. The Minister for the Marine has a key role to play in the area of transport and the Minister for Tourism and Trade in the area of marketing, as well as the relevant State agencies, including An Bórd Bia and An Bórd Trachtála, in offering their full support in promoting Irish beef which is the best in the world. It is vital that money is spent at food fairs and festivals and in markets across the globe. The industry which is grass based is producing prime steers without the use of additives. There is no reason we cannot capitalise on this.

The Minister mentioned the rendering industry which is in a serious situation. I give him a firm warning that he will create a serious problem if he goes down that road. In economic, industrial and environmental terms, the industry has a key role to play. It is important that the Minister is not fooled by those who believe that by bringing in these new mechanisms the problems will be resolved. If he fails to protect the industry we will be confronted with an environmental disaster.

During the past year the Minister has advanced £600,000 in overtime payments to staff who have yet to earn it. If he felt duty bound to resolve a crisis for staff of his Department by advancing that sum, he has a moral obligation to pay immediately the premia, headage and other grants to which farmers are entitled.

I will make an announcement later in the week.

The Minister has made a number of announcements but there has been no action. To ease the burden on farmers who have to meet bank commitments he needs to put cash in their pockets and allow them time and space until we see what he can do within the Government to resolve the problem.

We have done our utmost in Opposition under the leadership of Deputy Bertie Ahern and Deputy Brian Cowen as part of a national effort to try to resolve this crisis. We have taken and will continue to take a responsible attitude and will support any reasonable efforts to resolve it. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that his Government colleagues do what they can while we hold the Presidency of the European Union.

Meetings have been held throughout the country. As far as I am concerned, these were party political meetings.

The IFA sent a good few.

The invitations were sent by the Minister's party organisation. Unless one was a member of Fine Gael one could not get in to the meeting held in County Galway. This was done to protect the Minister and the Government.

Did the Democratic Left snipers turn up?

The Minister told farmers about a crisis to which he had no solution. As primary producers, they are depending on the Government to resolve it in a reasonable way. We are not on our own, we have the European Union behind us. It is vitally important that a positive approach is taken within the European Union and the Commission to ensure the industry is not destroyed. It is vitally important also that compensation is paid to farmers regardless of whether they slaughter their animals, sell them in marts or export them. It should not be paid to any other group. The Government has a fundamental duty to protect this vital national asset. We do not want to destroy rural Ireland by driving more people out of the agriculture industry. It is up to the Minister and his colleagues in Government to ensure that markets are found for our beef to secure the future of the industry.

There is an air of despondency in the Chamber. Judging from the mood of the debate and from the Minister's point of view, we are witnessing the demise of the agriculture industry. Because of the way the BSE problem has been handled many beef producers are in a serious position. Initially, the problem was confined to the 12,000 farmers involved in the finishing sector but down the production line those rearing store cattle or producing calves, be they dairy farmers or suckler cow producers, now find themselves in difficulty.

The Minister made the point that by the year 2005 or 2006 there will be only 60,000 full-time farmers.

Debate adjourned.