Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I am sure the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, will agree that the recently announced Mercosur trade deal has angered the Irish farming community no end, particularly the beef sector, and with good reason. It potentially signals the death knell of a sector that has suffered unduly in recent times as a result of the collapse in beef prices, the impact of Brexit and increasing pressures arising from the climate change issue. Among the farming organisations, the president of the Irish Farmers Association, IFA, described the trade agreement as "reckless" and "wrong" and the president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association, ICMSA, said it was an "absolute disgrace" and "beggars belief" that millions of acres of rainforest will be chopped down to facilitate beef expansion, while sustainable, fully traceable beef in Europe is put to the sword. I put it to the Minister that this trade agreement is in many ways outdated. It is outdated in that it ignores the impact of Brexit on the beef sector, both now and into the future. It is outdated in not taking due note of the collapse in beef prices in recent years and the difficulty the sector is facing. Above all, it is outdated in terms of the climate change issue. It beggars belief that this trade agreement has been signed given the change of mindset around climate change across Europe, including in this country.

The Government seems to be quietly acquiescing to this trade deal. The Minister will recall that during the local elections, the Commissioner, Mr. Hogan, announced a €50 million package and the Government and Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Creed, took credit for what we were led to believe were very close dealings between the Commissioner and the Government. At the time, there did not appear to be any conditions attached.

We subsequently learned from documentation published last week that there are significant conditions attached, one key condition being that the measures taken by Ireland shall be aimed at reducing production or restructuring the beef and veal sector along with other objectives. We have this incredibly contradictory position whereby beef is being allowed into Europe which is being produced in an environmentally unsustainable way, while at the same time Europe is putting a condition on compensating Irish farmers around reducing beef production. In today's Irish Independent op-ed, Commissioner Hogan talks about how he would invite governments to do an environmental assessment, which is incredible. Why in the name of God did he and others not do an environmental assessment? I would point out to him the recent report from the BBC World Service indicating that the Trump of the tropics, President Bolsonaro, is accelerating rapidly the deforestation of Brazil and of the Amazon. There is only one conclusion. The BBC World Service report was aided by officials in the government of Brazil who are absolutely appalled with what is going on there. An area the size of a football pitch is being cleared every single minute, with devastating consequences for the world in terms of the climate change agenda and global warming. The response of Europe is to reward climate change deniers, essentially, and people who pay no heed to it, particularly President Bolsonaro, through this Mercosur trade deal, while hurting beef farmers who are among the most efficient in the world in terms of environmental production models and methodology. Does the Government accept that this is environmentally unsustainable as a trade deal? What strategy does it intend to deploy to deal with it?

I thank the Deputy for raising this question. There is no doubt that it is of very significant concern. The Deputy will be aware that the Taoiseach, along with the President of France and the Prime Minister of Poland, made a very strong case even very recently. Ireland has been consistently raising this, indeed as far back as when I was Minister with responsibility for trade, and that goes back quite some time. This was an issue of very significant concern then and Irish Ministers never lost the opportunity to raise it. The original proposal sought 300,000 tonnes of beef and that would certainly have been devastating in its impact. The agreement we now have, which is only an agreement at principle level, provides for 99,000 tonnes of beef, 45% of which will be frozen. In addition, there are very clear statements that there can be absolutely no compromise on food standards that apply within the European Union markets.

The other thing that needs to be borne in mind, which is why the Taoiseach says we need a proper evaluation of the proposed deal at this stage, is that there are other benefits in it for Ireland. It includes 45,000 tonnes in the dairy sector and it includes many other sectors in which we have companies such as medical devices, pharma, chemicals, and food opportunities. Those sectors will see gains to be had in this. While the Deputy has remarked on the situation we face with Brexit as raising particular concerns, it also underlines the importance for small open economies like our own to have access to markets, particularly growth markets where we can look to the future to build opportunities. Another reason the evaluation will be important is that, contrary to what Deputy Micheál Martin is suggesting, the deal requires parties to subscribe to the Paris Agreement. It also includes specific issues around forest sustainability within these countries, so there are significant elements of environmental protection, and protection in respect of labour law and respect for international agreements such as that of the International Labour Organization. We need to take the time to evaluate this as a whole, as the Taoiseach has said. We have made our position abundantly clear throughout the very long negotiations that have taken place on it.

We will continue to press those concerns. We need to undertake that evaluation and look at how to deal with it as it unfolds. Finalising the legal documentation will take a number of years and there will be a phasing period, over six years, in the context of implementation. We need to draw back. While we understand fully the concern of beef farmers, we need to evaluate it in the round and continue to press Ireland's very strong case.

The Minister might answer the question asked. Has the Government decided to oppose this deal? The Minister has responsibility for climate change response and he did not deal with the central point I made. A right-wing leader who favours development over conservation was elected in Brazil. A hectare of land is being cleared every minute there and the single biggest reason to fell these trees - according to any official figure in Brazil - is to make way to create new pastures for cattle. Countless herds are grazing on land that was once rainforest. I put it to the Minister that this is the uncomfortable truth. I ask him not to tell me that these political leaders are committed and pledged to the Paris Agreement because it means absolutely nothing to them.

They are certainly not committed to Ireland.

There is documentary evidence in the form of satellite imagery which shows that there has been a rapid acceleration of the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in the past six months. Both Europe and the Government are being cagey. They are not highlighting this but it should be a showstopper. The behaviour of the Brazilian Government in respect of the Amazon rainforest should be a showstopper in the context of Mercosur. I put it to the Minister that pledging to the Paris Agreement in the never-never does not correspond with the reality of what is happening right now. The European Union's response is to reward this and incentivise the destruction of the Amazon rainforest to have more pasture for more beef that will come into Europe eventually.

The Deputy is distorting the reality. This trade deal has compliance with the Paris Agreement at its heart. If there is not compliance with the Paris Agreement, there is no deal.

We do not even comply with the Paris Agreement. Ireland is well off its targets.

It contains specific provisions regarding multilateral environmental agreements-----

What about carbon?

-----so it deals specifically with these. For the first time, there will be governments which - as the Deputy rightly stated - may not have had a record of complying with these agreements.

It is going on now.

They may sign up as a precondition for the opportunity to gain the advantages of a trade agreement but they must comply with these arrangements.

They are not going to comply.

If they do not comply, there is, as the Deputy is aware, a six-year phasing period at any stage during which there can be interventions to block the progress of the agreement.

It should be a showstopper right now.

In addition, human rights and environmental groups have access to the documents that will be produced through this agreement. This is an open and transparent agreement under which people who are third parties can represent their views and bring to the attention of the parties any failures in the context of compliance with the agreement. It provides for action if that happens. This is the first time we have had a trade agreement that includes respect for the Paris Agreement-----

Previous Brazilian Governments had a different policy.

-----for health and safety standards, for environmental standards and for food standards.

The Minister has not even read it.

Previous Brazilian Governments had a different policy which was about conservation. This new guy is changing all of that.

The Minister is making a very lame attempt to defend the indefensible, which is the Mercosur agreement. It should be remembered that Fianna Fáil agreed the mandate for negotiations for this deal back in 1999.

Where was Sinn Féin in 1999?

The Minister will be aware that Sinn Féin has spent the past five years calling on the Minister and Fine Gael to withdraw support for this mandate. Now we have this deal-----

The Deputy's party agreed peace in 1999.

It is Leaders' Questions, Deputy McDonald-----

I am sorry to offend by putting the facts of this matter on the record. Yet, here we find ourselves faced with this deal. The Taoiseach's position is that if it is good for Ireland, we will support it. That is the stated position of the Government. All of the main farming organisations and stakeholders across the island oppose the deal.

They do not need any long-winded analysis or any fig leaf. They are well aware this is a bad deal, particularly in respect of beef, but also for the poultry and pigmeat sectors. Their criticisms are well-founded because tariff-free quotas amounting to 99,000 tonnes of beef, 180,000 tonnes of poultry and 25,000 tonnes of pigmeat are bad news for each of those sectors.

They are bad news in and of themselves but, when combined with the sustained decline in beef prices over the last number of years, and also, as the Minister has acknowledged, the unfolding risk of Brexit, farming families across this island are quite right to call the Government out on this bad deal. It can be best summarised as a sell-out of Irish farmers and their families, and of rural Ireland as a whole. Commissioner Phil Hogan, the Government's man in Brussels, despite all this, describes this deal as fair and balanced - those are his words and they beggar belief. It also beggars belief that at a time when this Dáil has declared a climate emergency, and from a Government that has encouraged people not to eat beef, unless, it seems, it is Brazilian-----

What? That is nonsense.

That is not true.

-----that the Government would be prepared to sign up to a deal with Brazil, whose President has committed to destroying the Amazon and the indigenous communities who live there, in order to increase the profits of a few millionaire beef exporters, and that the Government would move to make it easier for Brazilian and Argentinian beef to come into the European Union, and for German car manufacturers to flog high-emissions cars in South America. That makes a mockery of this and calls out the hypocrisy of the Government in terms of any commitment to climate action or climate justice.

Will the Minister make himself abundantly clear on this deal? Has the Taoiseach made it clear to the European Commission that Ireland will oppose this deal? Has he indicated that the Irish State will vote against it? Will we have a binding vote in the Oireachtas on this deal? Will the Government afford to us the opportunity where it has failed to defend farming families, rural Ireland and our planet?

Eamon Collins was shot in 1999 for speaking out.

I would make the same point to Deputy McDonald as I did to Deputy Martin. This is a trade deal where, over a very long period, Irish Ministers have stridently sought to reduce the originally sought 300,000 tonnes of beef from entering the European market. We have made that case consistently and we continue to be of the view that the 99,000 tonnes is a threat to our industry. However, we need to look at this agreement in the round. While the Deputy refuses to recognise this, it does contain significant opportunities for Irish workers and, indeed, for Irish farmers in the dairy sector. It also, for the first time, locks in countries with which we trade to principles, such as subscription to the Paris Agreement, which, as the Deputy knows, is the agreement that provides binding obligations on countries to tackle climate change. This is a new type of trade deal that locks in countries which are participating and which want access to our markets to those sorts of commitments. It also provides very strong protections in respect of food standards. I know many people, including farmers, have concerns that substandard products would be allowed into European markets under these agreements. Those are very strongly protected within the agreement.

In terms of the Irish Government position, the Deputy has probably heard the Taoiseach outline that he will undertake an evaluation of this deal and he has reserved his position until that evaluation is done, something Deputies in this House do not seem willing to do. There are checks and balances, and that is true of every trade deal. I have never seen a trade deal come before this House where certain parties, including the Deputy’s party, would be stridently opposed to it but, nonetheless, trade agreements such as these have opened opportunities for Irish business. I have been on trade missions with Irish companies where we have had the chance to take advantage of that and to move away from our dependence on markets like Britain to having a more diverse base of trading relationships.

This is really important to a small open trading economic like ours. We need to step back. We recognise that there are threats to a very important sector here. We need to use the timeframe between now and final ratification of the deal to examine it and make our case in a cogent way, because these documents have to be drawn up in detail.

My understanding as to whether the Dáil will have a role is that that depends on the legal interpretation of whether this is a mixed agreement or purely a trade agreement. If it is a mixed agreement, which is probably likely, then the Dáil will have a role in the ratification.

The Minister is right to acknowledge that we have opposed this deal and negotiation from the get-go, from as far back as 1999 when Fianna Fáil agreed the mandate-----

The Deputy's colleagues were shooting people in 1999.

-----and, as I said, in the course of the last five years. We have urged Government to stand by farming families and rural Ireland and, also, to stand by that which is sustainable and sensible and things that protect our planet rather than underscoring wholesale vandalism in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. It is laughable to hear the Minister try to explain away the destruction of the rainforest with verbiage around Paris commitments. The Paris commitments count for nothing insofar as the current Brazilian Administration is concerned, and well the Minister knows it.

The Government is going into this agreement with its eyes wide open. It knows that for the beef sector in particular, but also the poultry and pigmeat sectors, this deal is really bad news. It knows that, coupled with Brexit and the fall in beef prices, it is potentially calamitous. The Government has to know, because it has to have some level of common sense, that it is not a good thing to import Brazilian beef instead of supporting the production, sale and consumption of Irish traceable beef in Ireland.

I call the Minister to respond.

That is a matter of common sense. I again call on the Minister-----

He got the question.

He has hidden behind legal interpretations of the trade deal in terms of whether it is mixed or not. I have to insist that, as the elected representatives of the Irish people, we have our say on this matter.

I call the Minister to respond.

I have to insist that a Government-----

There is not time left.

-----that has failed Irish farming families and rural Ireland, at a minimum, allows us, the people's elected representatives in this House, the opportunity to defend their interests where it will not to do so.

We will have to look at Leaders' Questions in the future because not only one leader, all leaders, are exceeding the time.

Not all leaders.

It is the same leaders every time.

I have listened to Deputy Mary Lou McDonald in this House for some time and I have seen her consistently oppose the Canadian agreement, the Japanese agreement, the Korean agreement, all of which we have had significant benefits from. The reality is that these trade agreements have helped Ireland, particularly at a time of very real difficulty, to be able to diversify away from reliance on some markets. As Britain is leaving the European Union, we need to diversify our export base. We also have to be conscious of our defensive interests, one of which is the beef sector. We have very successfully made the case defending the Irish beef sector.

It is beholden on the Deputy to evaluate this agreement in the round because we have not seen governments sign up to honour the Paris Agreement through trade agreements before. This is a strong incentive, and a significant loss, to these countries should they fail to comply with their responsibilities. It is important that we in this House recognise that if we want to tackle climate change, we need to do so not by isolating governments that we feel are not doing their bit but by putting more pressure on them to comply.

They are being rewarded.

This is an agreement that will put pressure on these countries to comply with their obligations.

They are part of a multilateral strategy-----

The Minister is being dishonest.

-----to try to deliver the climate protections that we all crave.

The Government has extended its rent pressure zones to another 19 areas in 11 counties. However, the policy is not working because the Government's limit of a 4% annual rise in rent is far too high.

I said that when this was first introduced and it is still the case. The Government is engaged in Celtic tiger economics. It is totally removed from the reality facing most working people in this country. Rather than capping rents, the policy has given a signal to landlords to increase rents by 4% every year. They expect that every other landlord is increasing rents and so think that they should too. We now have rent inflation of 4% within the rent pressure zones and rents outside the zones are facing even greater increases because they take the 4% as the low benchmark. The European Central Bank has a target to ensure that inflation remains low within the euro area. The target is close to 2% over the medium term. This is not optional. It is set down as fixed European monetary policy and is binding for eurozone countries. If monetary policy has a 2% ceiling for inflation, how can the Government justify 4% annual inflation for controlled rents within its power which pushes non-controlled rent up even higher? This is clearly unsustainable.

The economy would have to see a year-on-year decline or marginal growth of most other costs to average out to the 2% that we are bound to have under the set eurozone monetary policy. Does the Government expect everybody else to help it to meet its binding target as it pushes up rents for renters across the country? There is no evidence that other inflation pressures are not also increasing. Wages are not growing at this 4% level. Affordability should surely be the benchmark of what is affordable for people and what is allowable for rent increases. We see thousands of people being pushed out of the rental sector and into homelessness because of this policy. Average annual earnings for full-time workers grew by 1.7% between 2016 and 2017. The national minimum wage, which the Government controls, has grown by less than 1.5% since July 2011. Will the Government undertake to raise wages to meet this notional 4% target or will it set rents properly at just 1% for three years to allow people to be able to catch up with rent increases and to be able to afford to stay in their own homes?

I thank the Deputy for raising this because the protection of rent pressure zones has been extended today to 19 new areas, including Athlone, Dundalk, Trim, Waterford, Limerick, Gorey, Arklow and several other places. This provides protection for people in those areas. The record of the rent pressure zones is that they have helped to contain the growth of rents.

The legislation that we have just passed, which has had broad support in the House, captures large institutions in the rent pressure zones. It provides new powers to ensure that these are respected, such as criminal sanctions against those who fail to respect them and stronger powers for the Residential Tenancies Board to sanction and investigate landlords. The legislation has helped to make rent pressure zones a more effective tool. Deputy Howlin will recognise that the key to the issue is increasing supply. It was the collapse of the housing market that led to the economic crisis that occurred here, with excessive borrowing for an excessive level of housing. That model cannot be restored. We have to rebuild a new model on a sustainable basis. The evidence from the last years is that, year-on-year, we have expanded the supply of social homes which will reach 10,000 this year, supported tenancies in which an additional 17,000 families will be supported this year, and private sector building which has to continue.

The sorts of initiatives that are at the heart of the Government’s Rebuilding Ireland programme, such as having its own Land Development Agency to put together sites and drive supply and having infrastructural investment and funding tools to put in the hands of those who will build the houses, are important to deliver the supply deficit that we face. Unfortunately, until we overcome the supply deficit, the weakest people in the market will have difficulties. We must bridge the supply as well as continuing to support the social investments that we are making.

That is the long-term solution. Rent pressure zones have a place but they are not the long-term solution, which is about ensuring that the market can again provide enough housing for the supply. That now is higher than the 25,000 that was originally stated because of the strength of the recovery. We must set our targets higher, which has been done in the Project 2040 plan.

Of course supply is the issue and we need more houses. In the meantime, we cannot throw people out of the rented accommodation sector by virtue of unaffordable rents, which is what the Government is doing. The Government wants us to applaud the extension to 19 areas of a cap of 4% on increases in rent at a time when people’s wages are increasing by less than half of that. How can that be just? How can it be right? If we accept what the Minister said in terms of the supply having to come up to meet demand, we must have an interim proposal to hold people in affordable rent. That means having a cap on rent increases, as my party suggested, until the supply comes into balance. The cap should at least be linked to the increase in wages across the State. Does the Minister agree that a 4% annual increase in rent, which is twice the rate of the increase in wages, is a wrong policy and is contributing to homelessness?

No. I do not agree with the Deputy. He rightly recognises that supply is the key. We are not seeing an increase in supply of landlords coming into the market; we are seeing the opposite. We are seeing landlords leaving the market. That is a real problem. If we want more affordable rents, we must have a model that sees more people entering the market to provide tenancies to people, as well as more provision of affordable homes. We are seeking to move on both of those fronts.

The Government is giving landlords twice the rate that the ECB considers appropriate.

As the Deputy is aware, 6,000 affordable homes will be rolled out under a programme that is starting this month. In my area, one of the first contracts for affordable homes will be signed later this year.

Where is the rent Bill?

We must have a balanced response of supply right across all the various areas, from private and public tenancies to the housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme and affordable supply. That is the only way we will get to grips with the situation. We are seeing progress in those areas. Contrary to what Deputy Howlin says, in the rental area we are not seeing a new supply of tenancies. We are seeing-----

Is the idea that landlords will keep jacking up rents?

-----many landlords leave the market.

We must attract more landlords.

We must find a model that will support that. In this agreed legislation, we are taking action to make it much tougher for landlords to abuse the provision. We are making it a criminal offence and giving greater powers to the RTB and allowing it to initiate cases without any third-party complaint.

The Government is pushing people into homelessness.

We are pursuing those issues and trying to increase the supply which, as the Deputy acknowledges, is the only cure.

With regard to the Mercosur deal, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay will potentially put 99,000 tonnes of South American beef into our markets in Europe. This is at a time when Ireland produces the best beef in the world. The Minister can have no doubt about that. There are no hormones, full traceability and the highest of production standards. Irish beef is an excellent product. Our farmers are doing their best, yet at the same time they cannot make a proper profit on it. What is being proposed does not make sense. We in Ireland are being told to cut our stock of animals and plant trees. At the same time, the Mercosur deal is being done with countries that do not have the same level of traceability or production standards and they are felling thousands of acres of rainforest to raise the beef they want to trade into our economies.

What is being proposed is crazy.

I want to give the Minister some hard facts. Today cattle prices are between €3.65 and €3.75 per kg. Heifers might be worth 10 cent more. In today's money, it should be €4.30 per kg coming off grass just to barely break even and pay bills. The Government is leaving our farmers down by not being outraged and fighting. We have a Taoiseach who said the other day that he could perhaps envisage a situation in which the Government might support the deal. I do not see how any Minister or backbencher could stand over that statement. To do so would be letting our farming community and economy down. It would go down in history as what I would consider a fairly bad decision. Having said that, it is the Taoiseach - I hate talking about somebody when he is not here - who came out with the statement that he was going to save Ireland by reducing his own meat intake. I cannot understand for the life of me how any person representing Ireland, a Taoiseach, as he is supposed to be for all of Ireland, could come out with such a statement.

When there was a backlash over the past couple of days over what the Taoiseach said, the Government said it would support and encourage an economic assessment. I will tell you what an economic assessment is. Leave your ivory towers and go out and ask any farmer trying to produce beef, make a profit and keep the family farm open about an economic assessment and he or she will say he or she cannot make money as matters stand, before the deal. One can imagine what this deal will mean to such farmers and their families.

Let me ask the Minister about the €100 million cattle deal or beef deal being discussed. This is nothing more than a smokescreen because the farmer on the ground has got nothing, is getting nothing and probably will get nothing. If the Mercosur deal goes ahead, the land will not be stocked and our farmers will get poorer and poorer until they are driven out of existence. I ask the Government to remember this is predominantly a farming country. Our farmers have to be protected.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. I have consistently acknowledged, and the Taoiseach acknowledges, that the key Irish concern was associated with beef. Under the original proposal, 300,000 tonnes of beef would have come in from the Mercosur countries. The proposal that has emerged is based on 99,000 tonnes. Some 45,000 tonnes of that are frozen. One of the main concerns of Irish farmers is that premium cuts would be coming in. The decrease has helped to offer protection in that regard.

Another concern of Irish farmers is that the beef would be hormone beef or beef from cattle raised according to standards that would not meet European food standards. The European standards will not be diluted one jot and that has been nailed absolutely solidly into the agreement. All those standards have to be met if the Mercosur countries are to enter the European markets.

The Deputy represents a county that has not only beef but also dairy so he will know there are opportunities in the dairy sector under this deal. I do not believe Deputies could yet have had the opportunity to evaluate the various elements of this agreement. There are opportunities as well as threats and we need to use the time, between now and when the deal will finally go to the Council of trade Ministers, to go through the issues, raise specific concerns, carry out the necessary evaluations, consider, if necessary, any concerns over environmental standards, and ensure that in policing this agreement we will hold Brazil and other countries to the highest standards under the Paris Agreement, with which the trade agreement seeks compliance. We need to use this agreement to see that some of the benefits we are trying to achieve are realised and that any threats to our sector are minimised.

On the next Common Agricultural Policy, we all know the new policy will very decisively reward farmers for very high standards and improve them. It will be looking towards better methods of handling manures and fertilisers and rewarding farmers. Some 40% of the resources available under the new policy will be devoted to actions that demonstrably improve the environment and climate action associated with our farms.

We are providing the framework within which Irish farming can continue to thrive in what is a high-quality sector. Let us not forget that in countries such as China there has been major growth in interest in and demand for beef. If we have a premium product and if we possess the highest possible credentials, then we can avail of opportunities in particular countries while also continuing to trade with those with which we already have trading agreements. There are opportunities as well as threats. A balance has to be struck. It is worth reading the text of the agreement in some detail. It is also worth recognising that there are threats and opportunities and that we need to work our way through them.

What the Minister said is very interesting. Any person who tuned into what he said will be really interested. For the past three minutes, he has been trying to sell this deal. He has been trying to justify it, he has been trying to take the sting out of it-----

-----and he has been trying to say that there is no harm in this agreement. How can he, as a senior Minister of long standing, and a man highly respected across the political spectrum, spend three minutes saying what he has just said? He is trying to sell the unsellable and defend the indefensible. This agreement is a direct attack on our farming community. How in the name of God can the Minister and the Government try to justify it?

I ask him that question on behalf of the IFA, the ICMSA, and the various farming organisations. On behalf of every farmer I am pleading with the Minister, the Taoiseach and the rest of the Government to wake up and realise that our farmers need to be defended. They are watching what is going on here today and they wanted to hear the Minister's views. They knew that this issue was going to be raised by Deputies Micheál Martin and McDonald, among others. They wanted to hear what the Minister had to say. What they have heard is him defending a deal that is totally and indescribably bad for our farming community. If they were worried already, they will be extremely worried now.


Hear, hear.

It is worth repeating that when the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, CETA, with Canada was introduced, the reaction in the House was exactly the same.

No. We put forward a motion welcoming the Canadian agreement.

The same comments to the effect that the Canadian agreement was a sell-out were a feature of the reaction to it.

It has not been ratified yet.

I ask that the Minister be heard, without interruption.

That agreement has proved beneficial. I am not stating that the agreement before us is perfect by any means; it is not. However, it is incumbent on all of us to look at it and at the protections that are built into it in order to assess how we can use them to benefit our farmers.

To benefit them.

We must also consider how we can strengthen the agreement in the coming two years. We must evaluate the agreement and both sides of the argument-----

-----in order to assess whether, in the overall interests of the country, we should oppose what is involved. It is dangerous for people in this House - scarcely after the ink on the agreement has dried and possibly without everyone having had an opportunity to read it - to draw conclusions.

The ink is well dry.

Has the Minister read the agreement?

As the Taoiseach stated, we need to take the time to evaluate the agreement. Having had that opportunity, we will then make a decision as to where Ireland's interests lie and how we will seek to protect Irish farmers. That is what we will do.