TIME FOR ACTION, MINISTER!

15 November 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The escalation of farmer protest over the beef price issue visible at factory gates throughout the country again this week was not a welcome sight. Aside from the disruption caused to production and the considerable economic cost to the food processing sector, the image of Irish agriculture abroad will have taken another bruising at a time when our ability to meet the requirements of the export marketplace can least afford a diminishment of reputation.

As farmer and industry representatives gather for another round of Beef Forum talks over the coming days, all those with an interest in the economic wellbeing of the country will earnestly hope that some creative movement on both sides will supplant the stubbornness that has thus far seen efforts to resolve this impasse over the negotiating table end in stalemate.

Trust between the parties has obviously been damaged – farmers feel that they are being short-changed by the factories in a callous manner which takes no account of the severe financial difficulties being experienced by many suppliers, while industry representatives have been wounded by the effects of the protest action on their productivity, and what they deem an intransigent inability on the part of the beefmen to accept the slump in prices they are enduring as the inevitable consequence of one lean year after several of comparative plenty.

While there is some hope that the current talks will see an agreed formula on the issue of specification, it is doubtful whether this alone will bring a resolution of what is becoming an ever more urgent problem, and it would be no great surprise if the weeks leading up to Christmas again saw factory production beset by farmer protest on an even more extensive scale. Surely this is a situation that Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney and the Government simply cannot afford to let happen.

The Minister has acted expediently enough in facilitating the talks between the parties – but it is getting to the stage when his reluctance to get involved in the kernel of the issue is untenable. While in ordinary circumstances no Minister of any Dept would willingly be seen to be directing the outcome of discussions that bear upon commercially sensitive matters such as the price of goods or services, there is in this instance far too much at stake for the Minister to maintain his stance of neutral observer.

The worsening economic circumstances of the farmers bearing the brunt of the price slump would alone merit direct Ministerial intervention. When one adds to this the consequences for productivity of escalating protest action, and the ripple effects on the current economic recovery and the reputation of Irish agriculture abroad, it seems clear that Minister Coveney must act to break the logjam between the disputants and clear this problem off his desk well in advance of the Dáil’s Christmas recess – weeks that bear crucially on both industry and farmer income.

The task of the Minister in taking a more hands-on approach in the latest parley has perhaps been complicated by the intervention of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, who have formally reminded both parties in the talks that any agreement over price must take account of the dictates of competition legislation.

The farming organisations have reacted with predictable chagrin at this intervention, with their hackles of suspicion raised as to its timing and to the invitation which they feel it extends to the industry’s representatives not to alter their position. But the Commission’s correspondence might not be an entirely unhelpful addition to the paperwork on the negotiating table. Any outcome of the talks that would amount to price-fixing, or a corrective action that was inherently disadvantageous to fair competition – in other words, any patched together short-term fix to make the current problem go away – will, the Commission have indicated, be “kept under review”, a tacit veto backed by the force of the law they are required to uphold.

While perhaps clumsily timed, this declaration is valuable in reminding the parties to the discussions that there is present in their deliberations an important ‘silent partner’, the consumer, whose interests must also be taken account of. What is therefore needed is not a quick fix, but a binding agreement to upholstering prices against the extremes of the marketplace, with beef producers accepting a little less when the climate is fully in their favour, and the factories paying a little more when, like now, the ball is firmly in their court.

The parties themselves, given the level of mutual suspicion that has grown up between them, have not so far been able to glimpse this “wood” through the thicket of trees they are watching for enemy activity! Minister Coveney, however, is surely sensitive, and sensible, enough not to have his vision so occluded. A clear-sighted intervention on his part over the coming days is perhaps the best hope of the current beef crisis, for crisis it most certainly is, being alleviated.

MARKETING MONAGHAN

Monaghan Co Council’s intention to pursue a new marketing strategy for the county as a priority in 2015 is to be welcomed. We have much to be proud of in our county from an industrial, sporting, cultural and community perspective, but we have long been diffident about promoting it. But while there might be something in the Monaghan psyche that rebels at blowing our own trumpet, the centrality of marketing to the modern economy renders that attitude debilitatingly anachronistic.

We have yet to properly assimilate into an effective package our considerable tourism product – and our many advantages as a place to work and do business do not, and probably never will, figure too highly on the radar of the State agencies tasked with employment creation and attracting inward investment.

As the Co Council’s Chief Executive Eugene Cummins has astutely recognised, this is work we have to do ourselves, and we are currently lagging behind in the business of self-promotion. The Council in their New Year efforts will hopefully not get too preoccupied with finding an image and a form of words that ‘brands’ the county for promotional purposes.

A competition that taps into the creativity of our schools and community bodies would soon produce a motif that we could be proud of. The real work will entail bringing together all the relevant stakeholders to produce a plan of substance that yields visible economic dividends. And in pursuing this worthy objective, the Council should keep to the fore of its thoughts the words of Sinn Féin councillor Colm Carthy as to the best source of inspiration: “A lot of money is spent on professional consultants, but the best consultants are often the communities we represent.”

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