22 November 2019 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The development buzz which has been animating the economic landscape of Co Monaghan over the past couple of years shows no sign of lowering its triumphant pitch.

Monday’s signal occasion for Carrickmacross that marked the formal opening ceremony for the extension of the Chinese Newbaze group of its manufacturing operations into Ireland was another signpost on the ascendant route that economic development in important sectors has been following. Particular significance attaches to this good news story given the severe blow delivered to South Monaghan when the Bose plant went out of operation a number of years ago. Patient, concerted efforts across the spectrum of representative politics at national, local and international level to mitigate the damage to prosperity and morale that emanated from that happening has now borne fruit with the advent into the county of a business operation with considerable growth potential, and one linked very closely to both the local and national reputation for quality and reliability in the sphere of dairy production.

The new Monaghan operation will play a key role in the production of milk powder products for one of the world’s largest markets in China, and several marketplaces – such as those located on the African continent, the south-east of Asia and the Middle East – that have the potential in terms of population and socio- economic expansion to become very significant target areas for Irish enterprises in the course of the next decade.

Some progressive locally based companies such as Silver Hill Farm are already tapping into these markets. The inroads they have made have importance beyond growth and prosperity for the enterprises themselves – they evoke that hardly old ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ syndrome. In the eyes of distant potential customers, they denote Ireland, and the enterprise-rich drumlins of Co Monaghan in particular, as a location synonymous with quality of food production, processing efficiency and adaptability to shifting market trends and tastes. And, for those here with the potential to tap into these markets, they generate confidence and also arouse the innate competitive instincts that have fuelled entrepreneurial endeavour in these parts perhaps a little more than people are sometimes comfortable to acknowledge. “Whatever you can do, I can do better” has been the basis for more than one Co Monaghan business success story.

The importance of the development announced in Carrickmacross on Monday for our local and national agricultural community also should not be underestimated. This embattled sphere of the economy can do with a shot in the arm just now. Those in the dairy sector who have seen local markets close down should be somewhat reassured to know that the demand for Irish milk and milk-based products in some sectors of the world marketplace has probably never been higher. The quality of what they are doing is being appreciated – not everyone thinks our farmers are the villains of the climate change narrative. Milk producers and our beefmen still have a fight on their hands to get better prices for what they work so hard to bring to the marketplace, but it is surely to their advantage when companies such as Newbaze make a considered location decision because of the Irish reputation for food purity which they have done so much to help cultivate.

And developments like these also reinforce the vital importance of ensuring that this reputation is not allowed to be diluted. Strategic investments by big international players in the Irish food sector hinge on making sustainable practices the operating norm on Irish farms and on supporting our primary food producers in making the investments and operational changes this requires.

The Government’s new Food Wise 2025 plan for stimulating growth in the agri-food sector does give due acknowledgement to the enormous export contribution made by our dairy producers in particular and is duly cognisant of the potential for further growth in the sales of Irish dairy products to emerging markets such as those in Africa and Asia. What it does not sufficiently do, however, is reassure the primary producers that they will get an equitable share of the rewards of any such future growth – it hints at promises but stops short of the sort of guarantees needed for what has come to be termed “stakeholder buy-in” these days.

Irish dairy farmers will have to become more productive, and more efficient in production, to meet the Food Wise wish list of growth targets. To do this, they will need to invest – and for anyone founding their primary source of income on agricultural activity these days, significant investment is not a decision that can be taken in the manner of a leap in the dark. It must be backed by tangible supports from Europe, from the Department of Agriculture and, perhaps, most crucially, by a change of attitude and approach by the lending institutions.

Farmers need to know with a high degree of certitude that if they commit to the sort of investment needed to hit the targets which the Government is setting for food exports in the future, it will be economically viable for them to do so. In fact, they need something more than this – they need to know that their essential contribution will be honoured by a commensurate sure of the bounty that flows into the country when we experience export success. Crudely put, the farmer deserves a bigger share of the pie for which he has laboured so hard to supply the raw ingredients – throwing him the crumbs from the table will just no longer do.

Making these points is not to detract from the good news element of happenings such as those witnessed in Carrickmacross on Monday. We should all take confidence from our county being chosen as the location for significant investment, but we should not grow complacent.

Co Monaghan is still labouring under very severe disadvantages to its economic growth. We have an enfeebled hospital facility and no realistic prospect of its shorn services being restored – a huge disincentive for many forms of potential inward investment. Although we have made great strides in educational provision, particularly in establishing linkages between further education and local industry, we do not have a third level institution within the county precincts. And, although the new Bioconnect Research Centre which will commence construction soon will go some way to correcting the deficit, we are still missing out on the huge investment that is attracted by research and development and the linkages which are formed in this area by major players in industrial and technological productivity and the university heavy hitters.

Co Monaghan has weathered economic tempests, proximity to and encroach of the Northern Ireland troubles, and meagre historic investment by central government to forge an exceptional reputation for its enterprise acumen and its work ethic. Whatever Brexit brings, we surely have the weaponry to defend ourselves against it.

But how much more prosperous could we be, how much more confident could we become, if we could make the great leaps forward in health provision, education and research that are currently holding us back?

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