There’s no doubt that the Donegal man set the agenda for farming in 2021, and indeed for the decade to come. When CAP reform was agreed in June, he said he had secured the necessary flexibility to finalise the right package for Irish farmers domestically. The October announcement of the CAP package was as controversial as it was comprehensive, with the IFA leading protests at the exhaustive round of mart meetings the minister set himself. The affable McConalogue then showed his steel, sticking to his guns, with extra qualifying criteria for eco-schemes his one concession.
However, it is the negotiation by McConalogue and his department of a 22%-30% sectoral carbon reduction target that may prove his lasting legacy. It’s undoubtedly challenging, but in the context of an overall national 51% target is a recognition of the special place farming and food production holds in our economy and society.
Sinn Féin’s agriculture spokesman raised his profile considerably over the year, but his impact on Irish farming began in Brussels. As an MEP, he advocated for the likes of CRISS/front-loading, and high convergence that shifted the focus of the CAP. Along with Luke “Ming” Flanagan, he pushed the Parliament’s agriculture committee toward the CAP we have ended with.
His “that’s not climate action that’s hypocrisy” speech in the Dáil went viral, and resonated with farmers. Since his return to domestic politics for the 2020 general election, he has become one of his party’s leading lights as they surge clear in opinion polls.
However, he has been more prominent of late on general issues than farming, and the minister has not been under much pressure from the opposition spokesman.
Pippa Hackett and Martin Heydon
Agriculture Food and the Marine is one of only two departments to have ministers from all three government parties.
Despite this, ministers of State Pippa Hackett and Martin Heydon have proven supportive to Charlie McConalogue. Hackett has the higher profile, and will point to the €260m fund for organic farming as a big win that gives her spending power.
However, forestry is still a mess, although there is some optimism that Colm Hayes will be given the tools to tackle the fundamentals. Martin Heydon will have found the CAP process problematic, as it is farmers in his part of the country who are losing most. Fine Gael have sounded very Dublin-centric under Leo Varadkar, but Heydon connects with farmers.
In many ways, it’s the Independent TDs that are the most vocal and constant critics of the minister and the Department. The leader of this pack is Michael Fitzmaurice, who manages to walk the line of defending farming trenchantly without sounding like a climate sceptic.
Carol Nolan has held the Government to account on farm inspections and is establishing herself as a farming advocate.
Richard O’Donoghue’s speech on carbon fuel taxes went viral, as did his stunt of driving a lorry into the Dáil car park, and attended the Individual Farmers’ recent protest in Kilcock.
Then there are the hardy annuals, the Healy-Raes and Mattie McGrath, who seem to be moving further to the right politically, but are unfailingly popular with most farmers.
Jackie Cahill is an understated chair of the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee. Its activities have undoubtedly been curtailed by COVID-19, but Cahill is as they say “pure rural”. As a former ICMSA president, his presence at October’s IFA protest was noted. The Oireachtas ag committee faces a big year ahead, as it vets the detail of CAP and of sectoral target actions.
Tim Lombard made his mark from the Upper House, introducing a crucial amendment to the Climate Action Bill back in the summer. That amendment recognises biogenic methane and carbon offtakes, and may prove pivotal as farming plots its way toward sustainability in 2030 and beyond.
Luke Ming Flanagan
The Roscommon MEP can legitimately claim that he had a greater hand in shaping the current CAP than the “establishment” politicians or the IFA that he has such a strained relationship with. With the European Parliament facing issues around pesticides, food imports and trade deals, he will continue to be influential, as will the like-minded Sinn Féin MEP Chris McManus. Fine Gael’s Colm Markey will be looking to raise his profile.