If the visit of European Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius was meant to close out the debate around the nitrates derogation, it hasn’t worked.
The entire week since has seen little else talked of.
Last Thursday, the Commissioner made his long-awaited visit to Ireland, following months of rows over the reduction in the nitrates derogation for much of the country to 220kg/ha.
While he listened to representatives of farm organisations, Teagasc and dairy processors, it didn’t seem to change his attitude an inch.
The hope that getting on to a family farm to see a grass-based dairy operation first-hand would adjust his viewpoint was dashed from the start – he never left the Department of Agriculture’s headquarters on Kildare Street beside the Dáil.
Indeed, as he was wrapping up the final engagement of his whistle-stop visit (a brisk press conference), Agriculture House was going into lockdown as news was emerging of the riots in the city centre, and he was whisked away to the airport.
The fact that he described the 220kg/ha regions as “pockets” with “bad water” is a concern. The “pockets” cover much of the country, and as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) belatedly expands its data that will almost certainly soon extend further – the Slaney region can hardly escape regrading. And the “bad water” is by European standards of very good quality, but it is not improving in terms of nitrates levels.
Germany, Denmark, France or the Netherlands would give their eye-teeth for our riverwater.
The main point Sinkevicius made was that the nitrates negotiations were completed in April 2022, and how Ireland had spent the time since then was a matter for ourselves. No change could be made to the derogation, even if the European Commission approved of it, without the sign-off of the 27 other member states, with the clear inference that this was not a route he was recommending.
Europe is certainly becoming more fractured, with the Dutch elections meaning there is a fair chance they will join Italy, Hungary and Poland, in having far-right governments, who will be nominating their own commissioners next summer.
It also suggests the European Parliament will be more fractured than ever after June’s elections.
Farmers have lost trust in their politicians and Department’s ability to protect what is now left
We saw the effects of that last week, with the right voting down the Sustainable Use Regulation for pesticides as it believed it went too far, while the left voted against it for not going far enough.
Farmers might welcome this development, but what Mairead McGuinness described last Friday at the Michael Dillon lecture as “a coalition of the unlikely” could outvote the centre to vote down everything of substance in the next parliament.
That could be a disaster.
Farmer anger as expressed at Sunday and Monday’s IFA meetings in Cork central and west is understandable, and justifiable, particularly in terms of the timelines around the publication of maps and formal notification to farmers of their nitrates zone for 2024.
There are two layers to farmer reaction. One is the frustration that, as Teagasc has confirmed, moving farmers from 250kg/ha to 220kg/ha will only have a tiny impact on water quality, but at great economic cost.
Farmers have lost trust in their politicians and Department’s ability to protect what is now left.