At just 31, Claire Kerrane is Sinn Féin’s spokesperson on agriculture and rural affairs. With her party leading in the polls, and seeming destined for office after a general election which must take place in the next 12 months, she sets out her stall on the wide range of issues facing farming.

“I come from a small village of Tibohine in west Roscommon, I live on a beef, suckler and sheep farm, and have done so all my life. This role is very personal for me, it’s not just [that] you’ve a group of farmers and you want to do your best by them.

“My two brothers are farming, my dad is farming, it’s been in the family for generations,” she tells the Irish Farmers Journal.

Prior to taking up the agriculture portfolio, she held the role of spokesperson for social protection, an area she worked in as a political adviser in the Oireachtas before being elected in 2020.

Scale of challenge facing farming

“A lot of people assume, well you live on a farm, you know all about it. As if, the portfolio is so broad. I’m getting my way around it as quickly as I can, I’ve met all the stakeholders. That to me is very important, and it’s the quickest way as well.

“But I’m very mindful as a party we’ve a lot of work to do when it comes to agriculture and farming. It’s my job now, and I fully intend to have something in writing to present to farmers when it comes to the next general election. Quite frankly if I don’t have that, and we don’t have anything to propose, I wouldn’t expect farmers to vote for us anyway, and that’s being straight about it.

“I don’t think as a party we’ve done enough, and I take that responsibility seriously when we’re asking farmers to put their faith in us.

“We have held the ministry of agriculture in the north of Ireland, and the former agriculture minister Michelle Gildernew has put her name forward (in the midlands-north-west constituency) for the upcoming European elections.

“We are back up and running in the north as well, all of that is important for the all-Ireland economy, that feeds into lots of areas of agriculture. We want to send a strong team to Europe. I’m learning as quickly as I can, but I’m very conscious that we’ve got to present something to farmers and that’s my job now.”

If elected to government, what would a Sinn Féin government change in terms of agricultural policy in its first year of office?

“Again, I do intend to set this out, including the first 100 days, because I think it’s important to hit the ground running. For me, there are three priority key areas. The first is income, and that includes your CAP, it includes schemes.

“There are an awful lot of schemes, some are more complex than others.

“In relation to the new sheep scheme, the new beef welfare scheme, they are simple, there are a couple of actions, the cost of compliance isn’t huge; that’s where I think we need to go in relation to schemes and incomes.

“The second is the future of the family farm – sustaining that, growing it, the next generation, young farmers, that’s why we’ve proposed a commission on the family farm. It’s interesting, I was on a panel at the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association (ICSA) AGM recently, and the questions in the room from farmers weren’t [about] schemes, incomes and money.

Claire Kerrane. \ Philip Doyle

“They were ‘my son’s gone to New Zealand, how am I going to bring him back’, and ‘how do I encourage my child to go into farming. Should I, because the income isn’t there’.

“We need more recognition for women farmers and young farmers.

“When farmers are talking of succession, a retirement scheme, they are the big questions that are being asked. We need a commission to look into all of that, ” she said.

Thirdly, she believes farmers need better engagement.

“I think the minister needs to be at the table an awful lot more. I think we’ve a huge job of work to do in the relationship between farmers on the ground and the Department of Agriculture, that would be a priority for a Sinn Féin minister. I think the Department can be very rigid and hard on farmers. There’s definitely a perception among farmers that the Department is the big bad wolf.”

Longer-term planning

“There are priorities in the longer term. We really want to see an improvement in CAP, you have to go out and negotiate for that.

“Smaller issues, legacy issues like the forgotten farmers can be sorted out relatively quickly when you go into government,” she said.

Farm organisations

“I firmly believe we need a retirement scheme. It’s been thrown about for many years but nothing’s happened. I intend to speak with the farm organisations and get their input in relation to a retirement scheme. I want to set out what that would look like; I think Macra has done a really good job, the proposed pilot scheme for succession is worthy of being looked at.

Political correspondent Pat O'Toole interviews Sinn Féin's Claire Kerrane in Leinster House. \ Philip Doyle

“The land mobility service it provides, along with others, is really important as well.

“We can’t expect farmers to leave with nothing – there are often issues in relation to pensions with stamps and PRSI, you end up on a means-tested pension. That’s problematic because you’re looking at land. We need a proper scheme that allows farmers to come off the land with security of income, allowing the next generation in.”

Sinn Féin on taxes

Farmer fears around a new governmental approach in this area surfaced at IFA succession meetings last year.

In 2022, party leader Mary Lou McDonald gave a commitment to the ICMSA AGM that Sinn Féin would make no changes to capital taxes.

This week, Claire Kerrane reiterated that Sinn Féin would retain the existing suite of farm taxation measures, if elected to government.

“We are not proposing, nor have we ever, any changes to existing tax reliefs or for tax.

“We’re not proposing any additional tax on any farmers in the country at all, and rightly so. It’s hard enough without anything like that. It’s important to be very clear. Every single year, in our alternative budget, you can see existing reliefs to be retained, and that’s our position.

“It’s unfortunate when that position is said otherwise, but I can understand fears. We’re looking to be in government the next time out.

“We’re working hard, preparing department by department what that would look like and what we intend to do in government.

“I can understand change for some people is fear and worry.

“To be clear on tax, we’re not proposing anything new, and we’re not proposing to take anything away.”