O’Neill outlines her 2013 ministerial priorities

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill speaking during the UFU annual dinner at Templepatrick. Picture: Cliff Donaldson

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill speaking during the UFU annual dinner at Templepatrick. Picture: Cliff Donaldson

SECURING a CAP budget favourable to the rural economy, sustaining a vibrant, profitable fishing industry, shaping the agri-food industry’s opportunities in external markets, as well as tackling rural poverty and social isolation and providing ongoing high level of financial support for rural projects are among the key areas of work for 2013.

That was the message from Agriculture and Rural Development Minister Michelle O’Neill as she outlined her priorities for 2013.

The minister said: “The first half of 2013 will see a major push towards a CAP reform agreement under the Irish presidency of the EU. The first issue to be resolved is likely to be the CAP budget. Recognising the importance of the CAP to the rural economy, I will continue to put the case for the CAP budget to be maintained at the highest possible level.

“In terms of the detail of CAP Reform, my major priorities will be to ensure a gradual and smooth transition towards area based payments, obtain changes to the greening proposals to make them more suitable to a region where farming is predominantly grassland based, and to seek a clear way forward on the active farmer issue. Securing regional decision making and minimising implementation costs for both farmers and the department will also be very important matters on which I want to see progress. I will continue to press our case during the negotiations and the fact that Ireland will hold the EU presidency, gives us an excellent opportunity to do so.”

Turning to the Common Fisheries Policy, the minister said she believed that in 2013 there would be a “once in a decade opportunity to reform and address its key failings”.

“Fisheries throughout EU waters are varied in terms of the stocks being fished, the fleets that fish them and the fishing methods used. But this diversity is often not factored in when EU policies and rules are developed for fisheries management. We must move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to one that involves member states working together on a regional basis to ensure we get fisheries that are sustainably managed and a vibrant, profitable fishing industry. I welcome the European Parliament Fisheries Committee’s recently adopted amendments, which indicate that we are still on track for achieving meaningful regionalisation of fisheries management.

“As for fishing opportunities in 2013, I have just returned from the December Fisheries Council, and after three long days of hard negotiations I am happy to say that we achieved our main objectives. The Cod Recovery Plan has been amended and this means that the number of days the fleet can fish has been frozen at the same level as last year. Most importantly the Commission’s initial proposals for a 12% cut in the Area 7 prawn quota has been turned into a 6% increase following rational and scientifically sound arguments put by me and my counterpart from the south of Ireland, Simon Coveney TD. This increase is worth around £900,000 to the local fleet and should give a welcome boost to the local fishing sector.”

The minister also declared the future of the agri-food industry would be shaped further in 2013 following publication of the Agri-Food Strategy Board’s report.

“Developing an industry-led, longer term strategic plan for the sector, the Agri-Food Strategy Board has so far been engaging with industry and other stakeholders through sectoral sub-groups and a public Call for Evidence to inform thinking and emerging recommendations. The board’s report is due in spring 2013 and this should help shape the industry’s direction in the coming years as well as the support we, and other Executive departments, provide.

“I await the report with interest and would expect it to focus on the significant opportunities that exist in external markets, how to grow the local industry while respecting our rich, natural environment and heritage and, finally, innovative solutions to further strengthen relationships throughout the entire supply chain.”

The minister said CAFRE has a very important role to play in developing the knowledge and skills of young people wishing to pursue a career in the agri-food industry.

“I hope the current high level of interest from school leavers will continue during 2013 and beyond. I also wish to acknowledge the excellent support provided by CAFRE to agriculture and food businesses as they strive to develop and improve their competitiveness in a global marketplace.”

The minister insisted as part of the continued roll out of the Rural Development Programme 2007-13, the ongoing high level of financial and other support will continue in 2013.

She said: “In Axis 1, investment on Farm Modernisation, plus ongoing training programmes, will further improve the competitiveness, disease status and safety of our farms in 2013. Additionally the Processing and Marketing Grant Scheme will continue to support local industry, thus providing much-needed investment in the agri-food sector.

“Under Axis 2, funding in 2013 will assist thousands of farmers improve the environment and countryside through the Less Favoured Areas Compensatory Allowances Scheme, the Agri-environment Programme and associated Forestry Measures.

“And Axis 3 will continue to focus on measures improving the quality of life in rural areas and encouraging diversification of farming and other rural economic activity. This will include in 2013, the development and implementation of regional strategic projects.”

Minister O’Neill said she was very pleased with the progress that has been achieved in relation to delivering on the Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation framework with initiatives underway including: the Assisted Rural Travel Scheme; funding for the Rural Support charity; support for Rural Community Development work; the Maximising Access in Rural Areas (MARA) Project; The Farm Family Health Checks Programme; The Connecting Elderly Rural Isolated project; The Rural Borewells Scheme; a Youth Employability Programme and a Young Entrepreneurs’ Project; Fuel Poverty energy efficiency work and the recently launched rural challenge small grants programme.

“I want this great work to continue into the new year,” she added.

The minister admitted however, the new year would also bring its challenges.

“Firstly, over the past eight months I know that the Farm Safety Partnership has been working tirelessly to reduce and to ultimately eradicate fatalities on farms. It is also extremely re-assuring to know that the Partnership is pushing on with its work as evident within the recently published Farm Safety Action Plan. DARD is a committed partner that will continue to fulfil a key role in delivering the health and safety message through achievement of assigned actions.

“My department has also made significant progress in tackling the European Commission’s concerns about our controls. We have enhanced our land inspections and introduced the use of remote sensing. While it is early days, indications are this has been a success and I will want to roll out the use of remote sensing over the next few years.

“In addition, we have been working hard to improve our maps and these are now issuing to all farm businesses which claimed an area-based scheme in 2012. These new maps include revised boundaries and ineligible features in fields, allowing us to identify a Maximum Eligible Area for each field. Going forward, this will be a key control for assessing the accuracy of claims in 2013 and future years.

“The processing of 2013 area-based schemes will be challenging for farmers and the department as we start to make use of this new control. If farmers help us by moving to online applications and by correcting their maps, this, coupled with improvements to the mapping and inspection controls can leave us well positioned to make more Single Farm Payments earlier than is possible at the present time.”

Discussing the relocation of DARD Headquarters to Ballykelly, the minister emphasised it is an important first step to relocate a significant share of public sector jobs to rural areas. She also highlighted the significance of the relocation of the Forest Service headquarters to Fermanagh.

“It is right that decisions on rural matters are taken in a rural setting. These relocations also have the potential to generate significant economic and social benefits from increased local spending and access to high value local employment for our rural communities and will start to address disparities in the distribution of public sector jobs in the north of Ireland.

“Work is progressing on the draft business case, which will outline the options for relocating the headquarters on the Ballykelly site, and on the completion of an Equality Impact assessment.”

In conclusion the minister said: “I am optimistic about the future and that we can bring about significant progress in the coming year. I remain committed to doing whatever I can as DARD minister to improve the lives of all rural dwellers. It is my hope that the economic recovery that we are all waiting on will bear fruit in 2013.

“I wish you and your families a peaceful and prosperous New Year.”


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