Since being appointed Minister for Agriculture Food & Marine on May 6th, I constantly find myself recounting details of my week to people I meet. It was put to me by one such individual (who I won’t name for their sake) that I should document my week in a blog, to provide an insight into my work as a Minister. So here is the first edition of “The Minister’s Journal” which I hope will give you a little flavour of the work I do on a weekly basis.
An early start on a stunning autumn Monday morning took me north to Killybegs, County Donegal. Hailing from a Constituency without an inch of coastline as I do, it was great to be invited aboard the fishing vessel “Vigilant” by Mark Gallagher who provided a most engaging insight into life on the sea. Back on dry land; I had meetings with the KFO and fish processors in the area before I was honoured to cut the tape on the new €30 million UFI Fishmeal plant and the €2.9 million Small craft Harbour. From the pleasantries of the openings, it was onwards to a sobering meeting with some Donegal IFA members, facilitated by my colleague Minister of State Joe McHugh TD. The difficulties in the Tillage sector are to the forefront of my thoughts at present and will dominate my workload in the coming week, as I chair a meeting of stakeholders on Wednesday.
A Corkman in Croke Park is a rare thing these days, but I was happy to lineout early to open the Atlantic Stakeholders Conference. I hot footed it across the City for Cabinet before again returning to Croke Park for a bi-lateral meeting with the EU Commissioner for Fisheries, Karmenu Vella. The afternoon was dominated by Budget preparations. If I had any doubts about how challenging the Budgetary process is for a Minister, I need only sift through the stack of pre-budget submissions on my desk. The demands far exceed the fairly modest fiscal space that exists for 2017, and that is not taking account of the competing demands from other Ministers. Tuesday evening is spent taking questions from members of the Joint Oireachtas Committee for Agriculture on the estimates and the HRI. Three or so hours in the hot seat and it’s well after 9pm before the Committee adjourns. A late budget meeting follows before clocking off at 11pm.
7.30am and it’s a case of “on the road again”, this time to Ireland’s Ancient East and the farm of Justin Walsh (who has relatives in Kanturk and Coachford – Small world!!), nestled by the Hill of Tara. The purpose of the visit is to launch a consultation process for Ireland’s first Farmed Animal Health Strategy. Disease prevention and eradication can potentially save millions for a Country such as Ireland, with a dependency on an agri-food sector. I’m confident that this strategy, once completed and adopted can enhance our reputation as one of the safest suppliers of food in the World. I sat in on Leaders Questions before catching up with Minister of State Andrew Doyle for a lunch meeting on tillage, climate action and the budget. I had an embarrassing moment when the Department’s IT system began filtering out correspondence from the Oireachtas system, which caused me to be late for a Topical Issues debate on the difficulties being experienced in the tillage sector. Thankfully the leas Ceann Comhairle and Deputies Fitzmaurice and Rabbitte were understanding and accepted my apologies. Brexit, Brexit, Brexit is ringing in my ears everywhere I go, and is central to every decision that is now taken in this Department. Members of the Food & Drinks Industry Ireland dropped in to brief me on the latest developments their members are experiencing as a result of the UK referendum. Currency issues are proving the most immediate threat to Irish companies trading with the UK, but a comprehensive analysis of some of the potential pitfalls that lie ahead was also provided. My final engagement on Wednesday was to help launch Bord Bia’s state of the art Consumer Insight Centre the “Thinking House”. Innovation and new product development is one tactic we can use to Brexit-proof our SME’s. This facility can help our food producers stay to the fore-front in that regard and great tribute is due to Aidan Cotter and his team in Bord Bia for delivering this facility.
Food Wise 2025 is our road map in the Department in terms of shaping the future of our agri-food sector. We aim to reach a figure of €19 billion in exports by 2025 from the €11 billion figure we now stand at. This is the entire industry’s document with hundreds of detailed actions that are scrutinised to ensure implementation. Therefore on Thursday morning I chaired the quarterly meeting of the high level implementation committee which brings together all the stakeholders involved with delivering on the strategy. IFA President Joe Healy led his team into the Department in the afternoon to deliver their pre-budget submission, followed by the UK’s Food & Drink Federation, who are seeking to build on our joint interest in preserving our special trading relationship with the UK. It was certainly beneficial to receive a UK perspective on developments.
It was certainly a case of Back to School with four school based engagements on Friday. First up was a visit to Millstreet Community School to meet with the 5th & 6th year Agricultural Science Students. Then it was onwards to Canovee to officially open the impressive new extension to the National School before heading back east to Carriganima to help raise the “Digital School of distinction” flag. I must commend the staff, parents but most notably the pupils of all three schools I visited. A quick visit to pay tribute to Tom Kelly, who is retiring from years of service in the Macroom Social welfare office, before returning to my Macroom Constituency office to try and catch up with some of the calls waiting for me. Rounded off Friday by attending the McEgan College awards night.
Having started the week in Killybeg’s it was fitting to finish in Dingle, Co. Kerry. Captain Nigel Collins, briefed me on the tremendous work he and his colleagues are doing in the Harbour centre, which is both a leading fishing port and tourist amenity, side by side. I managed to catch the first half of the All-Ireland Final replay before participating in the ceremony for the 9th All Ireland Blas na hEireann food awards as part of the Dingle Food Festival. The success of the festival was clear to be seen in the thronged streets where hundreds basked in the October sunshine. Congratulations to all the Award winners including Stonewell Cider Company who took away the major prize of the weekend as well as Artie Clifford and his team for all their work in making these awards so successful. Rounded off a busy day with a quick stop in Boolteens, to meet with my colleague Brendan Griffin TD. He assures me that Dublin’s three in a row will meet a major obstacle in a young Kerry team in 2017.