It’s Budget week, and not having travelled this road before as a Minister, I am admittedly nervous as we depart Macroom early, Dublin bound. I phone Andrew Doyle (Minister of State) en route for a final run through of the agenda for the Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting in Luxembourg where he is deputising for me. The day is dominated by phone calls between my office, the Department of Finance, and DPER regarding the slightest of margins. At this stage every Euro counts. Áine (policy advisor) is keeping an open line to Finance as I continue to go through each expenditure item, line by line with officials. The real drama however is happening elsewhere. The SBCI (Strategic Banking Corporation Ireland) board are meeting to sign off on the Agri-Loan fund we have been working on for a number of months. This will be the centre-piece of our strategy to assist farmers through income volatility. There are audible gasps of relief throughout the fifth floor of Ag House when word filters through that there’s a green light for the scheme! At 5pm it looks as if we have all the detail – now it’s about shaping the message. Jonathan (Press Advisor) gets to work on draft one of the Department’s Budget day Press release. It’s simply not possible or indeed worthwhile to include every detail of every measure in our Budget day messaging. The key is to communicate the details that are going to be of major significance to our stakeholders. The significant policy initiatives contained in our Budget are directed at farm incomes and Brexit mitigation measures. This will be our message on Budget day and is taking shape by the time Andrew returns from Luxembourg to contribute his views. It’s getting late when we decide to park the process until the next morning to allow fresh eyes reflect on where we are at.
7am and most of the team are already at their desks. The detail of our budget has remained intact overnight, and our PR has over-gone a few tweaks and is now, bar any shocks in Paschal or Michael’s speeches, ready to go. The Ag house canteen is popular amongst Oireachtas members. I have breakfast with Denis Naughten and his team (Ross & Suzie). As we leave I’m met by Simon Coveney on his way in. All are satisfied that their respective budget’s are delivering the best possible outcome given the limited resources at hand. It’s straight to Cabinet before returning to the Department. Time is limited. The Budget speech begins at 1pm. Our Department Press Conference is at 4pm. I have one last run through the detail with the team before rushing to the Dáil chamber to be in position for Minister Noonan’s speech. One would think that was that, but as the official budget documents are circulated I can’t help but notice that some of the measures agreed in our Budget do not appear. I text back to the Department, but what I don’t realise at the time is that they are in continuous contact with Finance & DPER as the Nation listens attentively to Michael. I’m quickly informed that all is as it should be and the more detailed documents contain all the items that we have been working hard for over the previous number of weeks. Speeches over and now it’s time to face the press. Our Press Conference takes place on the fifth floor of Ag house – directly across the hall from my office. I have a few moments to gather my thoughts and to run through the choreography with the Sec Gen, Ultan (Press Officers), Jonathan & Andrew before making the walk across the hall. Our Press release is issued (eleventh draft) and the details of Budget 2017 for the Department of Agriculture Food & Marine are revealed to all. Press interest focuses on our low interest Agri Loan fund of €150 million. Our Budget is generally well received by the Farm bodies and the Fisheries Producer organisations.
An early start again Wednesday morning in preparation for a number of local radio interviews which I take from the office. I chat to Patricia Messenger live on C103 at 11.10am before sitting in on the Taoiseach’s Budget speech at noon. The afternoon is spent catching up with Department business and preparing my own Budget speech which I deliver sometime after 7pm in the evening which only allows me a fleeting attendance at the weekly Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meeting.
An 8.30am breakfast meeting at Bord Bia Headquarters kicks off Thursday. The Budget may be over – but in reality it’s just beginning. I hold three conference calls with three separate Irish banks to discuss our Agri-loan product we are putting forward in conjunction with SBCI. I’m encouraged by the interest shown in this initiative and I am confident that they will take up the baton in bringing this product to market as soon as possible. I don’t usually stay in Dublin overnight on a Thursday, but due to a commitment in Athlone on Friday morning, I take the opportunity to catch up on some calls and prepare for the Conference in the morning
7.30 am Friday I travel to Athlone to address the National Rural Network Conference. There is no time to delay afterwards as I must return to Macroom, before then travelling to RTE studios in Cork for an interview with Mary Wilson on Radio One’s Drivetime. From there it’s off to Ballincollig to an Active Retirement Ireland launch in the Lakewood Clubhouse before rounding off Friday with a speech at the annual Ballincollig Tidy Towns awards. I must commend the work the Ballincollig Tidy Towns Committee do year and year out to maintain and improve the aesthetic of the area. They certainly keep us politicians on our toes at election time!
I travel to Newmarket to celebrate the expansion of Ayrton Group’s business there with promoters Kieran & Helen Linehan. A tremendous family occasion and certainly a pleasant way to spend a Saturday afternoon marking a good news story for employment in the area.
It’s County Final day in Cork but unfortunately there will be no match for me as I have to travel to Paris, to attend the world’s largest business to business trade show ‘SIAL’ on Monday – more on that next week. Just before boarding I learn of the sad passing of Anthony Foley RIP. My thoughts go to this family, friends and Munster colleagues.