Bertie on Brexit: ‘The game isn’t lost for Irish farmers’

Former Taoiseach of Ireland Bertie Ahern was interviewed on Brexit and potential impacts on Irish agriculture during the second episode of AgriLand’s new broadcast show FarmLand.

The former Fianna Fail leader, who was Taoiseach from 1997 to 2008, commended the agricultural sector for its preparations ahead of the UK’s apparent departure from the EU’s single market and customs union.

In a wide-ranging interview with host, Claire McCormack, Ahern underlined the significance of trade between Ireland and the UK for both parties, particularly Irish beef exports.

He acknowledged the work being done by the industry to source alternative markets, saying: “I must say I salute the agricultural industry and the way they’re out there examining and looking and preparing themselves probably more than most sectors have done, and I think that’s been a very good thing.

But, in the end of the day, the British market – and I’ve seen this all my political life – is massively important to us.

The former Taoiseach highlighted the necessity for Irish beef exports to “get stuff on shelves as quickly as possible”.

“That’s how we’ve built up the industry for the last half century and longer, and for us there’s no beating fast time from our factories, from our farms, from our poultry people, from our horticulture industries, as quick as we can, from A to B, into the British market.

And there’s no alternative markets for a high proportion – as good as people are trying to do, and I think they will pull down the percentage – but still it’s a huge market.

Ahern also noted the dependence of the UK on the Irish produce however.

He said: “The British are massive net importers of good-quality food; they’ve a large population, they don’t have other easy markets that are non-European that they can do these silly trade deals they talk about and find stuff in.

“Yes they can have their relationships with Australia and New Zealand and get a certain amount, but they cannot get quality, fresh, durable products onto their marketplace.

“And as we move to an age of more and more environmentalism, we’re moving away from packaging, and injecting into food stuffs that they’ll have long lives.”

Ahern stressed that Ireland should be pushing hard for a reduction in packaging, which would be another enticing factor for Irish produce.

The British are conscious of this; I talked to many politicians and officials, and I think this game isn’t lost by us, we just need to keep up the pressure; we need to keep agriculture on the front page.

Regarding the risk of the UK sourcing lower-priced beef from other countries post-Brexit, the former minister highlighted the high standards imposed by British markets.

He said: “The UK have to be very, very careful where they take their alternative supplies from.

“They have to be very clear that the disease preventative programmes that the UK were so strong about for the last 40 years are maintained.

“That the high regulatory environment is maintained; that the quality standards that we have proved beyond all doubt in this country, that if they’re going somewhere else, they have to be able to show to their market that.”

Ahern added that, should this not be shown in the UK market, a good Irish lobby would undoubtedly highlight the difference.

I’m not convinced that it’s so easy for British multiples to be able to go elsewhere to receive the kind of quality and quantity and standards and regulatory environmental and health standards that people demand nowadays.

“I trust the Irish industry to be able to play that game at a high level.

“Every day we have to be fighting the cause of agriculture. Agriculture isn’t the farmers of Ireland; it’s a huge part of the economy, of the countryside, of the rural communities.

“I learned it in politics as Minister for Finance and as Taoiseach that this is incredibly important to our economy and incredibly important to our country and it has to get prominence in the negotiations,” Ahern concluded.

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