Minister Charlie McConalogue said he is “hoping for an early answer” from the European Commission, having sought a new reference period under the Beef Emergency Aid Measure (BEAM) scheme.

Speaking at the Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine this week, the minister said he wants “this second chance and opportunity for farmers to reset and try and ensure that money stays in their pockets”.

However, Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy asked if seeking further options now – with farmers having until June 30 to make the necessary reductions of 5% of livestock manure nitrogen – may be “too late”.

As of last week, of the 32,444 farmers to receive €78 million in payments under the scheme, just 14,072 (43%) are meeting the requirement.

‘Why the delay?’

“As opposition spokesperson, I know you [minister] would have raised this issue before the summer of last year as you would have heard, as we all have, from farmers who are finding it increasingly difficult to meet the reduction criteria,” deputy Carthy said.

“Why the delay, and what other measures can be put in place to support farmers who may not now be in a position, even with a revised criteria, to meet the terms and conditions of that scheme?”

‘Hoping for an early answer from the commission’

The minister said: “The terms and conditions haven’t changed but hopefully, with the approval of the European Commission, the reference year will.

“This scheme was a welcome one. Over half of farmers are on course to meet their obligations and reduce by 5%, and some of them would have taken significant action in order to achieve that.

“Many other farmers wouldn’t have joined that scheme in the first instance; because the 5% would have put them off.

Those that are on course to meet the 5% reduction by July 1, they will be unaffected by the requests made to the European Commission but, if it’s granted, it will allow for the option of a new reference year from January 1 past to December 31 this year, so that farmers can actually reset and achieve the 5% reduction over the course of 2021.

“I’m hoping for an early answer from the commission, but we haven’t received confirmation that will be granted yet.

“But certainly, I’ll then be asking my own department to work with farming representative organisations to engage with farmers to emphasise the importance of them engaging with their agricultural advisors, in terms of how best to take action now to minimise the challenge of seeing that 5% reduction over the year ahead.

“Because, if the 5% reduction isn’t met, then what it means is the money that has already been paid out to individual farmers will then be repayable; and that’s not a situation I want.

“That’s why I’ve sought this second chance and opportunity for farmers to reset and try and ensure that money stays in their pockets.”