National IFA Rural Development Committee Vice Chairman Colm O’Donnell has told Agriland that hill farmers throughout Ireland feel the hierarchy of the organisation has sold them out given the IFA’s perceived capitulation to the Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney regarding the detail of the new Rural Development  Programme.

“The issue is the entry requirements for the new GLAS scheme,” he added.

“What has happened is that the IFA at a national level changed their initial position from being totally opposed to a collective agreement on the commonages to the point where they agreed to a 50pc collective agreement and a payment of €79/ha on Natura land. This is almost half of the €150/ha that was agreed by European Commission as the cost of Natura designations. All of this was done without consultation with the Hill and Rural Development committees of the IFA, who had been given a clear mandate to reject any form of a collective agreement.

“Representatives of the IFA at national level met me and a number of concerned hill farmers in Mayo last night. They said they would take these matters back to the Department of Agriculture as a matter of priority.

“I sincerely hope this is not a stalling tactic on their part. My understanding is that the new Rural Development Programme is to be agreed by Brussels in the very near future. What we need is decisive action to be taken by Agiculture Minister Simon Coveney now.

The origins of the row within the IFA goes back to a meeting held on May 20 in Athlone that was attended by hill committee members and prominent IFA representatives from Mayo, Sligo, Galway, Leitrim, Kerry, West Cork, Waterford, Louth and Donegal. Also present were the IFA president, general secretary, the national hill chairman and rural development secretary.

At this meeting it was made crystal clear that any form of collective agreement would be totally unacceptable as Tier 1 priority entry to the GLAS Scheme. This subsequently became IFA policy,” Colm O’Donnell said.

“The shift in position by the negotiation team on the collective agreement happened when they gave in to Minister Coveney during final talks on the Rural Development Program. This was weak and showed a total disrespect for the root and branch protocol that the association trumpets as their strength on the ground.

“Commonage farmers will require 50pc agreement between themselves and their neighbours in order to gain priority access to GLAS according to what is now proposed by Minister Coveney and agreed to by the IFA leadership. They will have to agree on one planner to do up the plan for all of them on that particular commonage. If, as is often the case, they have shares in more than one commonage another planner will be required. Most farmers will probably also require another adviser to do up a plan for the remainder of their farm. This assumes that we will have enough planners interested in handling commonage plans, which is highly unlikely now that Teagasc are no longer doing agri-environmental plans.

“With all of this uncertainty many farmers will find it very difficult, or even impossible, to join GLAS. However, the initial proposals on the minimum and maximum figures for each commonage may now be criteria for these farmers to draw down their Single Farm Payment (SFP). The consequence of this may be hardest felt by the most active farmers. Other obvious flaws in the proposal relate to ownership rights. For example, appurtenant rights as opposed to free-hold rights. This will have implications if you want to abdicate your commonage ownership or rent it out.

“There are also farmers that are presently in AEOS who may not want to transfer to the GLAS scheme. Can other farmers go ahead with a collective agreement without them or do they have to wait?

A break down in negotiations happened in the early part of 2012 with the Department and Minister Coveney on commonage issues when it became apparent that the minimum and maximum figures being used were inaccurate in many cases. The RDP has gone to Brussels two years later with no engagement with commonage farmers since then. The failure of the IFA negotiating team to stick to what is a redline issue for commonage farmers has resulted in a lack of confidence and trust from the grassroots of the organisation. It has also undermined the credibility of the county representatives who have worked hard on these farmers’ behalf. Changes can still be made to the Rural Development Programme.

Colm O’Donnell concluded: “We believe that the vast majority of hill and commonage farmers will respond in a positive and responsible manner to the challenges that face our hills, but only if they are treated with respect and fairness. That responsibility should only apply to what they do themselves so that under no circumstances are they held responsible for what someone else does or doesn’t do.

“But there is a way out of this. And that is for Simon Coveney to agree that active shareholders in a commonage can access GLAS 1 in their own right. Yes there may be a requirement to enter into some form of pre-agreement for the additional GLAS measures. But what we have ended up with at the moment is the worst of all worlds. Simon Coveney must act now.”