The government is to “seek clarification” from the European Commission on whether revised state aid rules for the agricultural, forestry and fishery sectors could open the door for Coillte to access grants.
The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, said the government is “currently engaging with Coillte about the methods that we might step out”.
“We will then seek clarification from the commission in relation to the capacity for such approaches to be accommodated through state aid,” he added.
Minister McConalogue told members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine that the government “is engaging on an ongoing basis with Coillte”.
Coillte and Gresham House
Last month it emerged that the semi-state company, that was established in 1989, signed a controversial “operational management agreement” with the London-headquartered specialist alternative asset manager, Gresham House, and will play a key role in its new Irish Strategic Forestry Fund.
At a recent meeting of the joint committee, the Cavan–Monaghan TD, Matt Carthy, asked the minister for agriculture for clarification “in respect of the new state aid rules as to whether or not Coillte can avail”.
Minister McConalogue told Deputy Carthy:
“We have been clear regarding the fact that in terms of how Coillte is supported going forward to do afforestation we want that to be working directly with the state and with farmers.
“We are exploring ways that can happen with Coillte and we will also engage as appropriate with the commission around state aid clarifications on that and the potential of flexibility there.
“I do not have the up-to-date position as of this week regarding any recent engagement with the commission but we have been clear that the way we will go about this is seeking that clarification and our objective being the state working closely with Coillte,” he added.
Deputy Carthy, who is the Sinn Féin spokesperson on agriculture, asked the minister if Ireland’s representatives had directly asked the commission “whether or not the new state aid rules allow Coillte to draw down funds directly”.
Minister McConalogue told the deputy:
“What we want to do is for any afforestation that Coillte is doing that it is done alongside the state.
“We are exploring that with Coillte and will explore that with it further. We will also explore it with the commission and we have also been very clear the approach taken with Gresham House is not the preferred way we want to go forward.”