Cowen: ‘Faceless committee has power to jeopardise major investment in rural Ireland’

Fianna Fáil TD for Laois-Offaly Barry Cowen has hit out at the decision of the Immigrant Investor Programme (IIP) to reject an application from investors for a €40 million beef processing facility in Co. Offaly.

Speaking in the Dáil on Tuesday evening, July 28, the TD questioned how the rejection – which stated “the project does not align with government policy in relation to the beef processing industry” – stacks up with the Irish government’s efforts in expanding exports into Asian markets over the course of the last decade.

‘Devastating impact’

The TD pointed to the “devastating impact” of accelerated decarbonisation in the midlands region, highlighting the need for new jobs and investment in the region.

Commenting on the Just Transition Funds, the Climate Action Funds and the EU Coal/Peat Regions in Transition Fund, deputy Cowen stressed that the “main criteria associated with such targeted funding should above all else assist those areas that have suffered most job losses”.

“All of these programmes will seek to stimulate investment, create jobs and improve local, social and economic well-being, and in so doing retain and attract people to live and work in the region.

“As a public representative, as a Teachta Dála, I continually try to assert my influence in attracting inward investment from the private sector also.

In the last 12 to 18 months, I worked with investors led by [a] Hong Kong national and [an] investment company to identify a site and to progress planning application for meat processing plant at Banagher, Co. Offaly.

The TD highlighted that, from a planning perspective, the location of Banagher Chilling on a site previously used as an abattoir was earmarked and subject to a strict assessment by the planning department of Offaly County Council “at great cost and expense”.

Immigrant Investor Programme

“This project offers a unique and welcome opportunity to create jobs in Offaly, provide direct access / route to markets in Asia and increase competition in the beef industry raising the potential to improve price for producers, thus helping to boost incomes for farm families,” he said.

“The proposed Asian market penetration acknowledges and realises Irish government and agricultural departments’ ambition first initiated over 10 years ago.

All told, the project is an example of the alternative job prospects needed in Offaly and the midlands region in response to ongoing employment losses in Bord na Móna and the ESB.

Some of the investors in this project made applications under the Immigrant Investor Programme open to applicants that invest over €1 million, he noted.

“This programme is described by the government in its official records as a system to ‘incentivise foreign investment into Ireland’.

“It further states that the benefit to the investor is option of residency, the benefit to Ireland is the investment in Ireland and further possible economic activity if resident in Ireland.

However, to my utter dismay and disbelief, an evaluation committee made up of senior officials from relevant government departments and Irish state agencies has refused the first such application.

This committee concluded it would appear “the proposed project is not an appropriate project for approval”, deputy Cowen noted.

Continuing, he added:

“The committee concluded further, ‘the project does not align with government policy in relation to the beef processing industry, having regard to the fact that it is not currently policy to pursue the development of additional plants where there is no established deficit in capacity’.

I might only have been minister for agriculture for 17 days – but you’d hardly need a Green Cert to recognise that this conclusion in no way reflects the Irish farming sector’s understanding of government policy which has for over 10 years sought to open Asian markets, which this plant and project will exclusively supply.

“Beef and suckler farmers crave new markets, crave greater competition in processing sector – and, most of all they crave opportunities, initiatives, programmes and government policy that maintains and improves incomes for farm families.

“So, a €40 million project which has the approval of the state’s planning authority, cooperation of Offaly County Council, the support of community and region, backing of beef farmers, support of Bord Bia, assistance of Department of Agriculture officials but has been resisted and disapproved by an evaluation committee that oversees immigrant investment scheme.”

‘I need these answers’

The deputy questioned how the project doesn’t align with government policy, following up with the question as to who was on the evaluation committee.

He called on the committee to make available the reports it consulted and to justify its decision.

“I need these answers and I need them fast if we are to secure and proceed to realising 250 jobs in construction and a further 150 jobs in the plant’s operation.

“This investment is priceless and I am seeking resolution and approval of applications to the IIS [International Investment Services].

Is it now a fact that a faceless evaluation committee has the power to jeopardise a multi-million investment in rural Ireland, in an area crying for such investment, crying for stimulation, jobs and responding to the devastating impact of job losses in Bord na Móna and ESB?

“What recourse is there in these cases, can they not be approved subject to PP or over a time period as project progresses?” deputy Cowen concluded.