Heydon interview: Changing ministers ‘has been an upheaval’

In all the talk of Ministers for Agriculture coming and going in the last two months – first Barry Cowen and then Dara Calleary – it could be easy to forget that there are two Ministers of State within the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine working away in the background.

These are the Green Party’s Pippa Hackett, Minister of State with responsibility for land use and biodiversity; and Fine Gael’s Martin Heydon, Minister of State with responsibility for new market development, farm safety and research and development.

In a wide-ranging sit-down interview with AgriLand journalist Charles O’Donnell today (Tuesday, September 1) Minister Heydon spoke about the tumultuous time in Agriculture House (the department’s HQ) over recent weeks and months, and what will be expected of a new senior minister.

We are expected to have a new senior minister this week. What kind of assets would you like to see in an incoming minister, as somebody you will obviously be working very closely with?

Minister HeydonIn an ideal world they would have a good knowledge of the industry and the different sectors. There is a great team of officials here in the department, and I think whoever comes in will be surrounded by an awful lot of support.

They [the new senior minister] will have to hit the ground running but I have no doubt they will, because the team here in the department is really impressive – from the work on Brexit; the progress they’ve made on funding in the MFF [Multiannual Financial Framework]; to the team I see working in the area of market development.

There’s a great team here, and I think a minister who’s up for hard work, for learning quickly, and for working closely with all the different sectors as well as the outside bodies, the semi states and the farm organisations, will do well.

Myself and Minister Hackett are well established now; we’ve had a couple of months to get a handle on our own briefs, so I would see us being able to be a good assistance to any new minister, so that we can build a team and have that continuity that is badly needed.

We look forward to getting a senior minister. It has been an upheaval and there’s no point in saying it hasn’t. It’s a very important time for the sector, so we’re just ready to get a senior minister in place and we’ll work very closely together.

In terms of your own portfolio, what is the significance of having a minister of state for the specific area of new market development, separate from the brief of the senior cabinet minister?

Minister Heydon: Agriculture is our largest indigenous industry. The role of the senior Minister for Agriculture is very diverse. It’s a large portfolio and it obviously covers food production, fisheries, rural development, etc.

Given the challenges we face with Brexit, and the international challenges that Covid-19 has now thrown up, it makes sense to put a particular focus on the area of market development, and there is a lot of work in that, in terms of building political relationships; working closely with the diplomats in our embassies; and working with our attaches.

It makes sense to have a minister of state who can put more time and effort into that, from the point of view that it’s not just another part of a very busy senior minister’s portfolio.

It’s one of the three main parts of my portfolio, and obviously I’ll work very closely with whatever senior minister is in place, and with my own ministerial team here. But it gives the officials in this department a ‘go-to person’ to be the lead on that.

Obviously we ramped up our trade missions in recent years. Covid-19 has restricted that at present, but we’re working on developing virtual trade missions to reach out on the diplomatic side.

With a lot of these new markets that we’re trying to develop, there is a huge amount of work that goes on with my officials; very tedious, detailed work in terms of dealing back and forth with officials in other countries.

Be mindful of the fact that when you are dealing outside of the EU, these treaties are so much more complex because every country has its own bespoke requirements. We all have to agree individual measures for the sanitary and phytosanitary standards that are required, and they all have to be done individually for each country.

At every stage of a trade deal, there is a political element that is really important and, depending on what country it is, its more important than in some others.

In that, a minister needs to be available and ready and, I think it makes sense, in our current climate with the challenges we face, that you would have a minister with that specific responsibility, who would be able to devote a lot of time to it.

Stay tuned to AgriLand over the coming days for more from our interview with Minister of State Martin Heydon…