‘I’d love to be Minister for Agriculture’

While many Irish politicians anxiously brood over the timing of the next General Election, Fianna Fail’s Jackie Cahill already has his eyes firmly on the prize.

The Tipperary beef and dairy farmer, who has been a TD for the ‘Premier County’ since 2016, has frankly and openly stated his political ambitions to AgriLand.

I would dearly love to be the next minister for agriculture. I’d jump at it with both hands.

“I have vast experience in agriculture at both sides of the fence. I’d definitely have something to bring to the table on an agricultural and rural front; but, I’d have to be re-elected first,” he said.

Although there appears to be limited political appetite to blaze the ballot boxes just yet, Cahill is well aware that he will have a battle on his hands whenever the day arrives.

However, the Thurles man’s CV speaks for itself.

I was eight years on the board of Ornua; four of those as vice chairman; six years on the board of Bord Bia; I was chairman of the National Dairy Council; I was on the Animal Welfare Council; and I was the president and vice-president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) for 12 years.

In addition to his own commercial farm – where he hopes to go into partnership with his nephew, Thomas – the 55-year-old was also chairman of his local co-op where he arranged a merger with a neighbouring co-op that continues to flourish today.

“I have sat at both sides of the desk. I was on the dairy board in Ornua when we were getting ready for the abolition of quotas and farmers might have found it hard to understand the decisions we were making at the time.

“We bought powder from New Zealand and sold it so we had a customer base established; to me that was forward thinking.

“We developed routes to market in Africa and the United States. In fairness I think the whole Irish dairy industry was well-prepared for the abolition, an awful lot of groundwork went in and I was part of that.

“As the president of the ICMSA I was there to defend farmers’ interests; but you had to see the overall picture as well. There were times you had to move a bit to the left, to make sure you could go right.

Jackie Cahill, Fianna Fail and All-Ireland winning Tipperary hurling manager Michael Ryan

Although he was brought up in a “staunchly Fianna Fail” household, Cahill kept his politics “under a bushel” while behind the ICMSA wheel.

“The two can’t mix. Some farm leaders declare interest before they get the job done; but I never declared my politics. I never let my politics influence any decisions during those years,” said Cahill who first became involved in the ICMSA in his mid twenties.

However, in 2014, when Cahill went looking for a seat in Tipperary County Council, there was no question with regards what colours he wore.

“If I was anything but Fianna Fail my father and my mother would come back to haunt me. That generation was so black and white it was unbelievable, you knew their politics by the paper they bought,” he said.

In-house competition

But he’s not the only Fianna Fail member with a passion for agriculture.

He says he has an “excellent working relationship” with Charlie McConalogue, the party’s current spokesperson for agriculture.

“Competition is a good sign of a party. Charlie would probably have a wider portfolio of interest than Jackie Cahill; he’s a man with serious ability and could walk into any ministry and hold it up well.

“If we are to go into government obviously Micheal Martin would be making the decisions on the cabinets; but agriculture is what I’d be focused on,” he said.

Jackie Cahill, Fianna Fail, pictured with Joe Healy, president of the Irish Farmers’ Association, and Charlie McConalogue, Fianna Fail spokesperson on agriculture

The threat of the looming EU-Mercosur trade deal and the EU’s skimmed milk powder stockpile are issues Cahill is eager to tackle.

‘Powder paradise’

Last month, the European Council moved to bring in a temporary change to the operation of the public intervention mechanism for skimmed milk powder.

The council decided, in particular, to set the quantitative limitation for buying in skimmed milk powder at a fixed price at 0t (zero tonnes) for 2018.

“What was done on skimmed milk powder, I can’t understand how our commissioner and our minister got away with it.

“I met Commissioner Hogan twice prior to Christmas and he was condescending to me when I asked about the amount of powder that was in storage in intervention and plans to change the rules on purchasing into the future.

Under the last reform of the Common Agricultural Policy we were guaranteed 109,000t of SMP that was bought in at a fixed price, that was written in stone.

“But with one stroke of a pen in Brussels that has been taken away. If that was in place in 2016 when dairy market prices collapsed there would have been no base to where milk price could have fallen. How an Irish commissioner could allow this to be dissolved the way it did without a murmur beggars belief.”

The commission is bringing in a measure that is suitable to its budget and it will keep it there, Cahill stated.

“I know we have 380,000t of skimmed milk powder in intervention and it is losing money every day; but what I’m hearing is that has been sold out now, and a contract has been agreed to sell that at a seriously reduced price,” he warned.

Cahill questioned why current Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael Creed is not intervening in the rule change.

“To me the fundamental point in this is a minister allowed an agreement that was written in stone to be changed without any protest – I find that inexcusable.

“It’s a very sad departure for the relationship between Irish farmers and Europe; we can’t trust what is now agreed into the future. I would be extremely worried about it,” he said.

‘Mercosur madness’

Cahill also voiced grave concerns on talks surrounding the pending EU trade deal with the Mercosur bloc countries of Argentina, Brazil, Paraquay and Uruguay.

Uncertainty over the ambitious EU-Mercosur trade agreement continues to linger following mounting speculation that the EU has raised its beef import quota offer from 70,000t to 99,000t.

Also Read: ‘99,000t deal is on the table’ – parliamentary source

“On the Mercosur deal the theme seems to be that we’re going to cave in to the South Americans: ‘We’re going to give more access to Europe for beef; but, don’t worry about it, it isn’t going to happen for years.

“‘I’ll be gone off with my pension, ’tis grand.’ There will be someone else to answer the questions in five or seven years’ time,” he said.

He also dismisses denials from the European Union and Minister Creed that the further concessions have not been agreed.

“They are denying the 99,000t; but, I wouldn’t give that denial the time of day. I’d only be worried that it will be more than 99,000t.

“Mercosur will do huge damage to the Irish economy. We’re the South America of Europe; we’re the ones that are exporting; we’re the ones that will take the hit.

If Europe gets a chill, we will get pneumonia and there seems to be no recognition of that at all.

“The European consumer is entitled to be certain that their food is safe and produced at the highest possible standards – I have no problem whatsoever with that.

“But, where I have a problem is that we allow access to that market without regulations being applied to it – that is not fair, that is not playing the game, and that is what is being done,” he said.

Although Cahill acknowledges that Europe has been good to Irish farmers, and he would not support a push to leave, he is concerned that Europe is becoming “a harsher place”.

“The reduction in the available budget because of the British exit is going to put extra pressure on; so obviously it is going to be under the microscope.”

“We should be banging the table and saying this isn’t on, there has to be some give and take.

Jackie Cahill, picture with his sister, Kay, and his nephew, Thomas, who is keen to move into partnership with his uncle in the future

‘California-like lots in Tipperary’

In an Irish context, Cahill said his greatest fear is the demise of the family farm structure – highlighting the vast swathes of land currently being leased.

The liquid milk producer is also concerned that there could be a drive towards industrial-sized dairy enterprises if herds continue to expand at current rates nationwide.

However, he cautions that Ireland “hard won” green image must be protected at all costs.

“Going to very large numbers of cows makes it very hard to stop the wheel. We have seen industries on other sides gaining huge scale, the pigs are doing it and we saw the grain doing it too.

“The last thing we want are California-like lots down in Tipperary where there are 5,000 – 6,000 cows with silage and maize feeding indoors that would ruin our image.

But, if milk price warrants it, you’ll see some pool people moving that way. Land is a limited resource and if there is a margin where people will move to it.

Bittersweet ambition

For Cahill, who suffered from a farm accident in his early twenties, getting the opportunity to one day sit behind the minister’s coveted desk in Agriculture House would also evoke bittersweet emotions.

His late father had always encouraged him to be a voice for farmers.

“When I was young I had no interest in politics; but, my father had different ambitions. He was the boss.

“He had Motor Neuron Disease, yet his mind was perfect. He had no speech or swallow for about two years before he passed away.

“He was a quiet man in a lot of ways; but although he had no voice he told me it was ‘my duty’ to represent farmers when I was first approached all those years ago. He has guided me all the way to Leinster House,” he said.