The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine will get the chance to have its questions answered over the controversial partnership between Coillte and UK-based asset management company Gresham House.

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue, and Minister of State for land use and biodiversity Pippa Hackett, will both appear before the Oireachtas committee this Wednesday (January 25).

The meeting will take place at 5:30p.m in Committee Room 3 at Leinster House.

Officially, the topic of the meeting is forestry policy and strategy. It is understood that the Coillte partnership will be the key issue discussed.

The Oireachtas committee session follows on from a meeting last week between the two ministers and Coillte representatives.

In a statement, the ministers said that the forestry body updated them on “the implementation of its strategic vision” and its role within the government’s new €1.3 billion Forestry Programme.

The programme is subject to state aid approval from the European Commission and has not yet been signed off.

Concern over this delay in approval, and its impact on forestry targets, has been raised by the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA).

Speaking on Friday (January 20), IFA farm forestry chairperson Jason Fleming said: “We’re off to a bad start. The delay is going to have a huge impact on the afforestation programme in 2023, and makes the target to plant 8,000 new hectares, as set out in the Climate Action Plan, near impossible.

“Farmers cannot move forward until the state aid approval has been received. Only when approval has been received can applications start to be processed,” Fleming added.

The average turnaround time for afforestation licences in 2002 were just short of 18 months. According to the IFA, even if state aid approval was granted by the commission for the Forestry Programme in the first quarter on this year, some farmers may have to wait until the fourth quarter of 2024 to get a decision.

“The department must focus on reducing the turnaround times. Under the legislation, farmers are supposed to have a decision within four months. 18 months is just unacceptable.

“We need to look at the system. There has to be a more streamlined process that would allow smaller on-farm applications get a decision much more quickly,” the IFA farm forestry chair commented.

To address the delay in approval, Minister McConalogue has introduced two interim schemes – an afforestation scheme and a forest roads scheme – which are based on the De Minimis rule, exempting them from the ordinary state aid rules.

The aim of these schemes is to encourage planting and road construction from the beginning of 2023 for those with existing valid approvals as of December 31, 2022.

However, the department is not permitted to issue new afforestation or grant-aided road licences under the interim arrangements.

Furthermore, De Minis aid cannot exceed €200,000 over any three-year rolling period, and participants in these schemes will be required to declare any other De Minimis aid they are receiving.

According to the IFA, if the total sum of De Minimis aid to a recipients exceeds €200,000, they may not be eligible of grants and premiums.

Fleming added: “Farmers considering opting in to plant under the interim scheme should be aware of the €200,000 threshold over a rolling three-year period and check to see what De Minimis payment they are in receipt of, if any, before opting into the scheme.”