JANUARY: The year kicked off with a very low key ceremony at Dubin Castle, signalling the start of Ireland’s EU Presidency.
And for Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney that meant taking over the job as chief CAP Reform negotiator. It was a role that would require him liaise with the European Commission, not to mention each member state of the EU and the European Parliament. Coveney was not the first Irishman to take on such a central role, in terms of delivering a CAP deal. However, he would be the first to push forward the negotiations on three fronts: the key unknown in the equation would be the attitude of the European Parliament which, for the first time, had the power of co-decision when it came to finalising the CAP deal.
And, of course, Coveney knew from the outset that he had been dealt a pretty rum deal, courtesy of the reform process. EU heads of state had agreed a seven per cent cut in Europe’s long-term budget at the end of 2012. As a result, he could not offer any financial sweeteners to Europe’s farmers. Questions were also being asked as to whether he could put a CAP deal together that would keep Brussels happy while, at the same time, not causing rebellion on the home front back in Ireland. All of this was taking place with the Troika still in town. No doubt political leaders in every European capital were asking the question: can Coveney pull it off?
But it was a development that had nothing to do with CAP Reform that gave the minister his opportunity to shine. It came in the shape of the horsemeat scandal. On 15 January the redmeat sector went into meltdown on the back of news that significant levels of equine DNA had been found in Irish beef burgers. But resolute action on the part of the minister was to prove that every cloud does have a silver lining. More of this anon.
The weather is always a key debating point within Irish agriculture. And the start of 2013 was no different in this regard than any other year. Significantly, farmers across the country had just experienced the perfect storm that was 2012: atrocious weather, poor farmgate commodity prices and exceptionally high input costs had combined to slash farm profits. In tandem with all of this Teagasc advisors were starting to get a sense of just how precarious fodder stocks had become on farms the length and breadth of the country.
The need for an early spring had become obvious. But, praying apart, there was absolutely nothing that anyone could do to convert this aspiration into some form of reality. It really was a case of taking it one day at a time. Mind you, back in January, no one had any idea of the horrors that would unfold later in the spring.