The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is ill-prepared to protect the food and agriculture sector from the effects of Brexit because its staffing was slashed by a third during the economic crisis, IMPACT said today (Thursday).
Speaking at a trade union seminar on the impact of Brexit in the food industry, the union’s national secretary Andy Pike called for a significant boost in employment in the department to rebuild lost technical capacity and help farmers, food processors and exporters prepare for likely “double regulation” on Irish businesses that move food products across the border, or export into the UK and Northern Ireland.
Mr Pike said agriculture department staff numbers had fallen from 4,500 to 3,000 in recent years. “As a result, the department is ill-prepared to provide the services that farmers and the food industry will need. There are simply not enough staff in the department to deal with the challenge of Brexit,” he said.
He said the Irish Government would have to invest to avoid a potentially catastrophic slowing down of the process of regulation.
“We will need to invest to spare Irish businesses and farmers from the regulatory double jeopardy – the duplication of red tape – that will almost certainly be visited upon them post-Brexit. And we need to plan for this now, with adequate provision beginning in the 2018 Budget, so that resources are in place in time to give farmers and food processors the support they need, and to minimise the additional costs and competitive disadvantage that will otherwise be placed on them,” he said.
Unions also called on the Government to push the EU to invoke state aid rules that allow grant aid to industries hit with “damage caused by exceptional circumstances.”
Speaking at the major event, called ‘Hard Cheese: Brexit, Jobs and Standards in the Food and Agriculture Sector,’ Blair Horan of the trade union ‘Charter Group’ said the Government should establish a special task force, with employer and worker representation, to take the message to Brussels. He said Ireland should seek:
- An ‘enterprise stabilisation fund,’ along the lines of the 2009-2011 fund administered by Enterprise Ireland. This would include direct grants, repayable grants, or interest subsidies to assist manufacturing firms
- An exchequer and EU-funded job and income protection scheme to maintain employment levels during a transition period
- Marketing diversification and research aid to support firms seeking new markets and developing new products
- Access to finance from the Strategic Investment Fund to support innovation, new technology and new plant and machinery
- Temporary intervention measures under the CAP, in whatever form is necessary to protect farm incomes.
Mr Horan said food and agriculture directly sustains almost 10% of employment in the Republic of Ireland, and the sector sources almost three-quarters of its raw materials and services from domestic sources. Almost 40% of its exports go to Britain and Northern Ireland. “The Brexit threat to jobs and farm incomes is very real and will have a serious impact on the fabric of rural Ireland unless strong measures are put in place now. The social partners should aim to agree a joint approach on the measures necessary to meet the challenges,” he said.
Hard Cheese was hosted by IMPACT, SIPTU (Manufacturing Division) and the Charter Group. The event was opened by Minister for Food, Agriculture and the Marine, Michael Creed, and heard speakers from IBEC, Enterprise Ireland, the IFA, ESRI, Taoiseach’s Department, and ICTU.