There is a pressing need to formulate a strategy on farming and the wider issue of rural development. Such a strategy needs to be built up and developed by the communities directly affected by rural under-development. We believe that its core objective should be to break the cumulative cycle that starts with population decline, leading to a reduced demand for services, which leads to fewer employment opportunities and ultimately migration out of rural areas.
Throughout Ireland there are communities fighting their way out of this cycle with little or no aid from central government. These communities have often formed their own new co-operatives, local currency networks, social enterprise and development projects. They have started organic farming projects, agri-tourism initiatives and other diversified agricultural businesses.
These communities need proper funding and resources from central government. They need local government structures that can adapt to their needs.
Sinn Féin believes that the core objectives of any rural development programme should be:
Creating a co-ordinated programme that links agriculture, enterprise, environment, culture, health and education and social services strategies into a comprehensive integrated rural development project;
Keeping the maximum number of people on the land and preserving the social fabric of rural life;
Creating the conditions where rural communities themselves can rebuild their local economies;
Ensuring that everyone has a dignified standard of living, access to proper education, housing and health resources.
Sinn Féin also proposes:
Real reform of the CAP
Its original objectives were to maintain the maximum amount of farmers on the land while ensuring a proper standard of living for farmers and fair prices to consumers. This has not been delivered. The CAP funding mechanisms must be changed to help small farmers.
A funding initiative to promote organic farming in Ireland
Organic farming becomes commercially viable on a much smaller acreage than current farming. Such a programme will promote rural repopulation and could be vital element in breaking the current cycle of rural under-development.
Support for other projects
Other projects such as encouraging co-operative agricultural projects and broadleaf forestry projects should be vigorously promoted and supported.
Matching funds for rural enterprise projects
The bulk of funding for economic development currently goes to foreign export-orientated companies. Sinn Féin believes there should be equity in the allocation of funding for enterprise projects. Funding for indigenous enterprise projects have been cut in recent years.
Ending discrimination against local enterprise projects
There is also another level of discrimination in domestic funding mechanisms. Enterprise Ireland, the agency responsible for developing indigenous business, currently favours aiding businesses with export potential, overlooking the community and social enterprise sector. Sinn Féin believes that this form of economic discrimination should end.
An increase in Leader funds
The success of rural development projects under the EU Leader Programme is well recognised. However, such community-orientated funds only account for 7 per cent of the funding coming into the island over the next seven years. Sinn Féin believes that Leader funds are a vital part of any rural regeneration programme and should be the substantial part of EU funding flowing to rural areas.
A national conference
The crisis in rural Ireland is one that must be acted on now. Central government in Ireland should be prevailed upon to hold a national conference that could formulate a strategy to promote rural development in Ireland. Such a conference would have to be organised on a bottom-up participatory basis and not be solely representative of the vested interests that dominate agri-business and rural policies today.
The North-South Ministerial Conference (NSMC) has a role to play in organising this initiative. There is a pressing need for the formulation of policies on branding an all-Ireland national beef and dairy herd as well as making Ireland a centre for organic food within the EU.
These steps should be the beginning of a wider process of developing an all-Ireland strategy on agriculture.
The EU must recognise the island as one economic unit when it comes to the allocation of EU funds and the application of policy. A crucial aspect of this would have to be a recognition of the need to recognise, through funding and policy formulation, the special needs of the Border regions to have their agricultural economies fully integrated.
EU programmes such as Leader should be administered immediately on an all-Ireland basis.
Organic food and the GM issue
There is a clear need for an integrated approach to organic farming throughout the island.
The island as a whole should be declared a GM-free zone. Not only would this be a major boost for the quality of food products being sold to Irish consumers but it would also help hugely the marketing of Irish food produce internationally. Again the NSMC has a clear role to play here.
Farmers markets and the co-operative principle
Planning law should include the need for farmers’ markets in new retail developments. Specific funding should be allocated to set up and fund such markets which must be run on the co-operative principle by the local communities in which those markets are sited.
Bringing quality back into Irish farming
There is a need to bring quality back into the Irish farm sector right from the decisions being made by the individual farmers, the food processors and abattoirs right down to the supermarkets and exporters.
We need an island wide code of principles for farm practices and commercial food processing. BSE and other diseases have been created not by chance but by the commercialisation of farming.