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Speech at the opening of the National Ploughing Championships

Screggan, Tullamore, Offaly, 18 September 2018

A chairde,

Tá an-áthas orm filleadh ar An Screagán arís i mbliana chun an Comórtas Náisiúnta Treabhdóireachta a oscailt. Sna seacht mbliana is fiche ón gcéad chomórtas i mBaile Átha Í d'fhás an Comótas ar cheann de na himeachtaí  is mó san Eoraip atá amuigh faoin aer.

Every year Sabina and I attend the Championships we are struck by the sheer scale of the gathering that is known far and wide as “The Ploughing”. The skills and abilities of those engaging in each competition class have international recognition, and the colour and spectacle of tens of thousands of people enjoying one of the social highlights of the year, makes it not only one of the most important dates in our national calendar, but also a most authentic expression of an Ireland in touch with reality.

The remarkable success of the Championships is of course a testament to the dedication of the Managing Director of the National Ploughing Association, Ms Anna May McHugh, who, for four decades now, has demonstrated unfaltering commitment, professionalism and energy.

Each successive year, under her direction, the Championships have expanded and achieved excellence, attracting ever more exhibitors, competitors, and visitors. Despite the rain and the wind, 2017 witnessed another record-breaking attendance, with over 291,000 visitors and 1,700 exhibitions and looking around here today I have no doubt that this year’s Ploughing in terms of visitors will be another triumph.

The Championships are, like all great enterprises, a collective endeavour, so may I take this opportunity to thank Anna May and the organising team, Offaly County Council, An Garda Síochána, the hundreds of volunteers from across the country who have travelled here to contribute as judges, supervisors and stewards, and all the clubs and organisations who have joined together of the Ploughing such a joyful and inspiring festival.

Such a vast undertaking – what is little less than the construction of temporary city – requires a vast space, so may I extend my gratitude to our host, Joe Grogan, who has made 800 acres available for ploughing, exhibitions and parking.

A chairde,

This coming December our nation shall celebrate the centenary of the election of what would become the 1st Dáil Éireann, the democratic assembly of our revolutionary Irish Republic. Its members were mandated to bring to fruition the republic that had been declared in 1916. Its members, sustained by the memory of 1916, animated by the ideal of national independence, invoked the thoughts and deeds of those who went before, those who had struggled to give a shape to a vision of national freedom in the proceeding centuries. Yes, they looked to the ideals of Tone, of Pearse, of Connolly – but they also drew on the local memories of past agitators for security of livelihood on the land including invocation of the ideals of a man born over 200 years ago in the village of Raheen in County Laois – James Fintan Lawlor.

James Fintan Lalor spoke of the right of the people of Ireland ‘to live in [this land] in security, comfort and independence’. The freedom he advocated for his countrymen and countrywomen was no small freedom. He sought, if I may put it in his own words:

‘To found a new nation and raise up a free people, and strong as well as free, and secure as well as strong, based on a [people] rooted like rocks in the soil of this land.’

Over the next three days, people from all over Ireland, including many urban dwellers whose roots are in rural Ireland will come together to celebrate our native genius for working the land and tilling the soil. It is a genius which will be given an applied expression in the diversity of the competition classes represented at the Championships, from the mastery of the loy to single, double and triple-furrow ploughs. It is a genius of course that has been acknowledged at an international level, attested to by the recent victory of Eamonn Tracey at the World Ploughing Contest, and by John Whelan claiming silver in the reversible class.

Working the plough is a genius that, as a migratory people, we have taken across the world, enriching other peoples and other lands. I have experience of this in my own family. My grandfather’s brother, Patrick Higgins, left Ireland for Queensland in 1862, where he found employment as a ploughman. He also, I should add, demonstrated his abilities by winning many local ploughing competitions in the Darling Downs.

The next three days shall also be a celebration in the fullest sense and it is so important, of our farming communities - the custodians of our land and our natural environment - and of the vitality of the hortical culture of a people connected to the soil. 

Agriculture is at the very heart of our society and our economy. It is intrinsic to our national identity, a consequence not only of our history - of the long struggle over the land - but of contemporary practice and policy. The land sustains nearly 140,000 farm families across the state, while over 170,000 of our people are employed in the agri-food sector – in our forest and on our farms, in processing plants, butchers, distilleries and breweries.

During the period of our recent economic distress, when the failure of a speculative financial model caused so much pain for so many of our citizens, it was the wider agricultural sector that sustained its employment and economic output. Between the years 2009 and 2016, the value of Irish food and drink exports grew by 56 per cent, making an invaluable contribution to our export-led exit from our economic difficulties. Today, Irish dairy, Irish beef and Irish lamb are exported to over 190 countries.

Irish agriculture is part of what is now a global food system, one that faces the trial of meeting two great challenges that must be reconciled - sustainability of production and sustainability of food security. Behind these is an even greater challenge – sustainability of farming as a way of life in viable rural communities.

A former colleague of mine, Dr Noel Russell, now a most distinguished agricultural economist at Manchester University, has outlined the challenges that now face the global food system in this century in his recently-published book, the Economics of Feeding the Hungry. He refers to the United Nations estimate that our planet will be home to nearly 10 billion people in 2050. It will be an older and increasingly urbanised population that will not only require a greater quantity of food but will demand a greater variety of food. Issues of sustainable production will be accompanied by availability, affordability, foot utilisation and nutrition.

Increasing food production for our growing world population will require sustainable increases in productivity and yields, even as we are continuing to lose land to environmental degradation and climate change. This will demand the expansion of the frontiers of science and technology, their utilisation in the service of sustainability, new skills, new methods, the cultivation and dissemination of technical expertise, and the perseveration and protection of the habitats and ecologies upon which we all depend.

Of course, the structure and success of our agricultural industry here in Ireland brings with it a unique challenge as we seek to meet the commitments we have made in the Paris Climate Accord. It is a challenge we share with other countries such as New Zealand, whose pastoral agricultural economy accounts, like ours, for nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions.

May I then welcome the publication, last year, of the Government’s National Mitigation Plan, which includes commitment to reduce the carbon intensity of food production through more efficient breeding strategies, the optimisation of nitrogen-use, and exploration of new feeding strategies.

At the farm level, farmers are engaging in environmental actions such as improved animal breeding with the Beef Data and Genomics Programme and actions such as hedgerow and tree planting, minimum tillage and low emission slurry spreading, which are being supported by the GLAS Programme.

Reducing soil carbon emissions and enhancing removals through afforestation and better grassland management are key strategies to reducing sectoral emissions.  The current Nitrates Action Programme includes a focus on improving soil fertility through better and more efficient use of nutrients. In a country like Ireland where our agricultural output relies heavily on the quality of the grass we grow, soil fertility is a key area that we must improve on.

We should not underestimate the effort that will be required, from all sectors of our economy, to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. As a nation, we made a pledge at Paris, not only to ourselves but to others, a pledge that will demand both leadership and moral courage. For the most dangerous consequences of climate change will fall on those least able to bear them, on those areas already vulnerable to desertification and rising sea levels.

We are already witnessing some of the effects of more extreme weather conditions on our own island. Over the past twelve months we have experienced a tumultuous period of unsettled conditions, from a wet and cold winter, with one of the heaviest snow storms in recent memory, to a heat wave coupled with rare drought conditions. As President of Ireland I want to recognise again now that throughout Storm Emma, rural communities demonstrated a remarkable spirit of solidarity, checking on livestock and most importantly, on their neighbours.

The cumulative effect of the weather has placed an immense amount of pressure on the farming community. I know that many tillage farmers will see reduced yields this year. The situation has been particularly difficult for our livestock farmers as many were forced to use winter fodder supplies, particularly after grass had in effect stopped growing in many parts of the country.

The work that has been undertaken by all the stakeholders on the Fodder Coordination Group, and the measures taken to support participants on the GLAS scheme, such as the increases in the advance payment have been welcomed. The work of the Fodder Coordination Group and efforts taken so far have been important and it will be vital that all efforts are made to assist farmers throughout the country as they seek to feed and maintain our national herd over the coming winter.

In an assembly such as this, with its diverse participation, our gaze must not only be drawn to the practice of farming itself, but to the structures in which it takes place. We look not only at the process of production, but to the structure of distribution and changing patterns, necessary changes in consumption, and to the policies which influence those patterns.

I remain concerned at the vulnerability of the producer in the face of a retailing environment that is increasingly, worryingly coming to resemble conditions of monopoly. The concentration of end profits, the vulnerability of producers in the face of these tendencies, can distort the relationship between producer and consumer that makes sustainability difficult to see being achieved.

Yes, the Single Farm Payment is crucial, a recognition of the dual role of the farmer as a food producer, and as an active participant in rural life, a custodian of the natural environment. That does not absolve any of us from a responsibility to ensure that market practices are conducted in a fair and just manner.

The challenges that confront us today – of sustainability, of meeting the needs of a growing population – can only be met, and will only be met, by sustainable communities, both rural and urban. Our farming community is diverse, a diversity created by history and policy, and dictated by nature. Yet for all the differences, whether in terms of circumstance, farm size, or age, we still retain a commitment to the family farm model.

As I have said in my previous speeches here over the past six years, our family farm model is of vital importance to the future of our country and to the future of our rural communities. It must be nurtured and sustained - research indicates that this can be best achieved with appropriate regional policies and sufficient supports for farm families, whether it is in the field of environmental protection or in terms of market structure.

Meaningful regional structures, with the capacity to take infrastructural, demographic, sectoral economic, social and cultural differences into account have slid down the agenda in our European Union. It is a perspective in economic policy to which we should return and is so applicable to many points of tension throughout the Union.

For forty-five years we have sought to pursue these farming objectives through the European Union. At its best, the Union represents a solidarity of peoples, an inheritance of some of the Europe’s most egalitarian and humane traditions. In practice, the Union has facilitated the creation of common regulatory spaces, the earliest and most enduring of which has been that created by the Common Agricultural Policy.

As farmers know so well, the body of European Law which affects agriculture now consists of over 2,000 statutes, from quality certification schemes to official food and feed controls. This commitment not only highlights a shared determination to ensure the quality of the European food supply, but also it illustrates the complexity involved with any regulatory divergence resulting from the decision of Britain to leave the European Union.

The United Kingdom is currently the market for fifty percent of the meat that we export from this island – over €2 billion worth, most of which is beef. It is the market for a third of our diary exports. The very success of the Good Friday Agreement has created an all-Ireland agricultural economy.  The farming community is more than aware than many on these islands that the question of farming and food safety is not only a matter of tariffs or the customs union, but of a common commitment and adherence to shared standards. Given our all-Ireland agricultural economy, and the imperative of ensuring that there is no hard border on our island, I sincerely hope that the United Kingdom, whatever the circumstances, will maintain their fidelity to the standards and rules we have crafted together with our European friends over the past half-century.

A chairde,

I know that our farming communities have endured a most difficult year, and share, as we all do, a deep concern regarding the future arrangements for commerce on our island, and the future of our relationship with the United Kingdom. As we look to the future, we all, on this island and across the world, face the looming challenge of climate change. It is together we must face these challenges and it requires an active State in every Member State of the European Union. Unregulated market forces cannot guarantee sustainable lives in farming, avoidable waste by consumers, or adequate nutritional advice and safeguards for all.

Yet, in these uncertain times, let us recall again the ideals of James Fintan Lalor – we seek to be people rooted like rocks in the soil, earthed, courageous, generous, compassionate, and inclusive, displaying solidarity not only with our fellow countrymen, our nearest neighbours, but with all people, wherever they may be.

If we hold true to these ideals, we can overcome any difficulty and surmount any obstacle. Our farming communities, our farming families, have demonstrated the truth of this time and time again throughout our history, and I know they will continue to do in the future. They shall do so with the support of all the citizens of Ireland.

This April, Sabina and I had the opportunity to unveil a new art installation at Áras an Uachtaráin – ‘The Plough and the Stars’ – to commemorate the 1913 Lockout. At its heart lies a Wexford Star plough, manufactured in the 1930’s by the Wexford engineering Company, installed thanks to the help of Gerry King, a champion ploughman who is no stranger to this assembly.

It is not only a monument to workers’ struggle in the past but is a living symbol of the imperative for solidarity between all our citizens, between rural and urban, between those who labour in the fields and who labour on the shop floor and in the factory.

We can, and we will, together, meet the challenges of the future – addressing climate change and environmental degradation, managing Brexit, feeding the planet’s growing population, protecting our farm families and rural communities, and above all, continuing to build a Republic of which our forebears would be proud, one rooted, like our people, in solidarity, compassion, courage, and generosity.

May I wish the very best of luck to all those taking park in this year’s Ploughing Championships and very enjoyable three days to you all.

Tá áthas orm a fhóghairt go bhfuil tús leis an (87ú) Comórtas Náisiúnta Treachdóireachta.