The week starts with an early flight to Brussels on Sunday so I have a chance to meet with the fishing industry before heading into intensive and crucial negotiations that will decide fishing quotas for 2017. It is a useful chance to go over last minute priorities with the industry and heading into my first December Fisheries Council I am under no illusion as to the importance of the negotiations. We are facing cuts totaling almost €30m in direct and indirect losses to the sector. The fishing industry is fundamentally important in rural coastal communities and I am very keenly aware of the significance of the next few days to families dependent on the sea for their living. I am also very conscious that if we don’t respect what the science is telling us on particular stocks, there will be no fish for the future and it is crucial to achieve an outcome that’s balanced in the interest of all. Some final briefing with the fisheries team from Clonakilty before getting an early night ahead of Monday’s meetings.
Monday begins with a gathering of EPP (European People’s Party) colleagues, together with Commissioner Hogan. We run through the key issues being discussed at Agriculture Council for the day, ranging from Organics, the food supply chain and climate change. It’s a very useful exchange and allows everyone the opportunity to discuss last minute issues with the Commissioner before Council begins. A doorstep with media on the way back and then it’s straight into the day’s business. We start with the fisheries agenda, giving every Member State a chance to have their input and then it’s on to the Agriculture items. This allows the Presidency and Commission a chance to hear what priorities Member States have in fisheries and they then continue work in the background with officials on what will eventually be tabled as a compromise proposal. Later in the afternoon, we get an opportunity to discuss Ireland’s fisheries objectives with the Commission and the Slovakian Presidency directly, in what is known as a ‘trilateral’. The rest of the day is spent meeting with other Ministers and officials, keeping contact going with environmental NGO’s and the industry as much as possible to keep them up to speed. After a long day, we meet the industry for a debrief and a recap on the day’s events.
The first compromise package tabled on Tuesday morning, gives us cold comfort. Many of the cuts to our most important stocks are still on the table and we are given no guarantee that the Hague Preferences will be delivered. The Hague Preferences insulate Ireland against cuts to stocks when quotas are low. A long day and night follows, copious cups of tea and coffee to keep us going and lots of meetings at official and ministerial level to pursue the best possible outcome for Ireland. The Department officials assisting me and representing Ireland in these negotiations couldn’t fight harder for a good outcome for the country. Before heading into the negotiations I had heard the tales of how the Fisheries Council is the last ‘red-eye’ Council, always finishing late into the night/early morning. And it is. Council concludes in the early hours of Wednesday, with a much better outcome for Ireland. We secure 233,500 tonnes of quota for Irish fishermen, worth €280m. Many of the cuts on the table are reversed and we secure the Hague Preferences. In environmental terms, we take a number of strategic decisions to protect stocks for the future. All in all, a balanced deal. I brief the fishing industry in the early hours of Wednesday morning, along with my team.
After two hours sleep, I have a chat with RTE’s Morning Ireland before catching a plane back to Dublin. On return to Dublin I make my way directly to a fevered Dáil chamber for Leaders questions. It’s clear that while I was preoccupied with matters fish at a European level, domestically it is matters rent that dominated the agenda. Not to be distracted from my own packed schedule I attend an excellent Macra supported Primary Schools Farm Safety competition. This struck me as an excellent initiative encouraging the youngest in farm households to be the ambassadors for safety and vigilance on farms. On the same theme I briefly meet with some pupils from Pallaskenry college who provided an impressive presentation on their project on Farm Safety. In the afternoon I chair a meeting of the Implementation group for the “Reaching new heights” strategy for Horse Sport Ireland. Wearily I make my way from the Department back to Leinster House to attend the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party meeting and brief colleagues on the package secured in Brussels on what for me was still the same day! Alas I’m not finished yet as I round off the longest day of my Ministerial career to date by attending a Bord Bia event at their HQ.
Early breakfast and straight to my office for a 9am press interview. Afterwards I meet with some Oireachtas colleagues to discuss issues pertaining to the sheep sector. At 11am I announce the award of €28 million in funding for research initiatives across a wide range of areas. I’m afforded a very brief opportunity to meet with some of the recipients who outline details of their projects. I reacquaint myself with developments in the Dáil during voting time. Thankfully it has become clear that the rental strategy will progress even if at this stage it appears we might have to remain in the chamber until Christmas Day! Onwards to the City North Hotel where I host an All Island Civic Dialogue for the agri-food sector. I’m encouraged by the large attendance from both sides of the border and the high level of engagement on matters important to the sector. My final diary commitment on Thursday is the Department of Agriculture Christmas Party. I may post a once off blog post on that in the coming days……….
It’s a quieter Ag house canteen for breakfast where I’m joined by Jonathan & Áine (advisors) and belatedly by Minister Coveney who assures my that I will see Macroom this Christmas. It’s a long day in the Dáil however and many deadlines are passed before finally the Bill is passed. I finally return home in the early hours of Saturday morning. Who said a week is a long time in politics????