Gildernew promises closer co-operation on agricultural issues

Closer co-operation on agricultural issues north and south can be expected during the term of new northern Minister for Agriculture, Michelle Gildernew. Ms. Gildernew is the Designate Minister for Agriculture in the new Northern Assembly and she was in Roscommon on Thursday last to perform a website launch for the local Sinn Féin candidate, Martin Kenny. 37-year-old Gildernew is a native of Dungannon. She was first elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly for Sinn Féin in 1998 and was re-elected in November 2003.  In 2001, she produced an electoral upset when she ousted Ulster Unionist MP Ken Maginnis and became MP for Fermanagh/South Tyrone on a margin of 53 votes. She has since retained that seat. Ms. Gildernew is a member of the Árd Comhairle of Sinn Féin and is the party’s spokesperson on equality and housing.  During the website launch on Thursday evening last in the Percy French Hotel in Strokestown, she took time out to talk to Roscommon People about her future as Minister for Agriculture and her path into politics. Asked how she first became involved in politics, she said, ‘My family was involved in the squatting and subsequent eviction in Caledon in 1968. We had come from a civil rights background.’ Gildernew’s mother was very involved in the civil rights issue. In 1968, a major protest erupted when a 19-year-old Protestant woman, who worked for a local UUP politician, was given a council house in Caledon, Co. Tyrone, ahead of Catholic Annie Gildernew (Michelle Gildernew’s grandmother), who had a large family.   Ms. Gildernew is one of a family of ten, having five brothers and four sisters. ‘We were singled out for particular attention by the security forces and would have suffered quite a bit of harassment. A number of attempts were made on members of my family’s lives. Thankfully none were successful.’ The new Minister for Agriculture is from a farming background. ‘We had a very small farm, mostly sheep and beef. My father would have had less than 40 acres. It was very much a small family farm. We diversified into engineering when we were very young and we also had a haulage contracting business.’ Indeed, Michelle has fond memories of accompanying her father Phelim Gildernew to factories all over the Republic, but particularly to places such as Granard and Edgeworthstown.  So, what does she see as the main issues in her forthcoming term as Minister for Agriculture? ‘Bureaucracy and red tape’ are top of the agenda. Other top items on her list are animal health issues, public procurement of local food, and more robust marketing of Irish food produce. She also wants the Department to work ‘for and with the farmers and not forget that that’s the role of the department, to support our farmers and rural communities and I will encourage that to happen.’ On the issue of public procurement, she wants to see schools, hospitals and other public bodies buying food locally wherever possible. ‘We produce some of the highest quality food in the world, yet we are importing fruit and vegetables and beef from all across the world. We do need to go back to the seasons and buy local produce and support our farmers who work so hard, often for little money, to produce that food. I don’t want to see the day that Ireland can’t produce the food  that people need.’ ‘It’s also important that we develop the technology for agri fuels and renewable energy sector. We need to see farming become profitable again.’ Closer cross-border co-operation is very much to the fore on Ms. Gildernew’s agenda. ‘I hope to develop closer ties. I have written to Mary Coughlan and am hoping to have an early meeting with her. I have met her before and would like to develop closer ties.’ At an earlier questions and answers sessions, Ms. Gildernew was asked about her attitude to prior notice for farm inspections, the need for biofuels, her attitude to GM crops  and the lack of traceability of Argentinian beef. On the issue of inspections, she said that Sinn Féin policy states that they want to see the department working with farmers. She said that because so many farmers work part-time, short notice for inspections makes life very difficult. She said that the north needs a Farmers’ Charter which means more flexibility, especially when it comes to penalties.  ‘We will be more sympathetic to their needs and will be lobbying for 14 days’ notice in the north.’ On biofuels, she said that Sinn Féin would do what it could to ensure that farmers could buy the technology necessary to take advantage of the growing need for biofuels. However, she said that she didn’t want to see a similar situation developing with biofuels as had happened to milk, with a huge disparity between the price paid to farmers and the price charged to consumers.  ‘We have to make sure that family farms are maintained and ensure that Ireland maintains its GM status. We need to ensure that that is retained and Ireland is a GM free zone. If anyone has any doubts about GM, they should talk to Trócaire or the NGOs dealing with starvation in Sudan.’ On beef imports, she said, ‘we have very clearly stated that if beef is being imported, it needs to be to the same high standards as we have here. Farmers can’t compete because there isn’t the same traceability. We have to ensure that the beef we sell is seen as a premium product and our farmers are getting a fair price.’ ‘One of the things I will be doing is speaking to Bord Bia about getting an All Ireland marketing strategy. One of the first things I have done has been to write to Mary Coughlan expressing an interest in meeting with her on this issue. Farmers need integration of the industry.’