26 October 2001

Irish windfall as aid claims fall short

IRISH hill farmers are to get additional funding under the area aid scheme, following a shortfall in the number of expected claimants.

The Irish Farmers Association said last month that total applications had come to 100,000, about 10,000 short of the number projected. This had generated savings of Ir£15m, which should be used to top up payments to mountain farmers who had been "short-changed".

Junior farm minister Eamon O Cuiv this week dismissed these claims as "ill-informed" and accused the IFA of acting with "breathtaking audacity" in demanding more money for the uplands.

But he also revealed that government had so far paid out Ir£152m to 88,000 farmers, representing 90% of all applicants.

That suggests the total spend on the scheme this year should come to Ir£167m, about Ir£13m short of the Ir£180m dedicated to the scheme and remarkably close to the IFA figure.

The Irish government has since proposed changes to the scheme in Brussels, which are expected to be approved as a formality.

This will see mountain farmers paid Ir£80/ha on the first 10ha, with Ir£70/ha on the next 35ha. This compares with the current rate of Ir£45/ha on up to 60ha. The effect is that the maximum payment a farmer can receive goes up 20% from Ir£2700 to Ir£3250.

Aid rates for farmers in the severely handicapped and less severely handicapped areas are unchanged, as is the safety net designed to limit the losses to those who would receive less under area payments than they did under the old headage schemes.

Greater benefits

Mr O Cuiv said the new scheme would give proportionately greater benefit to small farmers as the increase has been "front-loaded". The revised rates would apply for the current year.

But the IFA says the new plan does not meet the legitimate expectations of mountain farmers. Also, while there are no specific figures available, hill adviser Gerry Gunning believes the Irish government is not putting any more money into the scheme above the Ir£180m agreed last year.

He maintains about 4000 mountain farmers will still be worse off. But that is better than the 7000 currently losing out. &#42

It is estimated that about 80,000 Irish farmers in handicapped and mountain areas are better off under the new scheme, while about 20,000 are worse off. This follows the governments decision last year to raise support funding from Ir£120m/year to Ir£180m/year as part of the changeover to area aid.