The Minister for Agriculture and Food, Mary Coughlan TD and her colleague, Éamon Ó Cuív TD, Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, have announced that unanimous approval for Ireland's Rural Development Programme 2007-2013 has been received at a meeting of the EU's Rural Development Committee.
The Programme has been with the Commission since last January and the Ministers said that considerable efforts had been made - both by the Commission and their Departments, since then - in an effort to have the programme up and running with the least delay possible.
Minister Coughlan said the overall package totals €5.78bn in public expenditure - of which €2.33bn will be met from the European Agriculture Fund for Rural Development and the balance from the national exchequer. The programme is in line with the 2015 AgriVision Action Plan and takes account of the outcome of the partnership talks. "This Programme represents unprecedented investment in Irish agriculture and will enhance our rural environment and help to secure farmers' income into the future" - Minister Coughlan said.
The measures in the Programme address three priorities - competitiveness, the environment and the wider rural economy. The main agri-food measures are -
* REPS/Natura (€2.98bn)
* Disadvantaged Areas (€1.8bn)
* Early Retirement (€418m)
* Installation Aid (€63m) - and
* Farm Investment (€85m).
Overall, these Schemes account for 93% of the Programme's total public expenditure of €5.78bn.
The Minister said that the Programme will provide increased support for restructuring through improved rates under the early retirement and installation aid schemes. Considerable support will also be provided in the areas of capital investment, training and advice. There will also be a 17% increase in REPS payments - and payments under the Disadvantaged Areas scheme will increase by 8%.
Minister Coughlan said - "This €5.78 billion package is clear evidence of this Government's commitment to farmers and to rural life in Ireland. The unprecedented increase in exchequer funding for this programme has a dual aim. Firstly, it will assist competitiveness in the agriculture, food and forestry sector. Secondly, it will help to ensure respect and enhancement of the environment.
"It is fully in line with the EU rural development framework and is fully consistent with our vision for the future of farming and the agri-food sector in Ireland - set out in the AgriVision 2015 Action Plan. The additional Exchequer funding is, indeed, concrete recognition of the pledges set out in that plan."
Minister Coughlan noted that good progress is being made in continuing discussions with the EU Commission on a number of important nationally-funded measures - including the afforestation programme and the suckler cow animal welfare scheme.
Éamon Ó Cuív TD also welcomed the adoption of the new Programme. Over €425m will be provided over the next seven years - a trebling of funding compared to the 2000-2006 period - to support improvements to the quality of life in rural areas and the diversification and development of the rural economy.
Of the total, €234m will come from the European Union and the remainder from the Exchequer. The Programme will be delivered by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs through a network of Local Action Groups.
"It is a huge achievement to get LEADER on a mainstream footing" - said Maura Walsh, Comhar LEADER na hÉireann. "Such a large increase in funding means that the impact that LEADER can have will be very significant indeed."
Welcoming the new Programme, Minister Ó Cuív said - "It will play a key and vital role in ensuring that the aims of the Government in relation to rural development - as outlined in the new Programme for Government - are rolled-out and achieved over the next seven years. I look forward to seeing significant progress being made in developing the rural economy in the next few years - particularly in the areas of rural/agri-tourism, the continued development of the small food producer sector and the implementation of the Countryside Recreation Strategy."
He also indicated that the selection process for the Local Action Groups to deliver the Programme at a local level would commence in September.