Thursday, 14 November 2013
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
5. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the position regarding restarting the beet industry as a result of the proposed end of the beet quota in 2017; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48507/13]
We in Sinn Féin, and many others, totally opposed the closure of the sugar beet industry. It should never have been privatised but should have remained in public ownership. That industry served rural Ireland very well. Sugar beet should have been retained as a rotation crop for corn and wheat producers. There are encouraging signs at the moment, so can the Minister provide an update on whether a private consultancy is at an advanced stage in trying to bring this industry back into the country?
No one would be happier than me to see the sugar industry back in Ireland again. I have delivered many tractor-loads of sugar beet into what was a viable and profitable beet factory in Mallow. I have produced beet and have a reasonable understanding of that industry. Along with many others, I was sceptical and critical of how that industry ended in Ireland.
I do not believe the question of whether the business was privatised at the time would have made a difference. The Government at the time made the decision to end the sugar industry in Ireland, which I am sure Deputy Ó Cuív knows all about. This Government, through me, has provided the opportunity for this industry to re-emerge. We fought hard for the abolition of sugar quotas and it is now up to the industry to put together a proposition around rebuilding a sugar, probably linked with ethanol, plant in the future and to make the numbers in that regard add up.
I have met with two different consortia on this issue, both of whom are, in my view, very credible. I have remained in contact with one of them. There are very good people involved, including people like Mick Hoey from Country Crest and others, who are giving great leadership in this area. This is a significant commercial proposition. It will cost between €250 million and €350 million to build a significant processing plant of the scale required to compete in the European sugar processing area. I hope it can happen. The Government will be as supportive as it can be. However, I will not subsidise an industry only to find in the future I cannot further subsidise it and it collapses. This industry must be able to stand on its own two feet. I believe it has a fighting chance. There are great people involved in trying to make it happen. I hope it will happen. Time is on their side because sugar quotas remain in place until 2017. There is a great deal of credible work going on to make this happen.
I welcome that people are attempting to make this happen. It would appear from the Minister's reply that those attempts are credible and that the project is being advanced. The Minister mentioned that the State would not provide financial support. I ask that if some support is required to get it over the line the Minister would reconsider that decision. I am not suggesting that this will be necessary. The re-establishment of that industry in the country from an agricultural and job creation point of view is important. When the industry collapsed many jobs were lost in Carlow and Mallow. I was in this House when political assurances were given that the Mallow plant would remain open. However, it closed within 12 months.
People should not underestimate just how positive a sugar industry is for agriculture. It is a great crop and a cash crop for farmers that is not reliant on payments and subsidies. If we can rebuild this industry, we should do it. My understanding is that approximately half if not two thirds of the hectarage of sugar beet that was grown when we had a sugar industry is still grown in Ireland. Farmers like to grow it. They use it as a sweetener and feed source for livestock. Farmers are good at and like growing this crop. The issue is whether the level of investment will be able to provide a return that is commercially viable and bankable and whether we can put together a consortium that can make this happen. It is a huge investment.
The arms of the State are available in the normal way in terms of support, including Enterprise Ireland and so on. Ultimately, this needs to be a commercial proposition so that farmers know that if they start producing sugar beet for a sugar or ethanol industry it will be a lasting industry. Financially, the commercial proposition must stand on its on two feet. I will be as supportive as I can be.
On a point of information, a Cabinet meeting has been called this morning, which I have to attend for approximately 15 or 20 minutes. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, will deal with some the questions while I am away. I will return for the remainder of oral questions, if possible. I appreciate the understanding of Members in this regard.