Belch-and-braces approach as talk of cull is just bull

Make no mistake, just because the Government intends to adopt a belch-and-braces approach to tackling the climate crisis, this does not mean cattle in Ireland will be culled. They will be still slaughtered at a terrific rate, obviously, but that’s a different thing entirely.

“We are proud of the fact that we are able to produce nine times as much food as we need and we are going to continue doing that,” proclaimed the Tánaiste.

“Let there be no doubt from the Government, and from this side of the House, that Ireland without its beef industry wouldn’t be Ireland. Ireland without its dairy sector would not be Ireland,” he added, just stopping sort of crowning us the burp basket of Europe.

Leo Varadkar was replying to a request from Michael Collins of the Rural Independents Group for a Dáil debate this week to discuss the climate action crisis and what he feels are mixed messages from government on the culling of cattle to mitigate it.

According to the TD for Cork South West, an expert group set up by the leader of the Greens has recommended such a course of action but Eamon Ryan is “delusional” and in denial about this. What’s going on?

On the day after World Vegan Day, the Tánaiste was very anxious to stress that this talk of a cull is just bull: “Just let me be very clear, deputy, there is not going to be any cull of the herd. That is not a proposal in the Climate Action Plan.”

While he may have been addressing his remarks to the Independent deputy across the floor, Leo was really talking to jittery coalition colleagues from rural constituencies and those farmers with sizeable herds who tend to vote Fine Gael. There is still a plan, he explained. Apparently this will involve things to do with plants, planting trees, carbon farming and fitting stabilisers on cows.

“We anticipate herd stabilisation over the next number of years,” confirmed the Tánaiste, to the growing concern of Collins and his Roaring Independent colleague Michael Healy-Rae.

So with the “stabilisation” kicking in, cattle numbers in the country should stay roughly as they are now. But the better news is that the Government “believes” it is possible to achieve a 10 per cent reduction in bovine methane over the next 10 years. The Government has set a very ambitious target when one considers Dáil Éireann where bovine emissions are out of control and not expected to plateau any decade soon.

Talk of “stabilising the national herd” did not impress Healy-Rae, who accused the Tánaiste of using misleading language. “Outrageous” he fumed. “You’re codding the farmers of Ireland.”

Plain language

When Leo spoke about the beef producers diversifying did he mean into fish? “Stabilisation means a cut and call it what it is, Tánaiste. Use plain language, please, and not gobbledygook.”

The Dáil exchanges over what climate action measures might mean for the livelihoods of beef and dairy farmers passed off quickly enough in the chamber on Tuesday. This was probably because the Taoiseach, who has been difficult to pin down in recent interviews on how exactly the Government plans to deal with the whiffy issue of belching bovines (methane is a front of house rather than a backstage issue — only 5 per cent of damaging emissions are down to flatulence), was away at the Cop26 in Glasgow delivering Ireland’s speech about saving the world.

When he returns he might be able to explain about “The National Herd”. What is it? Are the best fatstock champions picked to join it? Do they represent us in the Cattle Olympics? Is Larry Goodman the team manager? Or Charlie McConalogue? Does Michael D Higgins own it on behalf of all of us? Or is it a clever piece of industry spin evoking emotional investment and we would all be diminished if there were fewer cows in the country?

Rather like the climate question, the cattle won’t be going away anytime soon either. With the Taoiseach off on other business, Opposition leader Mary Lou McDonald didn’t turn up for Leaders’ Questions. She only deals with the boss.

No offence to Sinn Féin’s spokesman on health, David Cullinane, but there was great disappointment when he showed up at the start of proceedings instead of Mary Lou. Sparks always fly when she faces off against Leo in the chamber with their exchanges increasingly verging towards the vicious end of the parliamentary discourse scale. David was delighted though, not least because he was introduced by the Ceann Comhairle as “the acting leader of Sinn Féin”.

Virulent virus

Meanwhile, Covid returned for yet another discussion on extending emergency powers in the light of the non-retreat of the virulent virus. The two-hour debate was a tame one, with the same speakers making most of the arguments they made in the previous debates. Will the Government ever repeal these special powers or will they be with us forever? That’s what Paul Murphy of Solidarity/People Before Profit wanted to know.

What Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly was promising was a twist on the Lotto – one more rollover then the jackpot. One more three-month rollover in maintaining certain restrictions and then maybe, just maybe, we can all go back to normal. There was a weariness about the arguments.

Róisín Shortall proposed that no further regulations should be introduced without Dáil approval. We need a “vaccine plus” strategy, said Murphy. But they know the measures will be voted through at the end of the week.

“A very lazy use of exceptional powers,” said Michael Healy-Rae. But then, at the end of the debate, the Minister landed a haymaker, winding the few TDs left in the chamber along with everyone else with an ear to their monitors in offices around Leinster House. Things were on a “bad trajectory” he said glumly, before breaking the news of the latest figure for Covid infections which was about to be announced. Three thousand, seven hundred and twenty six. What did he just say? You heard it. 3,726. Will it ever end?

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