Blow to farmers as McConalogue confirms Europe will not change position on nitrates directive

Minister for Agriculture criticised for holding virtual meeting with EU commissioner on nitrates directive instead of having in-person meeting

Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has confirmed that the decision on reducing Ireland’s nitrate derogation will not be changed.

The Fianna Fáil politician told farm organisations on Thursday that the European Commission had gone as far as it would with Ireland’s derogation and that the current regime would not continue after 2026.

“The commission were very clear to me, we have the most flexibility in the EU at the moment and its simply not possible to get other member states to provide further flexibility on that,” the Minister said after a meeting with the Irish Creamery and Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) at the Department of Agriculture.

The nitrates directive was designed to prevent pollution of surface waters and groundwater from agricultural sources. It covers the amount of organic manure that a farmer can spread on their land. As most organic manure comes from cattle grazing the land, it in effect limits the number of cattle that a farmer can have on their land.


Currently, the European Union allows 170kg of organic nitrogen per hectare of land, but an Irish farmer can lawfully spread up to 250kg per hectare once certain conditions are met, because of the derogation, which was given to Ireland when the directive was first introduced in 1991.

Ireland’s derogation is due to expire on January 1st, 2026, and the derogation limit is due to be reduced to 220kg per hectare from January 1st next in certain areas due to water quality results not having shown sufficient improvement.

Farmers argue that the change will mean they effectively have to cut their herds by 15 per cent to comply with the regulations.

The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) boycotted the meeting with Mr McConalogue on Thursday and picketed instead outside the Department of Agriculture on Kildare Street in Dublin, saying the reduction was a fait accompli and there was no point in meeting the Minister. The IFA said it was angry at reports that Mr McConalogue had held a virtual meeting with EU commissioner for the environment Virginijus Sinkevicius on Monday to push Ireland’s case rather than meeting him in person.

Members of the IFA booed and called members of the rival ICMSA “scabs” as they arrived to meet Mr McConalogue.

Speaking after the meeting, ICMSA president Pat McCormack said 3,000 of his members, who are small or medium-sized dairy farmers, face serious financial hardship if the derogation is reduced.

“We told Minister McConalogue that he just has to go back and get this unscientific reduction changed to take account of undeniable realities,” he said. “This is not an abstract consideration: for hundreds of farmers the decision he accepted yesterday means that generations of farming will end, it literally is as simple as that.

“That can’t happen and it certainly can’t happen when the kind of sweeping measures we’ve already introduced to improve water quality have not even been given a chance to demonstrate their effectiveness.”

Responding to an offer that Mr McConalogue will speed up farm payments this year and next year to ease the burden on farmers, Mr McCormack said it was welcome but did not deal with the “scale of the mess in which the Government has landed 3,000 Irish farm families”.

“There’s no time for hand-wringing or pretence any more: we have to go back and get the commission to recognise that this reduction solves absolutely nothing and just makes existing problems worse. Those are the facts and it’s up to the Minister to get them in from of the EU commissioner.”

On Thursday night Mr McConalogue issued a statement on the Nitrates Derogation following an earlier meeting with ICMSA.

“It is now crystal clear that the [European] Commission will not re-visit Ireland’s current derogation decision. It is important that farmers know that, so that they and their advisors can prepare for the revised arrangements next year,” he said.

It is now “critically important” to shift attention to improving water quality so that a “credible case” for the renewal of the derogation in 2026 might be made, the Minister added.

An Agriculture Water Quality Stakeholders Group has been established.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist