The Taoiseach did not overrule the Agriculture Minister on the EU nitrates derogation issue, a Government colleague has insisted.
Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue last week made clear that Brussels would not reverse its decision to reduce the volume of nitrogen produced per hectare in Ireland.
Ireland is one of three EU member states that is granted a derogation to enable some farmers to work to a higher nitrate limit than is applied in the rest of the bloc.
However, that allowance is now being reduced in response to concerns about water quality levels in Ireland.
Farmers held protests at Fianna Fail and Fine Gael’s respective think-in events last week, insisting the reduction in the nitrate limit would force them to reduce herd sizes.
At the Fianna Fail picket in Co Tipperary, the farmers declined to have a meeting with Mr McConalogue, insisting they would only speak with his party leader and Tanaiste Micheal Martin.
At the Fine Gael think-in later in the week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met farming representatives in Co Limerick and during talks he agreed to invite EU Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevicius for a meeting in Ireland to discuss the derogation issue.
That led to suggestions that the Taoiseach had intervened to overrule Mr McConalogue’s position that he would not be going back to the EU to renegotiate the limit cut.
Fine Gael minister of state at the Department of Agriculture Martin Heydon rejected that characterisation.
He said the meeting requested by the Taoiseach would focus more on the renewal of the four-year derogation when the current one expires at the end of 2025.
Mr Heydon accompanied Mr Varadkar at the meeting with the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) in Limerick on Friday.
“Just to nail this point, the Taoiseach did not go over his head (Mr McConalogue’s),” Mr Heydon told RTE Radio One’s This Week programme.
“I spoke with Minister McConalogue straight after the meeting with the IFA to brief him on what had happened in the meeting. He had been in the Agriculture Committee at that time and he filled me in on how that had gone.
“He was happy enough for that letter (invitation) to go to commissioner because that’s following on from an invitation that he has extended to the commissioner and that letter to the commissioner is in consultation with minister McConalogue. It’s an important point.”
Mr Heydon said it was clear that the commissioner would not revisit the nitrate reduction, however he said details still had to be worked out on the mapping zones of where it would apply.
Fianna Fail minister of state Niall Collins also insisted the EU was “not for turning” on the derogation issue.
“I think we have to face up to the challenge of improving our water quality in this country,” he told RTE’s The Week In Politics programme.
“There is a challenge, obviously, for the Government and for the farming community to work our way through this and we’re committed to doing that.”