Northern Ireland's Agriculture Minister, Michelle Gildernew, last night dismissed calls for her to resign after it emerged that farmers who queued for 48 hours to get grants may have wasted their time.
Hundreds of farmers who camped out in wintry weather for a share of the £6m Farm Modernisation Scheme could be left disappointed if the department is forced to scrap its decision to allocate grants on a first-come first-served basis.
The departments’s methods were branded unacceptable by the European Commission agriculture spokesmen Michael Mann, who said EU rules were broken. However, the department said there appeared to be a misunderstanding,, insisting its methods were legal.
The DUP's agriculture spokesman William McCrea said it could raise huge questions about how the scheme was handled and could be a resignation issue for Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew.
However, the minister defended her decision, saying there was no easy way to allocate the money.
Last night, Mr Mann said the commissioner's office had written to DARD to warn that the first-come first-served procedure was unacceptable.
“When it comes to modernisation methods like the ones we are talking about in the Northern Irish case, the rules say that you have to make the decision on who gets the money based on clear criteria,” he said.
“We have been in contact with the Northern Ireland authorities and told them that a first come, first served basis is not an acceptable way of doing this.”
But a department spokesperson said: “The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is aware of the reported statement by European Commission representative Michael Mann. There appears to be a misunderstanding that no selection criteria have been set for the scheme. This is not the case.
“We are urgently trying to clarify the situation with the Commission and are clear that the manner in which the scheme is being administered is legal. No funding has been allocated at this time.”
Ms Gildernew added: “We have had numerous discussions about these issues and Europe has sought clarity, we have provided that clarity. We have the ability to go ahead and do this. At this stage we have not allocated any money, the forms are in.
“If there's any issue around the forms we will rectify that.”
She said the department had been speaking to the Commission and said its reaction was unexpected.
“We have worked with the people directly responsible for this in Europe,” she said.
“This comes as a surprise to us. We are trying to clarify those comments and if the Commission wants further clarification from us we are more than happy to supply that.
“There is a selection criteria involved in this.”
Mr McCrea, who chairs the Stormont Agriculture Committee, called on the minister to come before the Assembly and make a clear statement on why the method was chosen.
“I believe that Michelle Gildernew must make it clear just why she insisted on implementing this application process which saw farmers camping outside DARD offices for up to 48 hours only for the whole scheme to be brought into question a matter of a few hours after the doors opened,” he said.
“If this speculation is confirmed and the scheme has not complied with the requirements laid down by Europe then I believe that the minister must be made accountable in front of the Assembly.
“If confirmed then I believe that such a serious mistake has been made that the minister would have no other option than to resign her post.”
It’s thought that no more than 1,200 farmers will be successful in securing a share of the first £6m tranche of the £15m scheme, which forms part of the Rural Development Programme.
Farmers queueing up yesterday described how they needed the funds to pay for improvements that would boost animal welfare or help meet environmental restrictions.
If successful, they will be awarded up to £5,000, which would provide 40% of the costs.
“In the 21st century there must be better and more efficient methods to allocate grants rather than to have queues of farmers standing outside offices all night,” Mr McCrea said.
‘It makes you feel like a beggar’
Angry farmers have described how they were left “feeling like beggars” after being made to queue for modernisation grants.
Farmers waiting for up to 48 hours in Dungannon, Coleraine, Ballymena, Newry, Armagh, Downpatrick, Enniskillen and Omagh in an attempt to secure a grant of up to £5,000 which will provide 40% of the cost of improvement in farms.
Men, women and children camped out with flasks of tea and deck chairs to secure money from the first portion of the £15m scheme.
Dairy farmer Tom Cruikshank (64) had been waiting in line in Ballymena since midday on Monday for cash for new cubicles and mattresses for his cattle.
“It is unprecedented, I never have seen this happening before at all. It makes you feel as if you are not a farmer, like you are a beggar,” he said.
“This isn't right, this is money taken off us before in modulation money from the single farm payment.”
Heading the queue was Marcus Adams who has a mixed farm at Cloughmills. He wants the money to buy an autostart generator.
“If the electricity in the poultry unit goes off, the generator will come in by itself and keep the birds from smothering. There are 46,000 farmers here so most won’t get anything.
“We need this money because DARD always brings in new rules on animal welfare. We have to spend money just to keep up with regulations,” he said. “There is not enough money in the animals to pay for the improvements — the supermarkets have us hammered into the ground.”
Dorothy McCullough, from Lisburn, began queuing at midnight on Monday night to get money for perforated slot mats for her herd of cattle.
“Hopefully we will get money after queuing all this time,” she said.
Ulster Farmers’ Union spokesman Joe McDonald said that it would have been fairer to open up applications for two weeks and randomly choose successful applicants rather than having the first come, first served system.
“There is a strong case to put more money into the Farm Modernisation Scheme. As it is 40% funding it is very good for the local economy,” Mr McDonald said.
“That £15m will generate £38m of direct economic activity in rural areas. The more economic activity we have at the moment the better.”
The cash is aimed at improving animal welfare and farm efficiency.
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