Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Mad officials – Irish style

"We have become a laughing stock. It is time to tear up the rule book and have a bit of common sense."

So says Co. Mayo farmer Tom Hennigan, who tells his local paper, the Western People that he is being crucified by the Department of Agriculture and Food (DoAF) because he is too enterprising.

Mr Hennigan, who runs an award winning heritage centre on his 4.7 hectare (less than ten acres) holding at Killasser, Swinford, tills a small plot on his farm where he grows potatoes, cabbage, lettuce and other vegetables for his own use.

The garden is less than two roods (40 square poles = 1 rood) but because he has it under "tillage," he is now being hounded by the DoAF, who have threatened to reduce his payments under the Single Payment Scheme Compensatory Allowance.

For compensation payments under the Scheme, Mr Hennigan had submitted his total acreage of 4.71 hectares (i.e., about 50 roods). However when a Dept official inspected the farm and discovered the "kitchen garden" he ruled that 0.05 Ha should be excluded from the farm for payment purposes. Mr Hennigan was sent a notice of Non-Compliance and informed that he was subject to a possible sanction of reduced payments.

"I felt I was being treated as a common criminal," explained Mr Hennigan who has not been in receipt of any headage payments from the EU since 1993. He has received one payment of €466 under the Single Payments Scheme based on the 4.71 Ha holding. Because he has now been assessed as having only 4.66 Ha, his compensatory allowance will be reduced by about €12 to €20. "I told them (The Dept official) to keep the money, to send it to the homeless children."

"He spent about two hours measuring the farm and called back a second time. With his pay and expenses it would have cost the Dept far more than the saving made. My honesty has been called into question and it has made me look like a criminal, sending me a notice for non-compliance and threatening me with a reduced payment," said Mr Hennigan.

"I am not a wealthy man but the money is not the issue. The problem here is the amount of red tape and bureaucracy facing small business in this country. We are being crippled by officialdom – people who have nothing better to do than go out and harass decent members of society getting on with the job of making a living."

He said in the past, during three hundred years of British rule, smallholders in Ireland were penalised if they had a "rood of good ground". "Now we are being harrassed in rip-off Ireland by our own officials if we have a half a rood of good ground. It is a disgrace," he said.

Mr Hennigan complained that in recent times it had emerged that an Irish "farmer" was in receipt of €10,000 a week in EU payments. He said Dept officials would not measure Goodman's land because it would "take them years to do so". "I am not blaming the official, he was probably just doing his job, but it is a classic example of the harassment and nonsense that is breaking the backs and the will of small businesspeople."

Mr Hennigan has invested €250,000 in establishing his heritage centre which explains to visitors how people survived on such small holdings in times gone by. He has developed his out offices and sheds into a teashop and toilets and has also provided parking.

The centre has a comprehensive collection of agricultural and trade implements and many items of interest from the rich heritage of the surrounding area. He keeps fowl and farmyard animals in the original farmyard. Up to the time of the foot and mouth outbreak the Hennigan Heritage Centre attracted up to 5,000 visitors and was one of the county's main attractions.

Since the foot and mouth there has been a downturn in the number of visitors but he still regularly attracts up to three thousand during a season. It is a family enterprise. it would be capable of offering employment but the centre could not afford to pay staff. it is a labour of love as well as a livelihood.

Because he has developed what he describes as an educational centre he is now liable to rates, whereas farming activity is exempted. He is assessed for almost €2,000 in rates but as he only opens for part of the year his payments to Mayo county council are less than €1,000.

Mr Hennigan's farm is regularly used by Teagasc (the education/training arm of the Dept of Agr and Food) as an example of how farmers might be persuaded to diversify out of milk and beef and into alternative enterprises. "I am highlighting this not because of the money involved but because it is so ridiculous especially in light of what is going on in Mayo (the Rossport 5*) at the moment."

"I did not bother to apply for support under this scheme until last year because I felt it was a waste of time. Now when I see what has happened I am convinced that we are a nation beset by bureaucrats who have nothing better to do than persecute ordinary decent people. It's absolutely crazy. We are in a rip-off country and the sooner people realise what is going on the better."

"We are talking about tourism and agriculture being the backbone of the country and the only hope for rural Ireland and at the same time we are sending armies of officials out to put people out of business by insisting on petty adherence to ridiculous rules," he said.

It is so nice to know that ours is not the only country ruled by mad officials.

*The Rossport 5 have been jail since June 29th because they won't obey a court order not to obstruct the building of a high pressure gas pipeline passing through their own lands. The state has lined up behind the gas consortium of Shell, Statoil and Marathon. Shell intends to employ a new, and previously, untried technology at Corrib. This technology is experimental and contains dangers of explosion, which would incinerate those living nearby.

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