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FactCheck: Did the Taoiseach say that he was in favour of reducing the national herd?

The Taoiseach challenged a TD to produce a quote where he said he was in favour of a reduction of the herd.

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A HEATED DÁIL row broke out this week between Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Kerry TD Danny Healy-Rae, over the Taoiseach’s plans for the number of cattle in Ireland and carbon emissions.

Healy-Rae initially addressed the Dáil about University Hospital Kerry (in the Oireachtas clip dated 20 October at 3:20:30).

Later on, during Leaders Questions, Healy-Rae made another contribution saying (at 4:03:18):

“Taoiseach you have been quoted as being in favour of the reduction of the national herd. Without accounting for all the carbon tax that farmers are sequestering-”

The Taoiseach then interjected: “Where?”

Healy-Rae responded: “And indeed the Minister for Agriculture as well, you go and find out, but that is a fact, you’re quoted as that.”

He added: “You have been quoted Taoiseach, I wouldn’t raise it but it is out there, yourself and the Minister for Agriculture, that they’re going to reduce the national herd by 19%.”

The Taoiseach: “Produce it.”

Healy-Rae responded: “I didn’t make it up Taoiseach.” 

The Taoiseach later said in the chamber:

I challenge, through the chair, the deputy to produce the quote where I said I am in favour of a reduction of the herd, because I never said it.

Healy-Rae said:

I didn’t make it up… it’s out there.

The Taoiseach on the ‘national herd’

For the purposes of this FactCheck we’re examining: 

  • Whether the Taoiseach said he was in favour of reducing the national herd
  • Whether, in addition to those comments, he said he was in favour of reducing it by 19%

Before we progress, it’s worth stating that the phrase ‘national herd’ is a collective term for all the individual privately-owned cattle herds around the country. 

Recent figures show the overall numbers in the national herd have grown by nearly 80,000 in the space of 12 months. 

In searching for news articles that quoted the Taoiseach’s comments on the national herd, the closest one that matched Healy-Rae’s description was one headlined: ‘Limits on cattle numbers not ruled out by Taoiseach’, published by the Irish Farmers Journal on 17 September 2021.

That piece contains quotes from the Taoiseach as he visited the agricultural research centre Moorepark. When asked for his position on the national herd, the Taoiseach said: 

The Government’s position is that we want to stabilise the national herd, we all have to make an added contribution to cutting carbon emissions, be it transport, be it agriculture and be it industry.

Agriland has a piece reporting on the same event: ‘Carbon targets ‘will be challenging’ for agriculture – Taoiseach’. That piece also quotes the Taoiseach as saying:

“The Government position is that we want to stabilise the national herd.

I think what’s important is that we continue to invest in research to make sure that we can increase added value, but also make our contribution to the climate change agenda, which is important, and all sectors of society will have to do that, including the agriculture sector.

At an Irish Farmers Journal event on the following Tuesday, 21 September, Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue is quoted as insisting that he would “not accept carbon reduction targets for agriculture that necessitated a mandatory reduction in beef and dairy cow numbers”.

“We have to stabilise the national herd to do this,” he then said, referring to agriculture’s need to reduce its carbon footprint.

We asked The Farmers Journal, Agriland.ie, and Farming by the Irish Independent if they had published pieces that referenced the Taoiseach being in favour of a reduction of the national herd.

A spokesperson for the Farmers Journal suggested the article they published on 17 September – outlined above – as being the piece Healy-Rae may have been referring to.

Clearly, none of the articles contain quotes amounting to the Taoiseach stating he was in favour of reducing the national herd. 

Comment from Danny Healy-Rae

When The Journal contacted Danny Healy-Rae about the Dáil exchange, and noted that the closest example of the Taoiseach saying he wanted a reduction in the number of cattle in Ireland was a piece saying those numbers should be ‘stabilised’, Healy-Rae said that the Farmers Journal piece also quotes the Taoiseach as commenting “all sectors would have to reduce carbon, including agriculture”.

When asked specifically about where the ’19% reduction’ figure that he had mentioned in the Dáil came from, the Kerry TD repeated that he read the quote “in some of the farming papers” – mentioning that it could have possibly been in the Independent’s agriculture supplement Farming, or the Farmers Journal.

When asked if he had to hand the exact piece, he responded: “I don’t, sorry.” He has not yet responded to a follow up request to send on the article. 

Analysis

In January 2020, Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin are reported to have both told the national council of the Irish Farmers’ Association that they would not support any attempt to reduce the size of the national herd to cut down on carbon emissions.

In recent months, this has shifted to comments about ‘stabilising’ the number of cattle in Ireland, from both the Taoiseach and the Agriculture Minister.

Comments have been sought from the Taoiseach’s Department and the Department of Agriculture to clarify whether this represents a policy shift, but none were received by the time of publication.

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One senior farming journalist who spoke to The Journal explained that ‘stabilising’ the herd could be interpreted several different ways and could mean a limit or a cap on cattle numbers.

It could also, they explained, be interpreted as meaning “a reduction” in cattle numbers if, for example, farmers are only allowed to have a certain amount of cattle or livestock units per acre under a new CAP scheme or new nitrates rules.

But if Micheál Martin had said explicitly he was in favour of reducing the herd, it’s fair to say it would have been massive news in the sector. 

The farming journalist added: “If the Taoiseach had outright said that he’s in favour of ‘reducing’ the herd, the farming press would not have missed it and I can’t find reference to it in any recent articles.”

Verdict

Statements about plans to stabilise the national herd do not represent a reduction, and not a reduction of 19%.

Danny Healy-Rae told the Dáil:

Taoiseach, you have been quoted as being in favour of the reduction of the national herd.
 …You have been quoted Taoiseach, I wouldn’t raise it but it is out there, yourself and the Minister for Agriculture, that they’re going to reduce the national herd by 19%.

There is no evidence of the Taoiseach Micheál Martin being quoted as saying he is in favour of the national herd being reduced. Martin told the Dáil: “I challenge, through the chair, the deputy to produce the quote where I said I am in favour of a reduction of the herd, because I never said it.”

In a phone call and follow-up text conversation the Kerry TD did not provide evidence of such quotes existing. 

It should be noted that it is possible that Healy-Rae read a quote or statement in a published version of a newspaper, or other printed material that that The Journal did not surface in our research process. 

If this material is produced, the verdict of the FactCheck can be updated.

However, if the Taoiseach had been recently quoted as being in favour of a reduction of the national herd, let alone a 19% reduction, a senior journalist in the farming press said it was extremely unlikely that this would not have been major news across the sector.

Of the three farming publications The Journal contacted, the only suggestions of relevant articles were ones which referred to the Taoiseach’s comments on ‘stabilising’ the national herd. Similar comments have also been made by Agriculture Minister McConalogue.

On that basis, we rate this claim, that Taoiseach Micheál Martin was quoted as saying he is in favour of reducing the national herd, as FALSE.

TheJournal.ie’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

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