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'I'm no expert in the cultivation of cannabis': Taoiseach supports idea of Irish farmers growing cannabis in the future

In a wide-ranging interview with TheJournal.ie, Varadkar discussed John Delaney, Brexit, Peter Casey and the European elections.

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Video by Nicky Ryan

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said he has no objection to the prospect of Irish farmers diversifying and growing cannabis in the future. 

In a wide-ranging interview with TheJournal.ie, where Varadkar discussed John Delaney, Brexit, Peter Casey and the European elections, the Taoiseach said in light of Brexit, supports for the exposed beef sector are needed, in order to reorientate them towards new markets and new businesses. 

Health Minister Simon Harris acknowledged that the “lack of availability of cannabis products in Ireland remains the most critical barrier to full implementation” of the medicinal access scheme

The health minister supported the idea of Irish farmers growing the drug, stating that it ”could be an opportunity for Irish farmers in due course”.

In December, the Irish Farmer’s Association told TheJournal.ie that it is open to meeting the health minister to discuss the possibility of farmers growing cannabis for medicinal use.

Medicinal cannabis market 

Today, beef farmers and those in the sector will attend the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee. Could cannabis be that market? 

“I am not an expert in the cultivation of cannabis – medicinal or otherwise – so I am not sure how well it would grow in Ireland,” said the Taoiseach. 

“It is the case in Ireland that medicinal cannabis is legal. Now getting a licence from the minister is complicated and we are trying to improve that, but at the moment it is not possible to grow it so it has to be imported. Many have to go to the Netherlands to pharmacies to get it there,” he added.

After two years of delays, the Department of Health has identified a supplier in Denmark, confirmed Varadkar. 

“From a whole common sense point of view if something is legal in Ireland – and it is, with a prescription – why import from the Netherlands or Denmark when we could grow it here? So it is nothing that I have an objection to, but I am not sure if it is a viable alternative for many farmers. I am not sure how much would actually be needed because there is only a relatively small number of patients who currently have a licence or would benefit from it,” he added. 

Everyone has a bit of a breather from Brexit, with the exit date being kicked out six months.

A second Brexit referendum?

But talk of a second Brexit referendum has resurfaced. 

A second referendum is needed, according to former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who both made a case for it in a joint op-ed at the weekend

Would Taoiseach support such a move? 

He told TheJournal.ie that it would be most “unhelpful” for him to talk about such a move, stating that it would only spur on the “extreme Brexiteer elements” into saying that Ireland was just another European country trying to tell the British people what to do. 

“‘Isn’t this why we’re leaving?’” – that’s what they would say, according to Varadkar. 

However, in the same breath he said, if Westminster wanted to, it could hold another referendum, stating that parliament is “supreme”. 

“They do have the authority to have a second referendum if they so wish,” he said. 

“I’m pro-European, I would love to see the United Kingdom stay in the European Union. Europe is their home, and Europe is stronger with Britain in it, and if they made the decision to stay then I’d welcome them with open arms, it would be the prodigal son returning.” 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

While Bertie and Blair felt“duty-bound” to write the op-ed on their thoughts on the current Brexit situation, Varadkar is careful not to rock the boat, but he is a bit more optimistic. 

“I suppose I am more optimistic – you go through different periods of optimism and pessimism – one thing I am optimistic about is I think is no-deal, even though I do think it is a possibility and could happen by accident, is increasingly unlikely,” he said. 

Some form of a customs union could be the answer to everyone’s problems, he added. 

When asked if it is a realistic proposition, he said: 

I do. But I think it is something the British government have to want and ask for. If you reduce it to some very simple terms. What is a customs union? It means that the UK will still have free trade with all of the European Union including Ireland without any tariffs, without any quotas, without the need for any rules or regulations around rules of origin, that would be very good for us, because it helps solve some of the border issues, makes sections of the backstop unnecessary and then you would have something that is very valuable for our farmers, who would continue to have access to the British market.

So I think it would be a good thing if they were to stay in the EU customs union or negotiate a new customs union with the EU, but again that is something they would have to want. 

‘If only the House of Commons could do the same’

Despite France’s Emmanuel Macron’s objections to a long extension, one was granted to the UK. Did Varadkar help convince him to change his mind. 

“No, quite frankly there was a difference of opinion. Macron favouring a shorter extension, us favouring a longer one and we came up with a compromise, that is how the EU works, it is also why it works. It is interesting that 27 countries can come to a compromise in a few hours. If only the House of Commons could do the same in a few months,” he said with a smile on his face. 

Before German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid a visit to Ireland, there was rumours the time-limited backstop was back on the table. The Taoiseach said it is not.  

It is something that is off the table – it is not something that has come up with meetings I have had with Chancellor Merkel or President Macron. It didn’t come up in Brussels last week, it didn’t come up with my phone conversation with Theresa May so I am not sure where that is coming from but our position on that has been steady. A backstop with a time limit is not a backstop.

While Varadkar is careful to be sensitive to matters across the water when it comes for calls for a second referendum, he also doesn’t think now is the time for discussions about a united Ireland. 

He believes it would come down to sectarian lines of “Catholics versus Protestants, nationalists versus unionists”, and in his opinion, a border poll would be lost if held now. 

“To do something that would be divisive and then have it defeated I don’t see what would be achieved by it,” he said. He denied that Fine Gael was distancing itself from its slogan: “the united Ireland party”. 

“We do believe in a united Ireland, but we want that to be done by consent.”

A vote for Mick and Clare?

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

One vote that will be taking place this year is the European elections. The candidates submitted their papers today, and it is an interesting bunch. It includes former presidential candidate, Peter Casey, who had strong words for the Taoiseach during the campaign, and vice versa. 

What does the Taoiseach make of Casey’s bid for Europe?

I see Peter Casey is interested in joining the EPP group, which is Fine Gael’s group in the European Parliament, and it is the biggest most influential group, so it does make sense to be in it, although I had thought he wanted to be the leader of Fianna Fáil a few weeks ago…

Would Casey be welcome in the EPP? Varadkar had reservations: 

He would have to sign up to the values of the EPP which I am not sure he would be able to. But like I say,having wanted to be leader of Fianna Fáil a few months ago, I am not sure, he might change his mind in a few months time.

There are a couple who might get a vote from Leo, and they are not in his own party – Independents 4 Change Mick Wallace and Clare Daly. 

“They are serious politicians. I don’t agree with them on everything but I agree with them on more things than people may believe,” said Varadkar, adding: 

“We don’t necessarily agree, but both he [Mick Wallace] and Clare [Daly] have well-considered and well-informed views and I have always found them to be respectful. They are not the type of people to score points. They are serious people. Needless to say, while I am sure I would be giving them a preference, they will be well down the list after the Fine Gael candidates.”

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