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As Ireland celebrates 50 years membership of the EU this year, ICOS is also celebrating the opening of its Brussels office five decades ago in 1973.

It was a year earlier in January 1972 that Taoiseach Jack Lynch and Foreign Affairs Minister Patrick Hillery signed the Accession Treaty in the Egmont Palace in Brussels. The following May, 83% of the electorate voted to join the then EEC. This came over a decade after our first efforts to join the founding six. On 1st January 1973, Ireland along with the UK and Denmark officially took their places as members.

What may not be so well known is that ICOS and the IFA opened offices the same year to coincide with Ireland joining the EEC. Back then ICOS was known as the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society (IAOS). Both organisations foresaw the importance of having a presence in Brussels where all the big decisions would be made affecting the way of farming back home. In 1973, the Irish economy was predominantly an agricultural one dependent on exports to the UK. The population was just over 3 million and farmers accounted for 25% of the total workforce. Today that figure is just around 4%. Of course, that is skewed by the fact that most of those farms were small and extensive back then.

The ICOS Annual Report for 1972 states that in that year, 124 dairy co-ops handled 485 million gallons, or about 2.1bn litres of milk. By 2022, that figure has more than quadrupled. The value of milk processed at accession was equivalent to about €150 million. The value of our dairy exports last year was nearly 50 times that number. Entering the EEC gave farmers access to the single market and over the past five decades, Irish agriculture and rural development has secured CAP payments of almost €65 billion.

ICOS and the IFA became part of the broader EU umbrella farm organisations COPA and COGECA and remain very much part of that family to this day. Greg Tierney was the first man to run the ICOS office in Brussels during those early days and today former RTE presenter Damien O’Reilly is our representative in the heart of the EU district of Brussels.

ICOS remains as one of the few representative bodies to maintain a full-time presence in Brussels. Climate Change and the war in Ukraine is increasingly shaping the policy proposals from the EU Commission which are coming thick and fast, and which will impact on food production across the EU until the end of the decade. Having an input into shaping the policy is one of the great advantages of being in Brussels.

To mark the 50th anniversary, ICOS and the IFA held a joint reception in Brussels attended by over 200 guests including the Irish Ambassador to Belgium Kevin Conmy, former staff members, the board of ICOS, MEPs, EU Commission officials and international colleagues from COPA COGECA along with IFA staff, former staff and committee representatives.

EU Commissioner Mairead McGuinness could not be in attendance in person, but she sent a video message to congratulate both organisations on their Golden Jubilee. Speaking at the event, ICOS President James O’Donnell said, “Over the past five decades, we have been able to represent our members best interests by being at the coalface of where the big decisions are made. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with the European co-operative movement and to support each other in the spirit of the co-operative ethos.

“We are very proud to continue to have a strong presence here in Brussels and of being part of COPA COGECA. As we look ahead, we are entering very testing times for farmers and for co-ops. Many of the challenges coming with force at us are because of legislation being proposed and driven by the EU institutions. So, it has never been more important than it is now to underpin that strong united voice at the heart of the EU.”

Mr. O’Donnell also used the occasion to highlight the importance of fairness for farmers within the corridors of the EU Commission and the EU Parliament. “We must insist that our voices are heard at Commission level, at parliament level and at Council level. I appeal to those of you from the Commission and the parliament who are with us this evening to listen to our concerns and work with us in supporting the vital role which our farmers, food producers and co-ops play across Europe,” he stated.

The ICOS President and the board also held meetings with Irish MEPs in the European Parliament highlighting ICOS concerns in relation to several policy proposals currently being debated at Commission and Parliament level.