DUP and Sinn Fein at loggerheads over the future of farming policy
The Stormont Executive has been hit by a new stalemate with the DUP and Sinn Fein at loggerheads over the future of farming policy in Northern Ireland.
As the Balmoral Show got under way, the latest row between the two biggest parties – on top of welfare reform, the new Education and Skills Authority and the Maze peace centre – has further underpinned the growing paralysis at the top of the power-sharing administration.
Sinn Fein has accused the DUP of blocking a major strategy for the agri-food sector which could create up to 15,000 jobs.
Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill said the Executive had yet to discuss the Going For Growth blueprint launched at the Balmoral Show a year ago.
But the DUP said it could not support plans which would see financial support for farmers through the single farm payments system being radically reduced.
And former Finance Minister Sammy Wilson hit back that Ms O'Neill had failed to bring forward proposals to the Executive on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy – a key issue in next week's European election.
At the heart of the dispute is the issue of how proposals to boost farm food and processing businesses would be financed.
Speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph, Ms O'Neill said she and Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster signed off on a document last December that was then distributed to ministers.
But she insisted the DUP had since prevented the proposals, including a business investment scheme, from going onto the Executive's agenda.
Ms O'Neill also said her plan to finance the strategy with European money was halted when Finance Minister Simon Hamilton brought a High Court case, which concluded the Agriculture Minister should not act on her own.
The row came as Sinn Fein launched its own stand at Balmoral for the first time.
Ms O'Neill, who is due to host a breakfast event at the show today, argued: "It is hugely disappointing that the Executive has not made more progress on this.
"Agriculture is one of our main industries and because of our clean and green image we could and should have agreed the business investment scheme which would help it to develop."
But Mr Wilson responded: "There is no point in the Executive supporting a farm business improvement scheme if the financial support to farmers is radically reduced through single farm payments.
"The DUP is disappointed that the DARD minister has failed to bring a paper to the Executive dealing with CAP reform implementation in Northern Ireland.
"The manner in which the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy is implemented within Northern Ireland is critical for the whole of the agri-food sector.
"In many years the total money coming into Northern Ireland through the single farm payment often exceeds the total income from farming.
"If support is suddenly removed from productive farmers, this will significantly reduce agricultural output in Northern Ireland."
2010 Programme for Government pinpoints potential of agri-food industry.
2011 Executive's Economic Strategy paper calls for more export-driven private sector.
2012 Appointment of Agri-Food Strategy Board to draw up plan.
2013 May: Agriculture and Enterprise Ministers launch Going For Growth blueprint.
December: Detailed paper distributed among ministers.