It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of agriculture and the food industry to Northern Ireland. It is one of the most successful sectors of our economy, with some of the best companies and has the potential to be even better, with the right help from politicians.
I’ve talked to a lot of people at the cutting edge of ‘agri-food’ in recent months – the farmers and fishermen who grow, rear and catch the produce which makes Northern Irish food famous. They have major concerns about the future of European subsidies, which are critical to their businesses, because of arguments between politicians at Stormont.
Farmers in Northern Ireland are often dependent on money from Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) fund, to make a profit. This cash is distributed through the ‘Single Farm Payment’, though CAP also goes towards ‘rural development’, which includes other schemes benefiting farmers and the food industry.
The EU required some of the money for the Single Farm Payment to be transferred to rural development by December, but the executive parties failed to agree how much, with the result that the agriculture minister and the finance minister clashed in court.
There is a real threat that this argument could affect future CAP funding, which keeps farmers and tens of thousands of people in the food production and service industries in jobs. The Ulster Farmer’s Union expressed its anxieties about the situation, because some of the cash for rural development had been earmarked for a Go For Growth Strategy, which it regards as critical to the future of agri-food here.
Another important deadline looms in April, when the executive must agree who qualifies as an ‘active farmer’ and is therefore entitled to a Single Farm Payment. A row is brewing and the EU is not likely to look kindly upon another failure to meet its requirements.
Northern Ireland’s fishermen have similar concerns about the lack of leadership coming from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which has Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill at the helm. They’re worried about issues around discarded fish, the placement of wind farms on fishing grounds and other environmental policies.
Food is one of the things which Northern Ireland does really well. We have world class products, a world class reputation and the potential is practically limitless. I’ve recently met with Conservative colleagues at the European Parliament and with the Farms and Fisheries Minister at Westminster to highlight these concerns on behalf of our farmers and fishermen. It would be scandalous if party politics and bickering at Stormont were to stand in the way of such a vital industry.