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Brexit would harm our agri-food sector, says O'Neill

By Linda Stewart

Published 04/01/2016

Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill
Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill

Northern Ireland's agri-food sector would be damaged by if the UK left the European Union, according to Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill.

The Sinn Fein minister warned that the Conservative Government doesn't have any particular commitment to protecting agriculture and there are no guarantees that the subsidy that currently goes to farmers would be replaced if the UK left the European Union.

"I believe that the people of the North should have their say, but I think Brexit could be bad for agriculture, bad for agri-food," she told the Belfast Telegraph in an exclusive interview published today.

"Does Europe need to be reformed? Yes, absolutely. There's a fair argument in that.

"If you look at the fisheries negotiation, that's something that we have to go to every year and it's hard for the fishermen to plan because they can only get their quota one year at a time.

"Sometimes it's easy to say too many European regulations - you can understand where people are coming from, but I don't think that our interests are best served out of Europe. I think our interests are best served in Europe.

"Let's challenge the things that are wrong, let's challenge and try to make change where we can."

Last month it was suggested that 90% of the UK's farmers would be ruined if the country voted to leave the EU next year - according to a report written by consultants Agra Europe for the industry.

It said farmers currently receive 60% of their income from EU subsidies and environmental subsidies and most of this would be lost at a stroke unless the government guarantees compensating support.

Ms O'Neill said she believes a Brexit would be detrimental for the agri-food industry in the province.

"If you look at the traditional trade patterns that we have even across this island - are we going to get to the situation where the north is out and the 26 is in? Are we going to start having border controls?" she asked.

"If you look at it, even from a purely monetary point of view in farming, who is going to make up the difference between basic payment or single farm payment, as it was known?

"The Tories certainly don't have any particular commitment - they're opposed to subsidy, I suppose it's their ideological position - and certainly there can be no guarantees given that there will be any plans to replace the subsidy that farmers currently get.

"I think that is extremely significant in terms of farmers.

"Even look at the Rural Development Programme - are we going to rob rural communities of all that funding? What about trade opportunities? There's too much of a grey area there," the minister warned.

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