Dairy farmers want to meet Cameron on milk price crisis
Northern Ireland farming leaders are seeking direct talks with David Cameron over the crisis forcing family-run dairy farms out of business.
A formal request for a face-to-face meeting with the Prime Minister from the Ulster Farmers Union was relayed yesterday through MPs Margaret Ritchie of the SDLP and Ulster Unionist Danny Kinahan.
UFU official Chris Osborne said the pressures facing the dairy industry were serious enough to warrant the involvement of the PM.
A delegation could also include Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill, William Irwin, the DUP chairman of the Assembly's agriculture committee, and the province's MEPs after an emergency meeting at Stormont yesterday.
The aim would be to win the backing of the UK Government to urge the European Commission to take action over the money farmers are being paid for their produce.
However, the offices of the EC are closed from tomorrow for the month of August, while many farmers here are losing around £1,000 a week, with some on the verge of bankruptcy.
They claim they are losing between 8p and 10p for every litre of milk they produce and want European Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan to raise the 'intervention' price - effectively fixing a market price.
Set more than a decade ago, it stands at about 16p a litre, and farmers argued it should be 24 to 26p to offset their losses and prevent some farms from shutdown.
Around 200 farmers arrived in the grounds of Stormont yesterday as members of the committee returned from the Assembly's two-month summer recess for a special meeting.
Minister O'Neill went outside to meet them, at the bottom of the front steps of Parliament Buildings, along with Mr Irwin and other MLAs.
Afterwards, the Sinn Fein minister told the Belfast Telegraph: "It's a very dire situation that we are facing into.
"I just wanted to reassure them that everything that can be done is being done.
"It's unfortunate that they have had to come here, but we want them to know we are doing all in our power and it is good that they are here so we can speak with a collective voice."
Ulster Farmers Union deputy president Barclay Bell made clear the pressures facing agriculture here went far beyond the dairy industry.
He told the committee that all sectors, including sheep, vegetables, arable and pigs are "currently hurting".
"You name it, there is a problem," he said. "But the main thing that could get us out of this at the moment would be if the intervention price could be raised."
Traver Lockhart of the processors Dairy UK said the reliance of NI dairy farmers on exports mean the province is the first region in Europe to feel the impact of falling prices.
"Sometimes we get blamed for complaining before others," he said.
Sinn Fein MLA Oliver McMullan said the province would be "on its knees" before the UK's Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and its Minister Liz Truss took action to support local farmers.
"Why are Defra dragging their feet on this? They are not giving farmers here the support they should be given." he said.
Mike Johnston of Dairy UK said Defra's stance was nothing new, reflecting a Government that does not believe in interfering with the philosophy of "let the market prevail".
Ulster Unionist Jo-Anne Dobson said Ms O'Neill had no "plan B" to help both dairy and lamb farmers.