Michelle O'Neill in direct Brussels plea over dairy crisis
DUP and Sinn Fein action to ease the crisis facing dairy farmers has emerged as the industry was warned volatility of milk prices was here to stay.
Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill is meeting European Union commissioner Phil Hogan next week - bypassing her UK counterpart Liz Truss - to press for direct help for local farming families.
The Sinn Fein minister said she did not think the UK Government was prepared to ask for the intervention price - which has left farmers getting less for their milk than it costs to produce - to be reviewed.
"I don't believe Liz Truss is going to ask for intervention so we have to side-step her and go direct to the commission," Mrs O'Neill told a gathering of dairy farmers near Antrim.
"But I don't believe in giving up and we must go back to Liz Truss and also explain that because NI exports so much of its milk we are more susceptible to volatility - but volatility is here to stay," the minister added.
And DUP MEP Diane Dodds is to present a petition signed by Ulster farmers and others to Mr Hogan demanding the EU take steps "allowing all farmers a fair price for their produce".
Mrs Dodds also said the "disproportionate influence" of large retailers such as supermarkets in dictating the prices paid to farmers must be addressed.
"Farmers are price takers not price makers," her petition said.
Local farmers failed to turn out in large numbers for the ground-breaking summit, as it was billed by organisers the Ulster Farmers Union.
Around 500 had been expected to attend the event at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise, the first of its kind to take place involving producers, processors and local banks, but fewer than 200 turned up.
UFU president Ian Marshall admitted the turnout was disappointing in the face of an unprecedented crisis that had proven "deeper and longer than anyone anticipated".
But he said it reflected how busy farmers were.
A senior bank official said so far relatively few farmers had sought financial help, but more are expected.
Robert McCullough, head of agri-business at Dankse Bank, said the storm facing the industry had been foreseen "but we did not see the severity of it".
"These huge swings are the new norm," he said.
"We need to be prepared and proactive, and many farmers have to ask themselves the difficult question: is staying in milk the right decision for you and your family? Nobody likes talking about it, saying 'we are going to stop milking the cows', but there is a life beyond dairy," Mr McCullough added.
In a question and answer session one farmer said it was up to politicians to address volatility by bringing stability, while another said he felt he was at the bottom of the pile.
Current losses are running at between 8p and 10p on every litre produced in Northern Ireland, but the European Commission in Brussels was closed all this month so concerns couldn't be raised there.
Farmers have already taken to the streets and blockaded supermarkets, some of which use milk as a loss leader to attract customers, to highlight their plight.