Belfast Telegraph

Ministerial clash sees £100m EU funds lost

By LINDA STEWART

Rural development projects and farm environment schemes are to miss out on more than £100m of European funding after a legal clash between two Executive ministers.

Under deadline pressure, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has now told the European Commission that there will be a zero per cent transfer rate for Common Agricultural Policy funding in Northern Ireland, following a legal row between Finance Minister Simon Hamilton and Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill.

Last night Ms O'Neill warned that the Executive would now have to "come up to the mark" and make funds available to bridge the deficit to support the farming sector, enhance the environment and meet the needs of rural communities.

Last night environmentalists branded the debacle an "embarrassment" for the Executive and warned that farmland species such as the curlew and lapwing could become extinct in Northern Ireland within a couple of years if the shortfall isn't made up.

Earlier this month, the minister announced that 7% of CAP funding would be transferred to rural development. Northern Ireland receives £300m a year in agricultural subsidies from the EU and can decide to earmark up to 15% for environmental and rural development projects. Finance Minister Mr Hamilton mounted a legal challenge to the plan and the High Court ruled in his favour over the Christmas break.

His department argued that such a significant issue should have been brought to the Executive and Ms O'Neill was acting in breach of the ministerial code.

Last night Ms O'Neill announced that because of tight deadlines, Defra had notified to the European Commission a rate on behalf of the member state incorporating a zero rate of transfer for Northern Ireland.

"Elsewhere, England has set a rate of 12%, Scotland a rate of 9.5% and Wales a rate of 15%."

Ulster Farmers Union president Harry Sinclair said the union had always pressed for the lowest transfer rate possible and that measures such as support of rural development, agri-environment schemes, the Agri-Food Strategy and rural services should be funded by the Executive.

BACKGROUND

Northern Ireland receives £300m a year in agricultural subsidies from the EU, and can deicde to earmark up to 15% for environmental and rural development projects. Following a High Court challenge by Finance Minister Simon Hamilton, the Executive was unable to meet the deadline for setting a rate and Defra has notified Europe that the rate will be 0%.

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