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Michelle O'Neill: 'Brexit would be bad for our agriculture, bad for agri-food'

The Big Interview

Published 04/01/2016

Michelle O’Neill believes agriculture’s interests are best served by staying in Europe
Michelle O’Neill believes agriculture’s interests are best served by staying in Europe

Michelle O'Neill is the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development in the Northern Ireland Executive. She tells Linda Stewart what she considers to be the triumphs and the challenges during her time in office.

Q. Could you tell me about your background?

A. I'm from a small rural village called Clonoe, not from a farming family, but a rural family. My father was a councillor and my mother was a dressmaker and I've one brother. I was training to be an accounting technician - I then took up a position in the party when the Good Friday Agreement was signed and I was working with Martin McGuinness and Francie Molloy. I also trained at that time as a welfare rights adviser. I was elected to Dungannon Council in 2005, and in 2007 I was the first female mayor. I was in the Assembly from 2007. I was health spokesperson for the party. I came into this brief in 2011.

Q. Did you find you had to break through a lot of barriers as a female politician?

A. I have had a good journey. My party's very supportive and always pushing me to the fore. They always recognised the party had an under-representation of women and they've been very proactive in making sure there's proper support in allowing people to come forward. I accept that's not been the experience of many women, so I think we need to do a lot more to encourage more women and young people to come forward, more ethnic backgrounds. I think we're not diverse enough to reflect society and that decision-makers should be reflective of the people that they represent.

Q. You're coming towards the end of your term - what will your big achievements and landmarks have been?

A. It's been extremely interesting and challenging at times, but it's been quite enjoyable because I think that you're able to see how your decisions are able to impact on rural people. I think we've come through quite a number of challenges, particularly CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) reform which was probably one of the biggest decisions that needed to be taken and I think that we charted a way through to find a balance and enjoyed the most consensus in terms of how we moved forward.

You'll be aware that my headquarters is moving to Ballykelly and that's ongoing. But to date we've already moved Fisheries into south Down, we've moved Forestry into Fermanagh and the work to move Rivers Agency into Cookstown is ongoing. I've been particularly pleased with that because I think it creates a fairer distribution of public sector jobs. I hope other departments follow suit, because people in rural areas deserve the same access to public sector jobs as those in cities and for too long people have all had to travel to Belfast to avail of opportunities for promotion, etc.

Other areas where I think that we've been particularly excellent in looking after our communities have been around the TRPSI (Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation) and that is a pot of money where we've been able to work with other departments - rural is not just the business of this department, it's the business of all departments. I'm delighted that we're now in a process of bringing my Rural Proofing Bill through the Assembly, which will mean we're putting on a statutory footing that all departments and councils and other bodies will follow, where they have the statutory responsibility to rural proof their policies and their strategies.

Q. Are many people going with the building?

A. In terms of Rivers Agency going to Cookstown, there are 80 jobs going there, 60 odd jobs going to south Down, and 50-60 jobs going to Fermanagh as far as I know. We're doing it in a phased way to allow the adjustment for staff to move, to ensure we have continuity of business.

Q. Is there anything you're pushing to get finished up by the end of this term?

A. Something that I do want to leave in a good condition is the fact that I achieved the largest ever Rural Development Programme the North has ever seen. We achieved £623m, and that for me is very significant on three fronts: for the farming community, for rural dwellers and rural business and rural community in general, but also for the environment. One element of that is the LEADER approach, which is local area groups distributing funding to help rural communities in terms of access to basic services, around tourism, around rural business investment. It also helps us to do the Farm Business Improvement Scheme, which is working on capital grants for farmers. We expect that before the end of the year we will receive strategies from all the local groups, which I intend to turn around very quickly to let them start spending their money.

Q. How have you got on with Fisheries? Is there anything you'd like to have achieved?

A. I'm just back from Brussels so we had a very positive outcome in terms of the negotiations around fishing quota. You've to go to Europe and fight science with science and we've effectively done that again this year, so we're able to secure quite significant quota uplifts. Brussels was saying we need a 6-17% cut in prawns.

Prawns are the mainstay of the local industry, so that would have been horrendous for them to be able to deal with that and we were able to bring that up to an 8% increase. In relation to haddock, we fought back on a 57% proposed cut and were able to bring that up well over 40%.

Q. There always seems to be a problem with farm prices - can it be solved?

A. Pricing is a commercial matter, so a lot of the factors that lead to challenges for the industry are outside our control. We work with our CAFRE advisers - how can we help farmers drive the most efficient practices they possibly can and farmers are always looking to do that. I've established a supply chain forum which brings all the players together, whether you're a producer, a farmer, a processor or a retailer. For us to be successful in the future, that supply chain needed to work and there needed to be recognition of all parts of the chain enjoying the risks and also the rewards where possible.

The things that are within our control are, for example, making sure farmers get paid on time, which has been extremely successful this year. We're constantly looking for new markets. The more market opportunities that farmers have, the more that guards against all the volatility in the market, because they have more opportunities and more choices of where they sell their products. In the last number of weeks we've opened up the Chinese market for pork. We recently launched our business development groups to ask the farmers to come and talk about planning around the challenges, looking at what's best practice, all things that can help them to improve their business and quite a number of farmers have registered and want to take part.

Q. What can farmers do to help themselves?

A. I really think that they're the end of a supply chain that's continually pushed whenever it comes to trying to reduce prices. So I feel it's my job to fight their corner and that's why I've been involved in all of the supply chain work and to challenge that. If you take the current dairy crisis, among the issues that should have been dealt with at European level was a review of intervention prices. We haven't given up, we're going to continue to push that with the Commissioner. The nature of the dairy market is that there are always peaks and troughs - it just happens that this trough is a prolonged one. The future for the dairy industry looks good, but if we don't get our dairy farmers through a particularly difficult time we're not going to have them here to produce and to avail of the new markets. Given the growing world population, there's going to be a greater demand for the product that we have to offer, with this clean, green image which is very marketable around the world. In order for us to be able to avail of those opportunities we have to work with people to try and make sure they're still in business and able to produce.

Q. I think a lot of politicians see agriculture and environment at loggerheads - is it going to be hard to have them in the same department?

A. I think there will be economies to be gained from working together. I think that when you look at the number of inspections for example on farm, I think there's an opportunity within the new structure to streamline that and see where you can make efficiencies and improvements so on one hand they're still doing what they need to go out and inspect but maybe it's less interruption to the working day on the farm. I don't think there's any conflict of interest - I think it can work together.

Q. If you're looking to have more production in the future, is that going to be a problem when you're protecting waterways, because agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to pollution?

A. There are always environmental assessments of any plans going forward, so I think that we're able to do that. The department works very closely at the minute with its environmental colleagues in DoE so it will be no different. We will take all that into account when we look at strategies, and even in particular Going for Growth.

Q. DARD has to deliver much of the Habitats Directive, rather than other departments. Is that difficult with cuts?

A. It's challenging for everybody and as long as we have this Tory Government in place it's always going to cause challenges for us in the Executive to be able to deliver right across all aspects. We will always live up to the Habitats Directive; I think we can do that, but the cuts make everything difficult. We just have to try and chart our way through it as best we can. That comes back to the two departments coming together.

Q. What's happening with TB control?

A. We're battling away with it. It's a very complex disease, there's no simple solution, no quick fix. I had established the TB Strategic Partnership some time ago and it's looking at all the challenges, and it's going to present its plan in the near future. I think we need a massive change of mindset in terms of how we tackle the disease. It obviously has major cost implications for the industry in terms of compensation so these are all things that we need to consider in the round - the wildlife issues need to be taken on board. We have a TB eradication plan in place and it's ongoing. A number of years ago I embarked on a TB test, vaccination and release scheme and that's ongoing.

Q. How is that going?

A. It's probably in place now for about two years. No healthy badger is destroyed, which is very important, because obviously, when you're trying to deal with the wildlife factor, the badger lobby who rightly want to protect the badger and the farmers who have concerns around what it means for them and TB, it's about trying to get a balance and the best way forward. I think the TVR was a good way forward and it again commended that kind of cross interest support for taking it forward. It's more of a research programme, trying to establish something nobody else has done. There's no point repeating what other countries have done and hasn't been successful.

We're coming at it from every front. We were successful recently in getting brucellosis-free status and that opens up trade opportunities. One of the areas where I concern myself is making sure we have tried to get the same disease status across this island and we have an all-island animal welfare strategy in place. So it's looking at all the diseases and how we can get to the same status which removes any barriers in terms of looking towards new markets.

Q. How would you see the countryside developed sustainably to promote tourism?

A. Again, that's the Rural Development Programme, that's where it kicks in, so I had allocated £10m for rural tourism a pot of funding where we are going to work with local councils and LEADER groups around what strategic initiatives to take for tourism. We hope to open for expressions of interest early in the new year from councils, regarding what kind of project they're interested in working with us on. I think there are strategic tourism opportunities, such as around Lough Neagh, the Sperrins, the Mournes.

Q. What would be the implications of a Brexit for agriculture?

A. I think it would be detrimental for agri-food. If you look at the traditional trade patterns we have even across this island - are we going to get to the situation where the North is out and the 26 are in? Are we going to start having border controls? 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 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 looking 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. I believe that the people of the North should have their say, but I think Brexit would be bad for agriculture, bad for agri-food. 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 year on 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.

Q. If you were to get a lump of funding back, what would your priority be?

A. Tackling rural poverty and isolation. I've worked very hard to make sure that rural development has been a central plank in the role of this department. Because it's been so successful, because we've been able to make a difference, if I had more money lying around I would want to invest it in supporting the rural community.

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