Belfast Telegraph

Agriculture Minister McIlveen says Brexit allows Northern Ireland to 'design policies better suited to local needs'

Michelle McIlveen is the third Minister of Agriculture in a row to bear the same first name, but does that mean she is following in her predecessors' footsteps? Here, she discusses that and other subjects including our future outside Europe

By Chris McCullough

Q. You became the new Agriculture Minister in May and have had a very public profile since then. How have you settled into the post?

A. It has been a busy six months. Since taking up office I have made it a priority to engage with the people and organisations that rely upon and are affected by the services and functions the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) delivers.

Throughout the summer I attended the majority of the agricultural and rural shows the length and breadth of Northern Ireland and met farmers, food producers, processors, environmental stakeholders and the public, and I continue to do so.

I have met with ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), as well as from Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. I have also met with commissioner (Phil) Hogan and commissioner (Karmenu) Vella in Brussels to discuss issues in relation to our agricultural, environmental and fishing sectors.

I have also established new and maintained existing international links, particularly with China, which is becoming an increasingly important export market for our local food producers.

Q. Agriculture here is highly governed by Brussels and by people who have never visited this country. The burden of EU red tape on farms is causing severe problems for farmers and is pushing some out of the industry. Have you witnessed first-hand these over-bureaucratic rules?

A. My focus is currently on defining the key issues for Northern Ireland, and to be kept closely and directly involved in the agriculture, environment and fisheries policy and trade agendas as they unfold.

A significant amount of work has been initiated to progress my priorities, which are to ensure we replace the Common Agricultural Policy (Cap) and Common Fisheries Policy with appropriate UK frameworks that underpin the sustainable growth and competitiveness of our agri-food and fisheries sectors, and to safeguard our continued ability to trade effectively and profitably, both inwardly and outwardly.

Q. The UK voted to leave the EU. What advantages will this split have for our local farmers and our local fishermen?

A. The advantage of leaving the EU is that we can design our own policies, which gives us scope to remove the unnecessary bureaucracy associated with the current arrangements and make it better suited to local needs.

It provides the opportunity to develop a fishery management regime within an international framework that is less burdensome and more flexible than the Common Fisheries Policy and better suited to national interests, while at the same time ensuring that fishing is sustainable.

It provides opportunities for export growth, particularly in the Great Britain market.

The agri-food sector is much more important to the local economy than is the case in Great Britain, and I will be seeking an outcome where our future relationships with the EU and the rest of the world are no less restrictive than they currently are in terms of both tariff and non-tariff barriers.

Rather than contemplating the possibility of new barriers to trade and their negative effects, we should be striving to retain current access arrangements in the short term and create new export opportunities in the longer term.

In all of this I intend to be a strong voice at the negotiating table and have already met with a number of ministerial colleagues from Whitehall, the other devolved administrations and the Irish Republic, to ensure that Northern Ireland's unique position is recognised.

Q. Have you met with, or do you intend to meet with, any officials from the Department of Agriculture in the Republic of Ireland to discuss how Brexit might affect north-south agri-business?

A. I have met with Michael Creed, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the Republic of Ireland, on a number of occasions.

My officials are in contact with colleagues in Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, on issues of mutual importance, such as animal health, welfare, trade and agri-crime, and also with counterparts in Great Britain.

This engagement will continue as we formulate our negotiating position for leaving the EU as a whole United Kingdom, ensuring we maximise the benefits for Northern Ireland.

Q. The badly named Going for Growth strategy, launched a few years ago to help boost the local agricultural sector, has had very few, if any, proven results. What are your thoughts on this project to date?

A. Going for Growth has been and continues to be a successful strategy for boosting our local agri-food sector.

There is no doubt that most of our primary producers have been faced with significant difficulties because of deteriorating global market conditions.

The industry, however, continues to show resilience despite these challenges and we have seen further growth in the food and drinks processing sector. I continue to work closely with the Economy Minister and with the industry itself on our key priorities to deliver growth for the agri-food sector and benefits to the wider economy, through implementation of the agreed actions.

The principal recommendation in Going for Growth that was addressed to my department was for a farm business improvement scheme (FBIS) to improve competitiveness and productivity in primary production.

The Executive committed to prioritising this scheme for support and it is now well under way, with around 3,000 farmers actively engaged in improving their businesses through business development groups, delivery of farm family key skills training programmes and the launch of the FBIS-capital scheme on October 31, 2016.

My department is also working hard to facilitate the export growth of our food sector, in line with the Going for Growth theme of growing market share. Since the launch of the report, access has been secured to 49 new markets.

I am continuing to target access to key strategic markets, including my recent trip to China to promote the best of what Northern Ireland has to offer, with a view to helping secure such future business opportunities for our local companies.

I also welcome the inward approval inspections that have recently been completed for pork exports to Australia, and I look forward to the final report which is due before the end of 2016.

Q. The dairy industry across the world is going through turmoil. What efforts have you made since taking on the role to help alleviate some of the problems being experienced by dairy farmers?

A. I am acutely aware that the last two years have been very difficult for many farmers, especially the local dairy sector, and I am committed to doing what I can to help the industry. I introduced advance payments to assist with farmers' immediate cash-flow difficulties. I have also pressed Defra and Brussels to recognise the particularly difficult conditions facing farmers here.

In September I encouraged local dairy farmers to take advantage of a €150m EU aid scheme to incentivise farmers to voluntarily reduce their milk deliveries, where that suited their particular business needs.

I successfully made the case for a significant share of the UK's €30m envelope of EU Exceptional Adjustment Aid. Indications are that Northern Ireland will receive €4.8m.

I want to maximise the impact of this money and leave a legacy for our farmers. I also want to ensure that we get it out quickly.

I have asked my officials to examine a number of options for use of this one-off funding, with a view to making an announcement on this in the near future.

Q. You are the first Agriculture Minister to successfully deliver advance Cap payments to around 21,000 farm businesses in Northern Ireland. How did you manage that and why?

A. Delivery of advance payments was a priority for me and I am very pleased that we have delivered payments to more than 21,000 local farmers, more than 90% of those eligible, and are the first UK region to do so.

More than £158m has been paid out, directly into farmers' bank accounts. My officials are now continuing to work hard so that we deliver full or balance payments to 95% of the eligible farmers in December.

Q EU rules stipulate that farmers here must obey a closed slurry spreading period from October 15 to January 31. This rule is different in other EU member states. What do you think of this calendar farming system?

A. I understand that the recent wet weather has created difficult circumstances for farmers, especially in the north and west.

I am aware that a number of calls have been made for farmers to be granted a dispensation to spread slurry during the mandatory closed period of October 15 to January 31. Applying slurry to grass that is not growing can lead to valuable nutrients being leached into waterways.

The closed period is important as it prevents the spreading of slurry when the risk of leaching is at its highest, and the ecological status of most rivers and lakes throughout Northern Ireland is adversely impacted by nutrient enrichment of this kind.

While there is no legal provision in the Nitrates Action Programme (Nap) Regulations Northern Ireland (2014) to grant a complete waiver, I want to make it clear that under exceptional circumstances, beyond the control of and not foreseeable by an individual farmer, a defence may be made for non-compliance with some of the requirements of the Nap regulations, including spreading organic manures during the closed period.

I believe that the challenges faced by some farmers over recent months as a result of high rainfall and the severe winter conditions in 2015 have been exceptional.

Therefore, where a farmer has reasonable cause to spread after the end of the season, the farmer will be able to spread.

Closed periods for the spreading of manure are common throughout the EU, and for as long as the UK remains a member of the EU, the rule will apply in Northern Ireland, but it is certainly an area we will need to carefully consider as part of delivering Brexit.

Q. You recently caused a stir by renaming a fisheries vessel the Queen of Ulster and getting rid of its Irish name. What were your reasons for that?

A. Daera is a new department with a fresh identity and a fresh logo. For the administration of its functions, the principal language of my department is English.

The name of the department's fishery protection vessel is displayed accordingly. The change of lettering was carried out at a scheduled annual maintenance event involving repairs, repainting and anti-fouling.

Q. You are the third Minister of Agriculture in a row called Michelle, after Ms Gildernew and Ms O'Neill. How are you distinctive from your predecessors?

A. I am very much my own person and my own minister. I am also focused on delivering a number of real and tangible benefits for the farming, fisheries and environmental sectors across Northern Ireland during my time in office, particularly in the context of Brexit.

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