Belfast Telegraph

Farmers 'may have backed Brexit in knee-jerk move'

By Noel McAdam

Northern Ireland farmers may have backed Brexit in a "knee-jerk reaction", a farming leader has claimed.

Ulster Farmers Union chief Barclay Bell said the result may well have been different if last week's poll had been held a few years ago.

He was answering MLAs' questions at the Assembly's agriculture committee yesterday, which has decided to hold monthly briefings on the uncertainty over the UK's departure from the European Union.

The session was told that around 87% of farmers' income depended on EU subsidies - which may not be guaranteed by Westminster.

Mr Bell said the farming industry had "been in a crisis for the past 18 months".

"A lot of people have decided that the system isn't working and last week's vote may have been a knee-jerk reaction at the time," he said.

It had taken place in the context of "the uncertainty at the present time", and had the referendum happened a few years ago the result may have been different.

SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone said farmers were "shocked" at what had happened, and now a large part of their income "is no longer secured".

"I don't know how this is going to be resolved," he added.

The DUP's William Irwin asked whether the union - which remained neutral on Brexit and did not advise members to vote Leave or Remain - saw any new opportunities arising from last Thursday's result.

Mr Bell agreed there would be opportunities, but added the "biggest threat is what direct support will look like".

Michael Clarke of the Northern Ireland Agricultural Producers Association said "87% of our income is made up of subsidies" and added that this will not be guaranteed by the Government in London.

Sydney Anderson of the DUP enquired whether the vast majority of farmers "would see this as an opportunity to re-establish farming as an industry".

Mr Bell replied there was a very diverse range of views within the UFU but "farmers accept all-round that change was needed". Mr Bell added that farmers and others needed patience for discussions which would result in many fears and frustrations for farming families.

"In an uncertain agricultural world they want reassurance and certainty - but for now the only certainty is that the existing CAP support measures and trading arrangements will remain in place until a new system is agreed," he said.

"Given that the process of leaving the European Union will take at least two years, and represents uncharted waters, the UFU says its aim is to set priorities for the outcome and to then make sure they are achieved.

"This will involve negotiations here, in London and in Brussels.

"We do not underestimate the scale of the task.

"But continued financial support and access to markets is key to the survival of the farming industry here, and indeed the many thousands of jobs in food processing."

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