EU's role as cash cow to subsidise Northern Ireland's farmers goes unchallenged in pre-election TV debate
Candidates all unwilling to query level of subsidies
The European Union's role as a cash cow to subsidise Northern Ireland's farmers has gone unchallenged in a pre-election debate.
The biggest shocker of UTV's Euro debate didn't come from any of our would-be MEPs, but from Ian Marshall of the Ulster Farmers Union when he revealed that "87% of our revenue is derived from a Single Farm Payment".
Chairing last night's debate was Yvette Shapiro, who had a Paxman-like moment as she put the unthinkable into a question to six of the 10 candidates.
"If these farmers need this level of support from Europe to keep them propped up, their businesses simply aren't viable are they?" she inquired.
But Ms Shapiro found no takers from any of the candidates.
There was no real debate and no challenge to the conventional wisdom at all – agri-food looms so large in our economy, and involves so many votes, that nobody will question subsidies.
What is needed, as one farmer put it, is an increased subsidy, or at the least no reduction, and less red tape from Brussels in paying it out.
"The Single Farm Payment is absolutely vital to farming as farming is to the wider Northern Ireland economy," Diane Dodds of the DUP said, telling viewers that she had helped ensure another £137m was poured into the farming pot last December. She and Sinn Fein's Martina Anderson both stressed the need for a transition period before there would be any change to this set-up.
Mrs Dodds wanted to take a little longer and Ms Anderson wanted to spread the money around more evenly, favouring an income support basis, rather the bigger and more productive farmers.
Jim Allister of the TUV argued that without an EU subsidy, food prices would go up. "Cheap, safe food and to help that productive sector to produce that safe and sustainable food – that is why the Common Agricultural Policy exists," he said, although he still advocated pulling out of Europe.
Once out, he argued, the British Government could subsidise our farmers directly. Mr Allister said that the UK only got about half of the £17bn it hands over each year to Europe back, and estimated withdrawal was worth a million pounds an hour to Britain.
Anna Lo of Alliance questioned Mr Allister's figures, but not the principle of a generous subsidy for agriculture, despite coming from a party with most of its support around Belfast. Her view was that the money should be tied to environmental protection.
"They (the farmers) have a moral duty to protect our environment so we want very much to see that greening principle," she said.
Alex Attwood of the SDLP shrugged off any references to his mixed history with farmers. Stormont's former Environment Minister got their back up by trying to establish a national park in the Mournes, so he was keen to accentuate the positive.
"When there were issues about extending the slurry spreading season I was very flexible," he said.
Jim Nicholson of the UUP is our longest serving MEP and has built his reputation as the farmer's friend.
"We actively over the past five years defended the CAP budget," he said, calling for less red tape.
It was left to Ms Lo to point out that not "all regulations are a bad thing".
The five Executive parties, plus Mr Allister – who was previously an MEP – got about 28 minutes to kick such issues about. Besides the big money issue of agriculture, they dealt with withdrawal from the EU, immigration and how Euro money should be spent.
The tight format probably favoured Mr Allister, who had a simple message – withdrawing from the EU and saving the money Britain hands over to it to subsidise our farmers and pay for projects presently funded by Europe. Nobody had a chance to ask him how we would ensure that Westminster, which might not place such an emphasis on agriculture, didn't spend the money on something else.
Then the Greens, the Conservatives, NI21 and Ukip had 20 minutes of debate and it was considerably livelier, with the candidates mixing it up with debate on fishing, fracking and energy.
One figure to ponder is the 90% of Northern Ireland's energy that is imported, according to Tina McKenzie of NI21. And that reliance on outside help is going to get worse when Ballylumford power station closes, Mark Brotherston of the Tories pointed out. But that's still no excuse for fracking, according to Ross Brown of the Greens, though Ukip's Henry Reilly took the opposite view.
The Single Payment Scheme (SPS) – part of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) – is the EU's main agricultural subsidy scheme. There were almost 30,000 applications in Northern Ireland by May 15 this year. In 2010, the European Union spent €57bn (£46.4bn) on agricultural development, of which €39bn (£31.8bn) was spent on direct subsidies.