Northern Ireland’s agri-food sector can continue to succeed even after the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, however it will take a lot of hard work.
That was the message from Agri-Food Strategy Board chairman Tony O’Neill as he addressed MLAs at Stormont on Thursday.
Mr O’Neill, along with his fellow board colleagues Ian Marshall and Trevor Lockhart, gave a report on the Agri-Food Strategy Board’s progress to the Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee.
Going For Growth, the Supply Chain Forum, research projects, land management strategy, the farm business improvement scheme and long-term strategies all featured during the presentation however Brexit was also prominent.
In his opening remarks, Mr O’Neill said that agri-food sector was operating in a period of ‘unprecedented volatility’.
“Changes in the industry have had an impact on producers and farmers. The dairy industry is in crisis but other sectors have been impacted also,” he said.
“Throughout the course of four-and-a-half years we have never seen volatility like this before.”
In relation to Brexit, Mr O’Neill said the board was looking at the situation. He added: “It is fair to say we were surprised by the outcome (of the referendum) and are now looking at what it will mean for the industry.”
Mr O’Neill went to explain that the Agri-Food Strategy Board would be working hard to ensure the voice of the local sector was heard.
“Our agenda is to ensure that politicians are aware of what (Brexit) means to the industry,” he said.
“We cannot afford to open borders to countries who do not meet our high standards.
“Brexit has more implications to agri-food than any other sector in our economy. We will be working with DAERA and others to make sure our voice is heard.”
During questions from MLAs Mr O’Neill said every effort would be made to inform the debate for agriculture and influence strategy during negotiations.
However, Mr O’Neill made clear he had concerns about what lay ahead.
“We are positive that agri-food has been successful and we will have to work harder and find ways through things that weren’t planned.
“Our concern is that we have a number of leaders who have no empathy for agri-food but it is critical that agri-food is understood when it comes to negotiating,” he said.
Sinn Fein MLA Caoimhe Archibald asked Mr O’Neill if he felt the importance of agri-food was being heard. In his response, he said: “I think it is being heard, but is it being understood - only time will tell.”
Committee chairperson Linda Dillon said she was aware of concerns that export opportunities may be lost due to Brexit.
“Concerns have been expressed to me that opportunities in markets that were opening up may now be at risk,” she said. “There are also fears that because of the change deals which were in progress may be held-up or forced into starting negotiations again.”
DUP colleagues Sydney Anderson and Maurice Bradley were of a similar opinion as they both raised the lack of positivity around Brexit.
“We are good at what we do and that is a good place to move forward from,” said Mr Anderson.
“We must feel confident in what we do. I believe it can be to our betterment.”
Mr O’Neill however remained cautious.
“It is our Northern Ireland instinct to be negative,” he said. “We have to recognise that there is a threat here and must do something about it.
“We can deliver a positive outcome but it will require a lot of work and support,” he added.