New minister sets out her priorities

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The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) will play an important role in promoting Northern Ireland’s agri-food and fisheries industries and in protecting its environment, according to newly-appointed Minister, Michelle McIlveen.

Welcoming her new role, Miss McIlveen said: “The new Department has wide ranging responsibilities which impact all our citizens. I am very much looking forward to the challenges and opportunities it will bring.

“I want to ensure that DAERA helps to strengthen Northern Ireland’s economy by sustainably growing our agri-food and fisheries industries.

“We must capitalise and deliver on the significant opportunities offered through initiatives such as ‘Going for Growth’ and the ‘Year of Food and Drink 2016’.”

She added: “I am aware of the significant challenges that face our agri-food industry and will give full attention to addressing these difficulties.

“I will also work with the Economy Minister Simon Hamilton to help open new market opportunities for our local industry.” “The creation of DAERA and the new Assembly mandate also provide the opportunity to address challenges around the protection and improvement of our natural environment, and in the years ahead, we must enhance water quality, conserve habitats and species, and support improvements in recycling and resource management.”

Meanwhile, The Ulster Farmers’ Union has welcomed the appointment of Michelle McIlveen. The organisation’s president, Barclay Bell says he looks forward to working with the new minister, stressing that she will be in charge of an industry that shapes the Northern Ireland countryside, which is a key driver of the local economy.

He added: “Michelle McIlveen takes on the agriculture brief at a time when the industry is under extreme financial pressure. This makes the job a big challenge. But at the same time there is considerable scope for a new minister to deliver.”

The key issues the UFU will be pursuing were set out in its manifesto before the election. These include securing more fairness along the food supply chain, driving the Going for Growth strategy, easing the path of young people into the industry, opening new markets and ensuring the direct CAP payments farmers rely on reach them speedily.

“The income crisis will be at the heart of our initial discussions,” commented the Union president.

“There are issues which the minister can deliver on very quickly. These include faster implementation of the rural development programme, including the farm business investment and agri-environment schemes; better access to finance for the farming industry, payment of the Emergency Assistance scheme to those farmers affected by last winter’s flooding, the signing off of the delayed environmental prosperity agreement, and active consideration of easing cash flow pressures by a possible early release of direct CAP payments.”

Barclay Bell suggested that an easy red tape cutting decision for the new minister would be the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board which, he believes, has become even more unnecessary following the recent introduction of the National Living Wage.

“Speedy action on issues like these will boost farmer confidence in the new minister,” said the UFU president.

Michelle McIIveen is Assembly Member for Strangford. She was re-elected to the NI Assembly in May 2016, having served previous terms from 2007-2011 and 2011-2014. She was previously a Junior Minister in the Office of First and Deputy First Minister before taking up the post of Minister in the former Department of Regional Development. She was also a previous Chair of the Assembly’s Culture, Arts and Leisure and Education Committees.

DUP MEP Diane Dodds has welcomed the appointment of her party colleague as the new minister.

She said: “Michelle has demonstrated through previous roles in the Executive an unwavering commitment to tackling issues of importance for people right across our Province. This I feel was evidenced in her assured performance in the Department of Regional Development at a time of substantive challenge and constraint.

“Agriculture is currently facing unprecedented challenges across a number of sectors but we as a party are committed to do what we can for the sector. Michelle’s appointment adds a crucial element to this party’s input into agriculture policy at home, Westminster and Europe and I look forward to working with Michelle on these issues.”

Meanwhile Upper Bann MP David Simpson (DEFRA Committee Member) said the appointment of Michelle to this office has paid tribute to the work that she has done in the Northern Ireland Executive in recent months.

“It is unfortunate that previous DARD ministers did not acquire a stronger relationship with DEFRA in Westminster, however I trust that I can help facilitate a fresh, stronger partnership between DAERA and DEFRA. Many of the challenges facing farmers in Northern Ireland fall within the Westminster remit and I look forward to relaying these barriers to our new Minister in the coming days.”