Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has committed to doing everything possible as part of an invigorated campaign to secure a lift in EU dairy intervention prices.
This was the main plank of her campaign to get some relief for local milk producers who, by common consent, are now facing into the deepest crisis witnessed by the industry in living memory.
The minister made the comments while addressing members of the Stormont agriculture committee, who met in emergency session on Thursday past. Prior to the meeting O’Neill and members of the committee had addressed hundreds of protesting farmers on the steps of Parliament Buildings at Stormont.
But the minister made it clear to the agriculture committee that the industry must speak as one voice on this matter.
“And this incudes politicians, processors and the farming organisations,” she added.
“We also need to restructure the entire agri-food chain, so as to ensure that farmers can better cope with the ongoing challenge of volatility.
“But this is in the future: the short term challenge is that of getting the Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan to agree changes in the current dairy intervention support measures. And my plan is to take this very clear message to Brussels as a matter of priority.”
But O’Neill also made it clear that she would not countenance any re-direction of DARD funding as a means of providing support for farmers. Responding to questions from Edwin Poots MLA and Jo-Anne Dobson MLA, she explained that the option of taking money away from the current APHIS development programme, the Going For Growth strategy and the plans centred on the relocation of DARD headquarters from Belfast to Ballykelly would not be considered.
“We have to look to the future as well,” said O’Neill.
“I have managed to secure a £263 million rural development programme for Northern Ireland, the largest in our history. This is positive. The potential to secure significant future growth within the farming and food industry remains significant and I want to ensure that all of this is obtained.”
O’Neill also confirmed that other agri sectors, as well dairying, are under great financial strain at the present time.
“I have been working tirelessly to help open up new markets for a range of locally produced foods. A case in point is my recent series of visits to China.”
Commenting on the recent commitment by the French government to support its farmers to the tune of €1bn, O’Neill said that she saw merit in a number of the measures that will be introduced.
“The envisaged tax changes are certainly worthy of consideration here. But this is a matter which must be followed up by the Exchequer in London,” she explained.