The UK’s decision to leave the European Union one year ago this week has brought about the most significant change in direction for our agri-food/fishing industries and our environment sector for an entire generation.
After 40 years of EU legislation guiding agriculture, fisheries and the environment, the negotiations process to cut these long-established ties are now under way.
From the moment the referendum result became known, our primary focus in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has been to ensure Northern Ireland is properly equipped to get the best deal for our agri-food industry and environment sector. This means identifying the key issues and implementing sound structures to support the negotiations.
We moved swiftly. In the days after June 23, 2016 the Department identified a need for a mechanism to ensure our stakeholder voices were heard and their views captured. We moved to strengthen relationships both within Northern Ireland and across the UK, Ireland and Europe. And we set about identifying the vital issues and concerns and our desired outcomes.
Within our own department, we put in place both a project board headed at the most senior level and a dedicated Brexit Division. They have been tasked with progressing the important work that comes with the challenges and opportunities of Brexit.
Our primary undertaking was to best understand what our key stakeholders wanted and needed from the EU exit. The Brexit Consultative Committee (BCC), comprising representatives from key stakeholders across the agri-food, fisheries and environmental sectors, was therefore formed to keep government up-to-date with views and concerns on the ground. This engagement has been expanded with the formation of additional consultative groups on fisheries, environment and rural society.
In working within our own government in Northern Ireland, we have been determined to ensure agriculture and environment are at the heart of the process.
While Northern Ireland may be a small region, our unique position must be understood. This is why we remain in constant contact with our colleagues in Whitehall, the other Devolved Administrations and the Republic. We also have staff based in Brussels that keep us visible and informed.
In parallel with putting structures in place and strengthening key relationships, we have identified six key policy areas where the impact of leaving would be most significant. These areas are; trade; food and farming; fisheries and marine; animal and plant health; environment; and rural society. Furthermore, we are considering three cross-cutting issues which will impact other departments beyond DAERA: legislation; funding and border controls.
The work that we carry out in these areas in conjunction with our counterparts across the UK is central to the agenda at the monthly meetings of agriculture and environment ministers. Looking south, we have forged a strong relationship with the Republic’s Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine where our focus has been on areas such as trade, movement of live animals, fisheries and animal and plant health.
Engagement has been central to our approach at all levels. The work done in conjunction with the BCC and other stakeholders has provided an invaluable source of expertise and opinion which has helped inform our policy positions and guide our engagement externally. When you set this engagement beside the work we have undertaken to identify sensitive areas, agree desired outcomes and gather evidence of the potential impacts of EU exit, a picture of our comprehensive preparation emerges.
Northern Ireland’s position is unique for many reasons, not least the importance of our agri-food sector, worth over £4.6billion to the economy and our land border with the Republic. DAERA’s role is to ensure this position is understood by all sides involved in the formal negotiations and is considered when the final outcome is reached. Our work has been, and will continue to be, guided by this simple principle.