Ulster Unionist Leader Robin Swann has invited the DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove to Northern Ireland.
The purpose of the invitation is to give the newly appointed Secretary of State a direct insight into the local agriculture industry in preparation for the UK’s departure from the European Union.
Mr Swann said: “Michael Gove has long been a friend of Northern Ireland so I hope that his affinity for the region will extend to recognising that our farmers have potentially the most to lose from a bungled Brexit deal.
“Mr Gove, who has only just re-entered the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, was a prominent figure in the Leave campaign. That, combined with his undoubted intellect, should ensure that the UK’s farmers now have a Minister with a well-deserved seat right at the heart of the Brexit talks, where it is imperative that he has a knowledge of the opportunities and challenges facing Northern Ireland agriculture and the agri-food industry
“Already he has made a number of significant statements – firstly by ensuring an Agriculture Bill was included in the Queen’s Speech, and secondly that he will work towards preventing cheap, imported food coming into the UK after we leave the EU.
“However, as important as good trade deals and bars on cheaper foreign imports are, the reality is farmers across Northern Ireland will still rely on direct support to remain viable in the longer-term.
“It is worrying that the language of some senior UK figures has weakened recently. Initially there were promises to retain direct payments on either a comparable or higher level, but recent statements have shown an obvious watering down. The comments from the UK’s Farming Minister George Eustice in January for instance were very worrying when he said ‘if subsidies equal direct payments, of course we want to move away from that’.
“One of the most important things Mr Gove needs to do is to listen to the industry and get very familiar very quickly with it. During the week he spoke with the Republic’s Minister of Agriculture, and whilst I recognise the importance of UK-Ireland food relations, it is hugely frustrating that we have no local Minister of our own to speak on behalf of Northern Ireland. This week the Republic’s farmers had more sway than our own with the new DEFRA Secretary. That can’t go on.
“There is a real danger that as a result of the continued stalemate at Stormont that Northern Ireland could be side-lined in the Brexit negotiations. We all have a duty to ensure this doesn’t happen. I have now written to the DEFRA Secretary formally inviting him to Northern Ireland to meet with farmers and other key industry figures.”