The Ulster Farmers’ Union has announced that it is to co-ordinate a major demonstration of the wider agri-food industry to be held at Stormont on Friday (September 4) in the run up to a crunch meeting of European farm ministers on Monday (September 7) in Brussels.
The aim, says UFU president, Ian Marshall, is to let the agri-food industry in Northern Ireland send a very clear message to the European Commission that the entire economy, and not only farmers, need it to accept the seriousness of the position facing all parts of the local farming and food industry.
Referring to the choice of Stormont for the demonstration Mr Marshall said that even though the Assembly is in recess he is hopeful of political support. He added that the choice of venue also reflected an aim to demonstrate, without inconveniencing consumers who have been supportive of the industry by seeking out local food.
“People in Northern Ireland understand the importance of a vibrant food industry to the local economy – our aim is to make sure this message is heard in Brussels. We do not want to be in a situation where the farm commissioner, Phil Hogan, sees protests in Dublin, Paris or anywhere else but not in Belfast – and uses that as a reason to conveniently ignore us,” said Mr Marshall.
A sizeable UFU delegation will also join forces with farmers from across the EU at a major protest in Brussels on Monday (September 7) that is being held to coincide with the meeting of the Commission with national farm ministers to discuss the income crisis facing farmers throughout Europe – a crisis made even worse here by the weakness of the euro against sterling. That meeting will be attended by the local farm minister, Michelle O’Neill – and Ian Marshall says her presence in support of local farmers also raises very real concerns about the vacuum that could be created if the local Executive or Assembly were to collapse.
“As a body the UFU never has and will not engage directly in mainstream politics. However over this issue the government at Westminster and the devolved administration here, in Scotland and in Wales have very different views of what the industry need. We are concerned that in an era of UK devolution we risk being marginalised in Westminster and Brussels if we do not have our own local political representation,” said Mr Marshall.
He said that while they recognise that there are always going to be constraints on what a local administration can and is allowed to do, having locally accountable politicians and decision makers who better understand our farming industry has helped in the past over issues like the snow storm and fodder crises a few years ago.
He emphasised that this was not about politics, but about the needs of the most important private sector industry in Northern Ireland to secure not only the help that it needs to survive the present serious financial difficulties, but also to assist it strategically develop and grow to ensure that that the NI economy doesn’t miss out on the opportunity to benefit from the growing world demand for food.