NI needs its own Agri Act - McAleer
Stormont agriculture committee chairman Declan McAleer MLA views with great alarm the gap that is growing in the way farm and rural support measures are delivered in the Republic of Ireland relative to the state of affairs here in Northern Ireland.
He said: “In the first instance farmers south of the border can now avail of a 7-year Common Agricultural Policy plan that will deliver annual Pillar 1 payments of €10.5 billion plus a Rural Development budget that will provide an additional €2.5 billion annually.
“Compare this with the situation here where we are guaranteed a €300m basic payment budget this year and next. After that it’s a case of looking into the unknown.”
McAleer added:“There is no provision for rural development funding at all in the north at the present time. The last rural development programme delivered £600m into the local economy.”
The Sinn Féin politician believes strongly that Northern Ireland should have its own, fit-for-purpose Agriculture Act.
“Local funding measures for farming and rural affairs are provided for courtesy of Schedule 6 within the latest UK Agriculture Act. This is not a sustainable situation moving forward.
“Agriculture is a devolved matter. Future funding for farming and rural affairs should not be included within the Northern Ireland block grant. Rather the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs should have the scope to bid for the actual funding needs identified for the farming and rural sectors as and when required.”
Where policy matters are concerned, McAleer points to the need for area-based, basic payments to be maintained as a safety net for agriculture in Northern Ireland.
Moreover, he does not see such an approach causing any distortions between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, where the decision has been taken to move towards a farm support system based around environmental payments.
“Moving forward, the priority must be to retain parity where farm support measures are concerned on the island of Ireland.
“Agriculture is a devolved matter, so the scope exists for the Stormont Executive to formulate a farm support and policy framework that meets the specific needs of local farmers.”
Significantly, McAleer believes that the approach taken by the government in London, where the future support of farming and food in England and Wales is concerned, merely paves the way for greater levels of food imports coming into the UK.
He added:“The Conservative party has consistently made it clear that cheap food imports are a priority. Supporting production agriculture does not fit in with this view of things.
“The roll out of the recent changes to farm policy in England and Wales further reflects this perspective. It is critically important for production agriculture here to be adequately supported. It is in this context that the continuation of the basic payment support mechanism must be viewed.
“Sinn Féin opposed the decision taken by farm minister Edwin Poots to halt the transition to a flat rate area payment when he took office. We still hold strongly to this view.”
The agriculture committee chairman fully recognises the need for special measures to stop the haemorrhaging of suckler cow numbers in Northern Ireland.
He said: “The need for suckler cow headage payments is obvious in this context. I note the commitment by Edwin Poots to introduce coupled payments for suckler producers.
“It’s important that all stakeholders have adequate time to reflect on the minister’s proposals for the suckler sector and, in addition, his plans for local agriculture as a whole moving forward.”
McAleer believes passionately that farmers in the less favoured areas need additional support. Back in 2018 the then Stormont agriculture minister Michelle McIlveen closed the Areas of Natural Constraint (ANC) scheme as part of a cost cutting exercise.
“This measure had been delivering £20m annually to farmers in hill areas up to that point,” confirmed McAleer.
“The monies involved represented a drop in the ocean relative to the size block grant made available to Northern Ireland by London. However, this funding was making a very real and positive difference to the farmers receiving it.
“I have recently introduced a private members’ bill at Stormont which, if enacted, will ensure that ANC payments are re-instated.”