Northern Ireland food and Drink Association (NIFDA) chairman Brian Irwin has told local politicians that they should support the draft Brexit deal secured by the Prime Minister Theresa May earlier this week.
Speaking at the organisation’s annual dinner he said that the proposed arrangements would provide Northern Ireland’s food industry with unfettered access to both UK and EU markets.
He inferred that the trading arrangements envisaged by the deal could deliver the best of all worlds for farmers and food processing businesses.
Mr Irwin added that the impact of a No Deal relative to the Back Stop agreed with Brussels would lead to a £1.1 billion fall in agri food output from Northern Ireland on an annual basis. The NIFDA chairman also encouraged all the political parties in Northern Ireland to put their differences aside and reconvene the Stormont Assembly and Executive with immediate effect.
Agri food currently contributes £4.4 billion to Northern Ireland’s economy. It also underpins 100,000 jobs.
Mr Irwin continued: “NIFDA welcomes the draft withdrawal agreement as a positive development in the ongoing Brexit negotiations, and we would be hopeful that this will enable more substantive talks around our future trading relationship with the EU.
“We must be clear on the fact that a no-deal outcome would be disastrous for Northern Ireland, particularly for the agri-food sector. We simply could not absorb increased customs, tariffs and regulatory costs on trade between Northern Ireland and the EU.
“Whilst this agreement may not be perfect, and further clarification on certain aspects will be required, it is vastly preferable to a no-deal scenario and offers us an effective insurance policy in the interim period until a new trading relationship is agreed.”
He concluded: “A UK-wide solution that avoids a hard border and allows Northern Irish firms frictionless access to markets in Britain, Republic of Ireland, and the European Union offers our members the best chance of surviving in a post-Brexit world.”
Meanwhile, the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) has cautiously welcomed the progress made on the UK’s withdrawal agreement from the EU and says the agreement, while not ideal, would ensure the UK avoids a no deal scenario.
UFU president Ivor Ferguson added: “The situation remains very fluid and we are reviewing the document in detail. Ultimately, we would like a UK wide solution: full stop. However, this agreement does provide an insurance policy to prevent a no deal outcome, which would be disastrous for farm businesses and the economy in Northern Ireland.
“Farmers here provide safe, traceable and affordable food, while at the same time meeting some of the highest animal welfare and environmental standards in the world. We have always argued that any deal, as far as possible, must allow the agriculture industry free and frictionless trade with the EU.
“Agri-food is the cornerstone of the Northern Ireland economy and any significant barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and EU member states, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or Northern Ireland and Great Britain would have a major impact.”
The draft protocol states, if necessary, that there would be no regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and GB. Goods from Northern Ireland would still have unfettered access to the UK’s internal market.
According to the Union, confirmation is needed that there would also be no commercial barriers when trading into GB. The UFU views this as critical.
“Great Britain is our main market for food. Northern Ireland must be able to trade in the UK’s internal market without restrictions,” said Mr Ferguson.
The plan also ensures minimal disruption to the long-standing trading relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“These relationships have been central to agriculture here since long before the UK joined the EU,” Ferguson concluded.
“While there are still some areas where we would like clarification, overall, the document now on the table would secure Northern Ireland’s existing agricultural trading relationships. That has always been our aim,” said Mr Ferguson.
The UFU president stressed that the organisation’s key focus has always been farming and it steers clear of wider political issues. “Throughout the UK, Brexit has become overly political and emotive. We are focused on what is best for the future of family-run farm businesses in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Despite the progress, Mr Ferguson says there is still work to be done. “We are at a critical point. The 29th March is fast approaching and I would urge all involved to consider the deal carefully.”
SDLP agricultural spokesperson Patsy McGlone MLA has said comments from the Ulster Farmers’ Union that a no-deal Brexit would be a disaster for the agri-food industry must be given consideration by MPs at Westminster.
Mr McGlone added: “The draft Withdrawal Agreement is far from perfect, but it is a positive arrangement that provides protections for farms across the North.
“The deal will allow farms to have unfettered access to both GB and European markets; anything short of this would be extremely damaging to the sector here.
“Now that the Agri-food and Business sectors have welcomed this deal, the SDLP hope that MPs in Westminster support this deal.
“It is beyond contempt that the DUP, despite all the evidence, continue to underplay the concerns of the sectors for their own endgame. They must consider the irreparable damage they will do to our farming industry here if they continue to reject this deal.”