As the Prime Minister outlined the UK government’s proposals for leaving the European Union in Manchester on Wednesday, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland was on the Ards Peninsular meeting with farming and fishing representatives, where much of the conversation centred on Brexit.
Rt Rev Dr William Henry said: “The variety of issues we have covered ranged from education and youth work to healthcare, and mental healthcare in particular, and the criminal justice system. Today on the Ards Peninsula, the focus has been on farming and fishing, particularly in relation to Brexit.”
The Moderator heard that there are approximately 300 vessels in Northern Ireland landing around 17,000 tonnes of fish per year. He was also informed of the change that had taken place within the local industry, with the County Down ports of Portavogie and Ardglass employing half of what they did 40 years ago, the lack of uptake from the younger generation to go to sea and a reliance on contracted transient seaman from the Far East.
There had also been a drastic reduction in the local fishing fleet over time. With Brexit, however, Dr Henry was told of the potential for the industry, once outside the European Union, to fish within the UK’s 200 mile coastal waters.
Meeting with local dairy, beef, sheep and arable farmers on the peninsula, Dr Henry also heard that Northern Ireland’s unique position, as a country with the UK’s only land border with the European Union, had to be factored into the current negotiations, given that the local agri-food industry is Northern Ireland’s biggest employer, employing 80,000 people, and worth approximately £5 billion per year.
Farmers also told him that the industry could potentially be ‘decimated’ by the UK’s departure from the European Union, especially if there was a ‘no deal’ with a potential loss of 40,000 jobs. Talking of two particular sectors, the Moderator heard that each year 500,000 Northern Irish lambs go to be slaughtered in the Republic of Ireland and 60% of milk each day from the north goes to the south to be processed.
Dr Henry said: “It is clear that the island of Ireland is in a unique position in the EU when it comes to Brexit, with NI holding a unique position in the UK, when it comes to leaving the EU. While we didn’t have time to discuss the government’s proposals, today highlighted for me the different issues raised by Brexit, some of which cannot be answered with a simple soundbite. We continue to pray for all those affected by this uncertainty, for our leaders, as they seek a solution. Important questions around mental health and how we as a church pastor in rural communities have also been raised.”