Brexit – UK steps back from precipice

editorial image

The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) says that Thursday past’s vote by MPs supporting a Government motion to seek an extension to Article 50 is a positive step.

However, it says there is no time to waste and any extension granted by the EU must be used constructively to ensure the UK leaves the EU with a deal.

UFU president, Ivor Ferguson said: “The writing has been on the wall for some time now. With only 14 days to go until Brexit, there is no realistic possibility of achieving an orderly departure from the EU on the agreed date. The UFU has been clear from the outset, a no deal Brexit would be the worst possible outcome for Northern Ireland’s family farm businesses.

“It is reassuring that a significant majority in parliament feel the same way and have supported an extension to Article 50. However, the clock is ticking and immediate action is needed to ensure a no-deal Brexit does not become a reality.”

The UFU says if the EU grants an extension to Article 50 any subsequent negotiation must have real substance.

Mr Ferguson again: “Currently the UK is heading blindly towards a cliff edge and the uncertainty is causing major real world issues for farm businesses.”

“It’s time to put differences aside and act in the interest of the country as a whole. The government and MPs must identify a clear strategy and use any extension constructively. Simply delaying the prospect of a no deal is completely unacceptable,” said the UFU president.

The UK government recently published its proposed temporary tariffs schedule, which would come into force in the event of a no deal. Mr Ferguson says this document only further emphasised the catastrophe that awaits Northern Ireland’s farmers and their families if the UK leaves without a deal.

He added: “The zero-rate tariff on goods entering Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland would drive down prices and could open the door to illegal trade. This would compromise the integrity of the NI agri-food industry and ultimately the UK agri-food industry as a whole. We cannot allow this to happen.”

Commenting on the latest tariff announcements the National Sheep Association’s regional development officer for Northern Ireland Edward Adamson said that the situation for local flock owners is extremely fragile. He added:

“Our industry is reliant on policy makers in Westminster and in Belfast working hard to ensure protections for us are in place. In the event of a no deal and the application of tariffs as announced yesterday, to allow imported sheepmeat from the South continued access to Northern Ireland tariff free, while applying tariffs to sheepmeat going in the other direction would be enough to destroy sheep farming in Northern Ireland.

“We are already facing issues with shortages of labour in the abattoirs thanks to Brexit, and with many abattoirs being in the South and the movement of some 400,000 lambs a year going that way, we are likely to find sheep farmers in Northern Ireland will have no choice but to pay the tariffs when there is nowhere else to send the sheep.

“This would crush our industry and force many farmers out of business, an outcome which would be totally unacceptable.”

Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann said that by slapping steep tariffs on many agricultural products such as meat and dairy products between the UK and the Republic of Ireand but leaving tariff-free access between ROI and Northern Ireland, it’s blatantly obvious what will happen.

“In theory, the new tariff regime could mean better prices for producers as EU imports to GB will become more expensive, but in reality I suspect Northern Ireland will very quickly become a gateway into the UK from the EU for much of their produce,” he said

“Why would any producer from the Republic of Ireland; apart from the biggest and most high-profile companies; voluntarily ship their produce from Dublin to England, and pay the associated tariff costs, when they could just as easily put it on the back of a lorry and ship it from Belfast tariff free? It’s a preposterous situation and one which probably isn’t even legal under World Trade Organisation terms.

“What makes it worse is the UK Government took the decision in the blind; and almost certainly misguided; hope that the EU and Ireland would return the favour.”

“That is almost certain not to happen and as a result the EU will impose the same tariffs on Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK as it does on any other non-EU member state.

According to the UUP leader, it’s now looking increasingly likely that Brexit will be delayed.

He continued: “Given the risks of the UK Government’s illogical plans on tariffs, it strikes me as the only rationale option we’ve got left.

“I speak as someone who voted leave, but if it means getting a deal that works and avoids decimating local farming families and turning Northern Ireland into a smugglers’ paradise, I for one would be prepared to wait a few months longer.”

Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson said that the planned tariff regime in case of a no deal should refocus minds in order to get a good deal done.

He added: “Whilst I recognise that the UK Government have had to publish their no deal contingency plans, it would essentially annex Northern Ireland away from the rest of the UK.

“Under the plans, goods could enter Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland tariff free, whilst it is as yet unclear whether goods from Northern Ireland entering the Republic of Ireland will be tariff free.

“Tariffs will be introduced between the Republic of Ireland and mainland UK, so one would assume that traders from the ROI; and indeed the rest of the EU; will seek to move their goods into Northern Ireland tariff free from ROI, and then onto the rest of the United Kingdom.

“It would be easy to circumvent the tariff regime and I fear this would be to the detriment of Northern Ireland businesses and producers.”

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MEP Diane Dodds reiterated that the DUP has consistently said they want the right deal for Northern Ireland when exiting the European Union - a deal which protects Northern Ireland’s economic and constitutional position within the United Kingdom.

She said: “We have also been clear that we want a deal which protects our farmers both in terms of financial support and access to markets.

“The government announced this week its no deal policy on tariffs. While we welcome the fact the government has recognised the need to protect sensitive sectors, there has been no public or parliamentary discussion on this important matter. The policy also does not go far enough in terms of the sectors it protects nor the levels of tariff rate quotas and tariff rates imposed on imports.

“This will impact upon farmers right across the UK exposing them to cheaper imports from right across the world and devaluing the UK market. Given the uncertainty as to our ability to export to the EU we possibly would find more product on the UK market. This is not a policy the DUP would endorse and something which we will continue to oppose.

“The DUP will continue to work towards finding a deal which works for Northern Ireland and its farmers. We reiterate that the announcements this week are in the context of a no deal. The DUP have advocated that we leave the EU in an orderly fashion and will continue to work towards this goal.”