COMMENT: Politicians must step up!

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So the question is this: how high will agriculture sit within the priority lists of our politicians, given that they are now confronted with the challenge of getting themselves elected to the next Stormont Assembly?

In truth, the parlous state of the farming and food sectors should be giving all our potential MLAs serious food for thought as they devise their election strategies over the coming days and weeks.

Given the current downturn in the fortunes of agriculture, the mood music emanating from all our rural areas is extremely downbeat in nature. And, under such circumstances, it behoves all our political representatives to come forward with ideas that can, and will make, a difference to every farming business in Northern Ireland.

And the time for listening is over: every farm lobby group has been articulating the depth of the genuine crisis now unfolding within the farming sector for the past year and more. Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible. So it’s time our politicians proved the veracity of this old saying.

One of the biggest changes implemented courtesy of the last CAP reform deal was the loosening of the Brussels’ stranglehold on how farm support measures can, and should, be implemented. This, in turn, has opened the door for regions, including Northern Ireland, to have more autonomy when it comes to meeting the specific needs of their own farmers.

This reality, immediately puts outgoing farm minister Michelle O’Neill in the spotlight. She has to justify how her policies have made a real difference over the past five years. It’s then up to the other parties to agree or disagree.

One specific question which the minister might wish to answer, though, is this: does she feel that production agriculture is getting a fair crack of the whip courtesy of the new Rural Development Programme?

Everyone agrees that agriculture is under real economic pressure at the present time. But where is the vision from the political parties, pointing the way forward towards a long term sustainable future for the industry? So far, policy statements of this nature have been as thin on the ground as hens’ teeth.

The other issue which all the political parties must address prior to the election relates to their appetite for taking on the new agriculture and environment ministry in the next Executive. In other words, are they up for the challenge ahead, or not?

This question is partly prompted by the fact that, under the last two roll outs of the D’Hondt mechanism, the agriculture job was left to be picked up at the very end of the process. If this were to happen again, it would reflect very poorly across the new Executive as a whole, in terms of the priority it places on farming and food.