DARD Minister fails to deliver on RDP: Dodds

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DUP MEP Diane Dodds notes the range of challenges facing agriculture at the present time, stressing the need for both the EU Commissioner Phil Hogan and the DARD Minister Michelle O’Neill to take substantive action which, she claims, has thus far been glaringly absent.

In terms of progress toward approval of the new Rural Development Programme (RDP), it is sad but unsurprising in equal measure that the DARD Minister has placed Northern Ireland on the back foot compared with the other regions of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

It is an utter shame that a Programme which has a budget allocation of £623m, and which would kickstart spending in rural areas, has not yet received EU approval, despite all other regions in the British Isles having achieved all necessary EU approvals. For many, however, there is also a lack of detail and clarity as to what the new schemes will entail.

The current RDP was slow to get spend on the ground, which resulted in a free-for-all in the form of investment in strategic projects at the end of this scheme - and a deviation from the bottom up approach it was designed to do. We cannot risk the same delays and scatter gun approach towards allocating these new and vital funds, especially in light of the financial pressures on Government and farmers. It is vital that the DARD Minister works in Europe to ensure that the Northern Ireland Rural Development Programme receives approval at the next available opportunity.

I would also urge the Minister to fully engage with EU Commissioner Phil Hogan to ensure that benefits which are available from the European Investment Bank through the RDP are grasped, and we are not left disadvantaged by the Minister’s inaction on this matter. I have and will continue to have discussions with Commission officials to ensure that the approval of our RDP is forthcoming as soon as possible. I for one recognise the importance and benefits that some of these funds can have for farmers and rural communities.

This week also witnessed the lengths to which anti-badger culls activists are willing to go, demonstrated by their efforts to force Cafe Nero to stop purchasing milk produced in cull zone areas. This is yet another attempt in a long list of actions, which has been directed at businesses but mostly at individual farmers and their families, to intimidate them from doing what is right for wildlife, cattle and humans. It has been evidenced in the Republic of Ireland and many other countries that there is a need to deal with the reservoir of disease in wildlife, alongside cattle, to ensure that incidences of disease are reduced and in the longer term eradicated. Given the success of the targeted badger cull in the Republic of Ireland and the DARD Minister’s desire for an all island health plan, you would have thought that there would have been an emphasis on meaningful measures to eradicate Bovine TB.

In relation to farm gate prices, this is the first time as an MEP that I have witnessed all sectors within agriculture being plunged into such dramatic price reductions. Whether it be beef, lamb, cereals, potatoes or milk everyone is facing at best a difficult time. While there is a mix of reasons out there as to why this is the case, one of the main factors remain the euro, and its impact upon the sterling exchange rate and global demand.

For my part, in Europe, I have been urging the EU Agriculture Commissioner to take action on a range of issues from CAP market safety net measures, sheep meat labelling and the need to reduce our risk in global markets. It is very disappointing that the new Agriculture Commissioner, who comes from the Republic of Ireland, has failed to deliver anything to help farmers in Europe cope with the collapse in farm gate prices.

Whilst Phil Hogan talks about listening to the industry he has failed to deliver. I would urge retailers to honour commitments made to support British produce and encourage them not to yield to the temptation of lower cost EU imports to make a quick buck - which could jeopardise the long term viability of UK agriculture.