South Down MP Margaret Ritchie is to invite DEFRA Secretary of State Liz Truss to visit Northern Ireland. The invitation will be formally submitted once parliament resumes in October.
“Liz Truss has the job of representing local agriculture at both Westminster and Brussels,” said Ritchie.
“So, it’s crucially important for her to get a real grasp of just how important agriculture and food are to Northern Ireland’s economy.”
Ritchie admitted that the DEFRA minister is very much bound by Conservative party policy, which has a strong focus on fiscal rectitude, both where London and Brussels are concerned.
“But that’s only part of the story,” she said. “The EFRA Committee at Westminster, of which I am a member, has the job of taking Liz Truss to task on a wide range of issues.
“The select committee, chaired by Neil Parish, has already started investigating the recent crash within the dairy industry. We are shortly to address the issue of farmgate prices, with the intention of coming up with proposals that will deliver fair returns to farmers, while ensuring that the interests of consumers are also protected and Liz Truss must take note of our conclusions and recommendations.
“Select committees at Westminster have powers of scrutiny, investigation and evidence taking. Above all they hold ministers, officials and agencies of that particular department to account.
“On completion of an investigation and publication of a report by a select committee, government has to respond within three months.”
At a more general level Ritchie notes that while output per farm in Northern Ireland is higher than the level achieved in the Republic of Ireland, the trend in terms of value added per farm business is very much the opposite.
“But of even more significance is the fact that this higher level of performance has been achieved on the back of lower levels of EU support funding per farm business, where the Republic of Ireland is concerned.
“Ritchie believes that the reasons for the differing performance levels must be investigated.
“And the best way of doing this is to bring the members of the EFRA Committee, the Agriculture Committee at Stormont and the Good Friday Committee, which was established to develop relevant cross border initiatives, together in a meaningful way.”
Ritchie is a very strong advocate of EU membership.
“I believe that if the UK were to leave the EU, then the consequences for our farming and food sectors here in Northern Ireland would be catastrophic,” she said.
Turning to the recently agreed €500m aid package for agriculture, agreed by Brussels, Ritchie said that Farm Minister Michelle O’Neill must find out what is specifically on offer to Northern Ireland as a matter of priority. She also points out that O’Neill must find ways of paying the agreed 70% advance on the 2015 Single Payment, a measure included in the Brussels’ aid package.
“Politics is supposed to be the art of the possible,” said Ritchie. “And, in this context, Minister O’Neill must make every effort to ensure that farmers in Northern Ireland avail fully of the Brussels support measures.”