The wonders of modern technology saved the blushes of the Ulster Farmers’ Union as the no-show of Peter Kendall in the flesh for Tuesday night’s Brexit show down at The Balmoral Eikon Centre left the province’s lead farming organisation with no option but to establish a video link with the avowed Europhile’s home in the South of England.
It transpired that Kendall had missed his flight to Northern Ireland earlier in the day. This left the stage, in a very physical sense, to the Brexit campaigner and former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson.
Approximately 300 attended the debate. Courtesy of his opening - and only - remarks UFU president Barclay Bell confirmed that the Union had made the decision not to take a policy stance regarding the EU membership issue.
“But we are committed to allowing farmers make an informed decision on this crucially important matter: hence our decision to host tonight’s debate.”
Owen Paterson said that the EU had always been an exercise in political union.
“And this must not be allowed to happen,” he said.
“The European project is all about creating a new political entity, with a single currency at its heart.
“We are now at a fork in the road. The Euro is now in crisis. Its continuation will require the movement of vast sums of money from the northern member states of the EU to countries like Greece and Portugal. The UK will never join the Euro. So we are better out of the EU as a whole.”
Paterson said that, from an economic point of view, UK agriculture will benefit from a Brexit, adding: “Europe cannot guarantee a budget for agriculture beyond 2021. And, on that basis alone, farmers in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK are better out of Europe.
“If the UK comes out of Europe, politicians in Northern Ireland will have the opportunity to put in place agri support measures that meet the specific requirements of farmers in this part of the world.”
Peter Kendall said that he wants the UK to seek positive reform within the EU.
“Fundamentally, the European Union project can work because many former Eastern Bloc states are now full democracies,” he stressed.
“The EU is a good news story for agriculture in Northern Ireland. And a key driver within this is the development of new trading opportunities. A market of 500m people already exists within the EU. And it is available to the UK’s agri food sector now on a tariff-free basis.”
Kendall added: “There is absolutely no guarantee that the UK will secure a free trade deal with the rest of Europe, should Brexit become a reality.”
Kendall also claimed that the formal re-establishment of an Irish border, should the UK leave Europe, will cause major problems for the farming and food sectors in Northern Ireland.”
A show of hands was called for at the end of the meeting with a majority of those present indicating their intention to vote to leave the EU in the upcoming referendum.
Speaking after the event UFU president, Barclay Bell, said the aim was to allow the industry to hear both sides of the argument and to have their questions answered, as the campaign enters its final stages.
“Our position has always been that we would not tell our members how they should vote. We believe that in the absence of a compelling reason to leave the EU the status quo is better for agriculture – but the 12,000 farming families we represent will make up their own minds,” said Mr Bell.
He added that people had enjoyed the cut and thrust of a spirited debate, and that in staging it as an open meeting the UFU has met its aim of helping people make an informed decision on a once in a generation vote that will shape the future of agriculture.
“What we can promise is that regardless of the outcome of the vote on June 23 the UFU will continue to work to secure the best possible deal for Northern Ireland’s most important industry,” said Mr Bell.