Our membership of the European Union and the CAP is vital to farming throughout Britain and Ireland and this referendum has created uncertainty for all farmers on these islands, writes South Down MP Margaret Ritchie.
However, Northern Ireland’s reliance on exports and our land border with the South means our agricultural sector would be the very worst affected by a vote to leave the EU.
The EU’s Commissioner for Agriculture and Development, Phil Hogan recently highlighted Northern Ireland agriculture’s particular vulnerability while speaking at Queens University Belfast, outlining key facts that I hope will be at the forefront of voters’ minds this June.
Commissioner Hogan emphasised how annual payments from the EU under the Common Agricultural Policy make up a hugely significant 87% of annual farm incomes in NI, compared with the UK’s overall average of 53%. These payments keep many farms and processors in Northern Ireland in business and have been essential in supporting the sector through global market volatility.
The Commissioner also took apart the idea that NI farmers could rely on the British Government to replace the money they currently receive from the EU, pointing to often-forgotten DEFRA UK policy of ending direct payments to farmers by 2020.
When faced with these realities, the Leave camp has been unable to offer any realistic alternatives on how our farming sector would be supported outside the EU – instead all we have heard is the denial of facts and various unsubstantiated promises about new trade deals.
Even if local farmers could hold on through the years of negotiation that leaving the EU would entail, it is hard to imagine any new trade deal being valuable enough to make up for both the loss of direct payments, the block on North/South trade and the loss of access to a 500-million strong export market.
I believe the failure to respond to the very real concerns for Northern Irish farmers shows that the Leave camp either does not fully appreciate the risks for the agricultural sector or does not have our farmers’ best interests as their first priority.
The SDLP is not willing to let Northern Irish agriculture and the livelihoods of our farmers become collateral damage in a political argument between different wings of the Conservative Party, and that is why we will be working hard to secure an In/Remain vote on Thursday, 23rd June.