Is agri being used as a political football?

Ulster Farmers' Union president Ivor Ferguson. Picture: Cliff Donaldson
Ulster Farmers' Union president Ivor Ferguson. Picture: Cliff Donaldson

After another week of Brexit confusion Ulster Farmers’ Union president, Ivor Ferguson, says he hopes trade and agriculture are not being used as political footballs. 

Mr Ferguson was speaking from the National Farmers’ Union annual general meeting in England, where the DEFRA minister, Michael Gove, said tariffs would be imposed on food imports.

“This means that in a single week we have had complete opposite suggestions of what might happen.  We have seen suggestions that in a bid to secure trade deals the government will allow a significant volume of tariff free beef in from South America.  Then, when speaking to a farming audience, Mr Gove suggested all imports would face tariffs.  Both these claims cannot be right,” said Mr Ferguson, adding that with weeks to go until when Brexit is due to happen farmers deserve honesty and clarity from politicians.

The UFU president said matters were further confused by the former Brexit minister, Dominic Raab, saying recently that the cabinet had already agreed to avoid tariffs on food to prevent prices rising.  This was on grounds that the government did not want price rises to be blamed on a no deal Brexit.

Ivor Ferguson continued: “In the heated atmosphere of Westminster, we never know whether a commitment is for real, or issued with another purpose.”

The UFU president said it was unfortunate that the focus had shifted from the opportunities a well negotiated Brexit could bring to the smoke and mirror of politics and the overwhelming need for the government to secure political agreement for its Withdrawal Bill. 

“It is being held to ransom by a group of aggressively pro-Brexit backbenchers – and farmers are losing out because they cannot plan and have lost faith in political assurances,” said Mr Ferguson.

Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist Party Leader Robin Swann MLA has asked the DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove to clarify the effect on the local beef industry after reports emerged of the UK Government drawing up plans to favour Brazilian beef over that from the Republic of Ireland after Brexit.

Mr Swann said: “With not much more than a month to go until Brexit it is outrageous that farmers, businesses and society as a whole here still know nothing more about how the UK will look outside of the European Union than they did immediately after the referendum two and a half years ago.

“I have consistently warned that if the necessary preparations were not put in place, local agriculture was going to have the most to lose from a bad Brexit deal. Now, far from a bad deal, it looks like we’ll probably have no deal at all – even though such a conclusion would be by far the worst possible outcome for farmers and consumers.  

“As the March 29th deadline draws ever nearer, it appears that some of the people who should be working hardest to secure an effective deal are once again wasting far too much of their time engaging in stunts and rhetoric.

“This week I was particularly alarmed to learn that some in the UK Government, including the DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove, are pushing for new ‘tariff rate quotas’ which in effect would allow certain amounts of produce into the UK without tariffs.

“Such products would likely include Brazilian beef, whilst those coming from the Republic of Ireland would be subject to major charges. There is no doubt that such a trade war would push the ROI agri-food market into a major crisis – and send a strong message to the Irish Government for their stubbornness during the Brexit discussions -  but I really do believe that the DEFRA Secretary has once again completely misunderstood the intricacies of agriculture on the island of Ireland.

“For instance, during 2017 8,915 cattle were sent from Northern Ireland to the Republic for direct slaughter. The figures change yearly and are often dependent on the price differential between the two jurisdictions, but there is simply no doubt that any disruption to the flow of local cattle to such a large market would be immediately detrimental for our beef producers and the prices that they receive.

“Of course I suspect many farmers in GB would be equally as alarmed with the prospect of cheaper, lower quality Brazilian beef flooding the UK market. Right now, five weeks from Brexit, everyone – including the UK Government - urgently need to get their priorities right. It would be a travesty if knee jerk decisions taken now were to go on a hurt the local farming industry for months and years to come,” he added.