It has been a privilege to serve the farming industry – O’Neill

As I enter my last few weeks as your Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, I want to put on record how privileged I have been to serve our rural communities and agri-food industry.

When I came into office, I said from the outset that DARD was an economic department that must deliver on three fronts: the farming industry, rural areas, and the environment.

One of the biggest challenges was the reform of CAP.

From the beginning, I stated that I would push for a well funded and flexible CAP. I believe we secured that and that the support model we subsequently implemented was the fairest possible in the face of competing interests. While the reformed system is more complex than I would have liked, it is certainly less so than that originally proposed by the European Commission. Our delivery of reform was a success and this has been reflected in the record levels of payments we have delivered. We have now progressed to the point that we could make advance payments if 70% apply online.

The Rural Development Programmes (RDP) have been essential components in building up our rural communities. After completing a £500m programme which delivered over 1,000 jobs and funded hundreds of environmental, community and farming schemes, we are now embarking on an even larger (£623m) programme. The economic benefits this new RDP will bring to rural dwellers will be felt for decades to come.

I am proud that £20m has been directed towards the Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation (TRPSI) programme which has supported many disadvantaged groups across our rural communities. The Rural Proofing Bill, which is about to become law, is another significant achievement as Government departments, councils and arms-length bodies must now consider the needs of rural dwellers when making policy decisions and providing services. I also have championed the rollout of broadband and digital inclusion for rural areas increasing access to a wide range of online services.

Decentralisation boosts our rural communities, rebalances our economy and delivers a much fairer distribution of public sector jobs. By Christmas next year, I expect to see the first 250 posts filled at what will be our new state-of-the-art headquarters in Ballykelly. With Rivers Agency close to moving to Cookstown and both Forestry and Fisheries having completed moves to Enniskillen and Downpatrick, we have created a template for others to follow.

The setting up of the Agri-Food Strategy Board (AFSB) and the launch of Going for Growth demonstrates the enormous emphasis the Executive has placed on helping our £4.3bn agri-food industry to flourish. The agri-food sector is one of our most important manufacturing industries, and I secured recognition for that in the Programme for Government. I am delighted to have launched the first phase of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme, a key industry ask and worth up to £250m. We are also delivering on a range of other commitments including animal health, opening new markets, innovation and sustainable land management.

As DARD Minister, I have sought to provide stability and promote our products. We have broken into new markets in Canada and India and we continue to drive forwards towards China, the Philippines, Australia and the United States.

We have an enviable track record when it comes to the quality, traceability and safety controls of our products. We continue to make improvements to the health status of our herds and flocks. Attaining Official Brucellosis Free (OBF) status was a significant achievement. I hope that no farmer here will ever again experience the trauma of a whole herd depopulation because of brucellosis. We are working to support industry through taking steps to attain BSE negligible risk status and through legislating in support of the industry led BVD eradication scheme.

There have been tough times and all sectors have faced challenges. I have never been afraid to step forward in support of our farmers. I stood shoulder to shoulder with our dairy sector and was not prepared to stand by while the European Commission said a drastic fall in milk prices did not amount to a crisis. Together, we made both DEFRA and the Commission recognise the unique and extreme problems faced by our farmers. As a result, our farmers received a higher rate of emergency payment. I also worked with the banks to encourage flexibility and, at my request, the AFSB set up the Supply Chain Forum to drive effective communication right across the industry. Meanwhile, our College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) advisors have provided useful advice on the ground. We may be a small region, but in Brussels, we have punched above our weight. While I have taken the battle to Europe on behalf of our farmers, I have also lobbied hard every December to ensure our fishing fleets receive a fair deal at the annual Fisheries Council.

When the weather hit hard, DARD stepped up to help those affected. When the snow rocked our farming community in 2013, CAFRE sourced additional livestock feed and fodder, while Forest Service provided vehicles to assist with delivery to hard to reach farms. We also deployed a transport helicopter to drop fodder in isolated areas.

In order to tackle flooding, Rivers Agency has implemented new flood alleviations schemes, provided state-of-the-art flood mapping and introduced new grants schemes to help protect homes, farms and businesses. All of this has helped. The impact of the recent flooding, while very difficult for those affected, was well managed because of the effectiveness of the multi-agency approach when compared to the floods of 2009.

The safety and welfare of our animals is an issue that is close to many of our hearts, mine included. We have recently concluded a comprehensive review of animal welfare legislation and legislated to provide the north with the toughest penalties for animal welfare offences anywhere on these islands. This is a clear message that we are tough on offenders to protect the welfare of animals.

Looking ahead, I see both exciting and challenging times for our agriculture and our rural communities. With the Civil Service voluntary exit scheme and the reorganisation into a new broader Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), the Executive aims to provide a more focused and streamlined service to the rural community. While closer alignment will reduce red tape in farming, fisheries and across the environment, supporting rural communities and our agriculture sector will remain at DAERA’s core.

When I reflect on my time as Minister I will remember how our rural dwellers were placed on an equal footing with their urban counterparts, how our rural communities were boosted through RDP and relocation and how all sectors of our agri-food industry were supported and encouraged to achieve their full potential.