It’s time to make politics here the art of the possible

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The good news for us all is that the co-operative spirit is still alive and kicking here in Northern Ireland.

I know this because I had the absolute pleasure of chairing an event for the Sperrin Producers’ Co-op in Dungiven last week. The proceedings tied in the organisation’s annual general meeting with a presentation on Brexit by a gentleman called Michael Haverty – a senior agricultural economist with Andersons Farm Business Consultants.

At this stage let me confirm two things: the producer co-op is in fine heart, both financially and in terms of the commitment to the cause shown by its many members. But over and above all this, I would have to say that the presentation given by the aforementioned Mr Haverty was one of the most interesting that I have sat in on for many’s a long day. And given that you could have heard a pin drop while he spoke, I sense that everyone else in the room felt the same way.

Haverty’s presentation was wide ranging in nature.

One of the most interesting perspectives discussed was the growing assumption on the part of many agri analysts in GB that Whitehall will commit to no more than 50% of the current CAP support budget, when it comes to the level of direct payments on-offer to farmers post-Brexit.

Yes, there may be flexibility for the various regional assemblies to top this figure up. But, realistically, this will be very limited in terms of its scope. So if we take this working assumption and throw in the added challenge of the Barnett formula being used to divvy out the budget that is available for agri support from London, the potential hole in the finances of farm businesses in this part of the world could be very grave indeed.

All of this brings home the absolute necessity for Northern Ireland to have the strongest possible political representation when it comes to sorting out the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Civil servants cannot speak on farmers’ behalf; Secretary of State James Brokenshire is a totally unknown quantity in this regard. And it would be unfair to ask the UFU to carry this burden alone.

The good news is that there is no shortage of expertise amongst our political representatives, where food and farming are concerned. Northern Ireland’s last three farm ministers – Michelle Gildernew, Michelle O’Neill and Michelle McIlveen – have all been returned to Stormont. And each, in their own way, made a valuable contribution in forwarding the needs of the industry. They don’t need to be briefed on the priorities for agriculture, so they are perfectly qualified to represent the industry over the coming months.

But all of this will count for nothing if they can’t cut a deal at Stormont, one which sees the re-establishment of a working Executive.

Politics is supposed to be the ‘art of the possible’. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland’s political leaders haven’t always lived up to this billing.