Both the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin have been criticised by leading UFU Executive members for failing to have party representatives attend the Union’s pre-election hustings event, held on Wednesday evening in Loughry College.
The meeting had been specifically organised to provide an opportunity for all of the political parties represented at Stormont to relate their priorities for agriculture prior to the upcoming Assembly elections. During the debate, which did take place, a number of the Union members expressed their annoyance to the effect that representatives of Northern Ireland’s two largest political parties were not in attendance.
DUP MEP Diane Dodds expressed disappointment to Farming Life that the party was not represented at the event.
“We would have liked to have been present as we have a strong record and a detailed plan to present which we believe would help move the agri-food sector forward,” she stated.
“However we do not have receipt of an invitation and only became aware of the event following a phone call from the Union a short time before it commenced. We regret this. We have already expressed our disappointment for any error on our part to the Union and have offered to meet with the UFU to underscore our commitment to the industry.
“We understand the pressures on farm incomes and we are working with the industry to help. Indeed in the last two weeks, I have met with UFU leaders regarding beef and lamb prices. I have also conducted a range of meetings with the Vice President of the European Investment Bank and UFU leaders on additional financial instruments that might prove useful to the industry.”
Responding, on behalf of Sinn Féin, the party’s agriculture spokesman Oliver McMullan said: “The party is disappointed that due to an administrative error there was no party representative at the hustings event.
“Sinn Féin is always keen to participate in discussions with farmers, whether that be in a public or private setting.
“Sinn Féin stands on our proud record of delivery for farmers, ensuring that agriculture has remained at the heart of the Executive through our Minister Michelle O’Neill and her predecessor Michelle Gildernew.
“We have been strong advocates for farmers, that they receive a fair and equitable return for their produce and we look forward to participating in future panel discussions.”
In a statement issued after the Loughry meeting, Union President Ian Marshall confirmed that UFU Executive members were “disappointed that not all of the parties invited had participated in this important event.”
Union chief executive Wesley Aston told Farming Life that invitations were sent to the DUP and Sinn Féin in both email and letter format.
“This was followed-up by phone calls made to both parties’ headquarters on the day of the hustings meeting itself,” he added.
The event was attended by representatives of the Ulster Unionist Party, SDLP, Alliance and TUV parties. The Green Party had also been invited to attend, but had no representation on the evening.
Mr Marshall, said the event produced a spirited debate between the politicians and with the farmers in the audience.
“Politicians always say they see agriculture as a cross-party issue and as a vital part of the local economy. This was their opportunity to let farmers judge how committed they are to tackling the problems in agriculture and to helping shape its future,” he added.
“There was cut and thrust in the debate, but all parties present underlined their commitment to farming. They also demonstrated a sound understanding of the issues we have highlighted in our manifesto and through our day-to-day work highlighting the concerns of 12,000 plus farming families and others that live in rural areas,” said Mr Marshall.
The UFU says that apart from the economic issues now putting such a big strain on farm businesses there will be key issues to be tackled after the election.
Mr Marshall added: “It is vital that DAERA and the new Assembly fully recognise that despite the extremely difficult financial conditions presently being experienced by the Northern Ireland farming community, the agri-food industry is a major part of the wider Northern Ireland economy. It continues to grow and its longer-term prospects are good.”