Minister pushing for early payment

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Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has formally asked the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to prioritise payment of EU aid to Northern Ireland’s dairy farmers.

After the EU Commission allocated an aid package worth £26million to the UK, DEFRA announced that £5.1 million would be directed to farmers in Northern Ireland. The decision to allocate nearly one fifth of the package to local farmers was made after Minister O’Neill highlighted the unique and difficult circumstances facing the industry here.

In a letter written to DEFRA minister, George Eustice, over recent days, O’Neill underlined this position again and urged him to prioritise payments to Northern Ireland

The minister said: “I am anxious that payments are made as quickly as possible, without any knock on impact on processing Basic Payments. Given that our farmers in the north of Ireland are in greatest need of support, I want our farmers to be the first to receive their payments.”

DEFRA has indicated that payments would be made through the Rural Payments Agency to farmers in December.

Mrs O’Neill added: “Making the payments through the Rural Payments Agency will remove the need to set up a separate process for the north of Ireland with all of the associated administration.

“However, I have asked the DEFRA Minister for further assurance on the timing of payments to farmers in the north.”

Northern Ireland’s allocation will be directed to dairy farmers, as they have been the hardest hit by the prolonged decline in prices. It will be made available at a flat rate per litre of production.

The minister is keen to make it clear that she remains focused on the challenges being faced right across the wider farming sector in the north and is committed to making Direct Payments to as many farmers as possible in December 2015.

The Ulster Farmers’ Union says it is encouraging the Government at Westminster recognised Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. However, the DARD minister’s decision to allocate the full £5.1 million aid package solely to dairy farmers is nonetheless potentially divisive between sectors of farming. Once distributed the additional money will have little impact when set against the losses on dairy farms.

The UFU has and will continue to stress that this is a crisis within the entire agricultural industry and while the dairy sector has been hit by a prolonged period of low prices the supply chain has failed to provide a fair return for other sectors. Although there is no silver bullet to solving the current crisis UFU believes that the European Commission needs to deliver something more meaningful to help the industry recover.

The minister’s recognition of the urgency with which farmers need the additional money paid out is welcome, but this must not interfere with the roll out of the CAP basic scheme payments in December.