‘No deal worst of all worlds for NI’

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A ‘No Deal’ Brexit will be the worst of all worlds for Northern Ireland’s agri food industry, according to Northern Ireland Meat Exporters’ Association chief executive Conall Donnelly.

Commenting on the current speculation regarding the scope of the Back Stop, which will be built into the withdrawal agreement agreed by the UK and the European Union (EU) he said that the measure is part of a sequencing process.

“First comes the withdrawal agreement, then come the discussions that will hopefully lead to an over-arching free trade agreement between the EU and the UK and the industry desired outcome is that this eventual deal will be deep enough to ensure that are no impediments to trade in any direction, North, South or East West and that no backstop is required.

“But if we don’t get a withdrawal agreement over the line over the coming weeks then the UK will crash out of the EU, without any hope of a subsequent trade agreement being secured.”

He added: “The UK and Ireland agreed back last December that they would take this approach and the Back Stop is only an insurance policy should we end up with a Hard Brexit or no deal.

“As an insurance policy, it would certainly be reassuring to know that the worst case scenario is a position that gives Northern Ireland the ability to export freely to both the UK, the EU and beyond, if the final over-arching trade agreement did not achieve such an outcome. However, the devil will be in the detail and we are yet to see the outcome of this current negotiation.”

It is logical that the EU would seek to secure its borders from an animal health point of view. This is why Brussels is putting such a strong focus on live animal importations, once Brexit becomes a reality. The political difficulty with the backstop is that these checks would take place at Northern Ireland ports in order to avoid doing them at the border.

Donnelly repeated the assertion that the back stop would only kick-in should the UK fail to secure a trade deal over the coming two years.

He added: “These kind of checks are far from optimal, although DAERA already perform some checks on livestock. But these are some of the challenges with these proposals and it is useful that there is intense pressure being applied in and around the negotiations to ensure that we get the best possible outcome for trade in all directions.“

Earlier this week, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said that increasing live animal checks on stock coming in from Northern Ireland from Great Britain would be increased from the current 10% up to 100% under an amended Back Stop arrangement proposed by Brussels.

However, a DAERA spokesperson has told Farming Life that all inbound consignments of livestock (cattle, sheep, goats, pigs) must be moved through the port of Larne, adding: “There they all undergo documentary, identity and physical checks. For some consignments it is necessary to offload animals in order to conduct physical checks. Livestock are not currently licensed through the port of Belfast.

“Equines may be moved in through both ports and are subject to checking; they are not routinely offloaded.”

Commenting on these developments, UFU president, Ivor Ferguson said: “The Brexit negotiation situation is extremely fluid and there is very little clarity around the details at the moment. The UFU’s position remains the same – a solution must be found that allows free and frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. While at the same time trade must not be hampered east/west, as GB remains our biggest market.”

Meanwhile, the Ulster Farmers’ Union says Northern Ireland’s future agriculture policy must support active farm businesses to be productive and sustainable, while delivering public goods.

UFU president Ivor Ferguson said: “This is a once in a life time opportunity to create a policy that ensures we have a productive, profitable, and progressive farming industry. Defra Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has been clear about his vision to support environmental measures but farmers can’t be green when they are financially in the red.”

Mr Ferguson says the crux of farmers’ concern is that by focusing on delivering “public goods” in relation to the environment, there is the danger that the crucial importance of food security and standards is being lost. “Food production must be at the heart of agricultural policy, both at a UK level and in Northern Ireland. If a farm business is not profitable, it’s not viable and will not be able to deliver the ‘public good’ the government is looking for.”

The comments were made after the UFU submitted its response to DAERA’s consultation on Northern Ireland’s future agriculture policy post-Brexit on behalf of the organisation’s 11,500 plus farming families. It was formulated after lengthy discussions at meetings of the UFU’s 16 policy committees and ratified by the UFU’s Executive. The detailed response covers a range of issues and outlines key measures that government should enact to help the farming sector thrive in the coming, potentially turbulent, years.

In it, the UFU argues funding for agriculture must be at least maintained at the current level of existing support and that the types of trade deals secured by the UK post-Brexit will determine what level of direct support farmers will need. “For years, direct payments from the EU have effectively acted as a cheap food subsidy, benefiting consumers. This is where the majority of farm income in Northern Ireland comes from. A drastic change from this system without adequate time to plan, would lead to cliff-edge scenario for many farms,” said the UFU president.

Farmers are also concerned by the possible threat of lower standard imports flooding the market post-Brexit depending on the trade deals secured. “We pride ourselves on the high-quality, traceable, affordable food we produce; that UK consumers expect. We farm to some of the highest quality, welfare and environmental standards in the world. Lower standard imports cannot be allowed into the UK market to undermine local producers, making us less competitive.”

The UFU says farmers should also be recognised for the many positive environmental benefits they already deliver. Mr Ferguson said: “There is already a lot of good work done on farms. This needs to be recognised. In many ways, Northern Ireland is already ‘green by definition’. Our primarily grassland based farms and hill land act as carbon sinks. We have more hedgerows than any other region in the UK.

“There are still areas where work can be done. We are keen to work with government and industry partners to find ways to deliver ‘public goods’ that take into consideration the realities of practical farming.”

The UFU recognises there are big changes coming and that farmers must be prepared. Mr Ferguson said, “The government must allow as much time as possible for transition to the new policy. Farmers will need time to adapt their businesses. Also, flexibility for the different UK regions is key. Farming in the south of England is different from farming on the north coast of Northern Ireland. Our local policy must suit our needs.”

The absence of a government at Stormont has added an extra challenge to Brexit preparations. “We need our local politicians to get back to work. Responding to this consultation is all well and good but now it will sit with civil servants. It is unclear what decisions can be taken and what can be implemented while we continue to have no government at Stormont,” said the UFU president.