Next week will see EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan announce the details of the much awaited aid package for the dairy sector.
I know the Ulster Farmers’ Union is already playing down expectations, in terms of what we can expect. But, in truth, that is not the real issue. The game afoot, surely, is that of gauging how London will respond to the news from Brussels.
Last time around Hogan made provision for individual member states to top-up the dairy support on offer using monies for their own national exchequers. As far as I am aware the Irish government voted with its cheque book and other EU members states acted in a similar fashion - but not the UK.
Assuming that the commissioner leaves the door open for national top ups to be part of his plan for the next support scheme, it will be interesting to see how London reacts. Lots was made of the need for London to ensure that farmers are supported in a meaningful way, post Brexit. And, on that basis, the upcoming dairy support scheme will give Whitehall its first opportunity to put a marker down as to its future bona fides, where farming and food are concerned.
It’s also important that Northern Ireland’s farm minister, Michelle McIlveen, is immediately out of the traps calling on DEFRA to make the top up a reality, should this opportunity present itself. And, with this aim in mind, she should be joined by the former DEFRA Secretary Owen Paterson. He visited Northern Ireland twice in the run up to the EU referendum debate and, on both occasions, told farmers that the UK would be better off with London at the helm. Given this perspective, one must assume that he would be totally in favour of Whitehall making a meaningful commitment to milk producers the length and breadth of the UK over the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, life gets no easier for local milk producers. Farm gate returns remain more than challenging while the poor weather is hampering both grazing and silage making. All of this adds up to enhanced costs at a time when producers already have their backs against the wall.