Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann MLA has called for representatives of the main political parties to come together and discuss the serious issues affecting agriculture - particularly Brexit.
Speaking at a conference earlier this week in Craigavon, Mr Swann said that it ‘wouldn’t be a bad idea’ for the parties to meet given the current political stalemate, with agriculture and Brexit the main issues on the agenda.
Mr Swann said that over the years, the agriculture committee at Stormont had provided all the political parties in Northern Ireland with an opportunity to help formulate policy on the many issues that impact on the farming and food sectors.
“Brexit is the biggest challenge to have confronted local agriculture in many years. A concerted political response is required to Brexit. And the clock is ticking,” he said.
“There is an absolute imperative to provide the means by which all the political parties in Northern Ireland can make a real and positive difference when it comes to formulating a Brexit response on behalf of farming and food.
“Given these circumstances I see no reason why representatives of all the political parties cannot sit down together in order to make this happen.”
Mr Swann believes that the latest collapse of the Stormont talks represents a new blow to the local agri-food sector.
He said: “We are little more than a year away from the UK leaving the European Union. This will represent the biggest change, and many would say challenge, to the agricultural industry in more than a generation and yet locally the preparations and plans are non-existent.
“I have often said that whilst there are real opportunities with Brexit, if the necessary groundwork was not in place the reality is that local agriculture has the most to lose from a bungled Brexit deal.
“The farce at Stormont; where discussions about an Irish Language Act were being given more prominence than Brexit, the crisis in our schools and hospitals and the wider chaos in our public finances; has come to another shuddering halt. If the timing were not so seriously damaging it would just be embarrassing.
“So as the rest of the UK regions push ahead with their Brexit preparations, Northern Ireland is left in limbo land. We don’t have a local agriculture minister and neither do we have a direct rule minister at Westminster.
For 13 months now our agriculture industry has been leaderless, just at a time when it most needed certainty and direction.
“Even Michael Gove, with all his reliance on soundbites and sweeping statements, has made sure that farmers in England will receive their current level of farming payments until 2024. No such certainty has been given to farmers here simply because we haven’t got anyone to make the decision.
“Similarly the rollout of the Farm Business Investment Scheme has been poor to say the least. Deadlines to issue funding have come and gone and now the overall Scheme budget is shrinking by the day.
“TB is continuing to blight farmers right across the Province and even with the recent public consultation, there can be no changes in policy because again we have no one in place to take those decisions.
“So whilst the squabbling at Stormont continues our farmers are effectively being left on their own to deal with the consequences. I am genuinely fearful that Brexit in particular will come and we simply won’t be prepared for it. The current situation is wholly unsustainable
“It is ridiculous that over 400 days of stalemate has been allowed to continue with little consideration of the impact it is having on key economic sectors such as our agri-food industry. It simply can’t be allowed to continue. There is now a huge responsibility on the UK Government to step in.”