Northern Ireland will be regarded as a region with special requirements in the upcoming Brexit negotiations, according to Secretary of State James Brokenshire.
“And the key role played by the farming and food industries will be fully recognised in this context,” he said.
Brokenshire has indicated that his office will liaise closely with the Stormont Executive to ensure that a cohesive and co-ordinated message is fully communicated to Westminster, where the Brexit decision making process is concerned. He admits that the Brexit will throw up challenges for the farming and food sectors.
“But opportunities will also present themselves,” he said.
“These include the opening up of new markets in regions such as West Africa and China.”
The Secretary of State confirmed that the UK cannot make official contact with new trade partners until Brexit becomes a reality.
“But a lot of ground work can be done in the meantime,” he said.
Brokenshire fully recognises that a Brexit deal must be reached, which minimises any potential disruption in cross-border trade on the island of Ireland and related matters.
“There is tremendous common ground between the Irish and UK authorities on many of these issues. A number of meetings, involving representatives from both governments at the highest level, have already taken place,” he said.
“This process will gain further momentum during the period ahead.”
Brokenshire made these comments while attending a Northern Ireland Business Advisory Group meeting, hosted by Moy Park.
Agri-food firms and industry representatives joined the advisory group’s core members for a discussion focused on how the sector’s world class performance in recent years can be protected and expanded.
Also joining the meeting was Minister for Exiting the EU Robin Walker. This was his first visit to Northern Ireland since being appointed and follows Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis’s visit last month.
James Brokenshire added: “Northern Ireland’s food and drink sectors make a vital contribution to economic life both here and the wider UK, sustaining tens of thousands of jobs and livelihoods.
“The UK government is focussed on securing continued growth across the whole UK economy and forging new international trading links. We see Northern Ireland’s food and agriculture sector having an important role in this.
Robin Walker said: “The people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and it’s the duty of the Government to make sure we do just that. The UK is a great country with a bright future and Northern Ireland plays a huge part in its success.
“We’re confident of getting a good deal for the whole country, but to do this we need a UK-wide approach as we prepare for negotiations. That’s why I’m in Northern Ireland today – to hear from the people, groups and businesses that have helped to build Northern Ireland’s success and who will continue to build a brighter, more secure future for the people who live here.”
The Ulster Farmers’ Union deputy president Victor Chestnutt, who attended the Moy Park-hosted event, described the meeting James Brokenshire and Robin Walker as positive and constructive.
“It was a wide ranging discussion I believe they left with an understanding about the importance of agriculture to our rural communities and wider economy,” he added.
Referring to suggestions by some of the ministers’ Conservative colleagues that leaving the EU is an opportunity for cheaper food, Mr Chestnutt said Brexit should not be about undermining farmers with imports of cheap food.
“Instead we should be backed to provide high quality, traceable food at a reasonable price for consumers. Northern Ireland is already a net exporter of food and Brexit is an opportunity for us to develop our industry through ‘Going for Growth’ to help make the UK more self-sufficient in food. If we were paid a price reflective for the food we produce we would not need a subsidy from the Government.”