Swann hits out at political vacuum

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Ulster Unionist Party Leader Robin Swann MLA has expressed his anger that, with less than 20 weeks to go now until Brexit, Northern Ireland is the only region with a blank page in terms of what future agri support may look like.

He added: “We are now less than five months away from when the UK actually leaves the European Union. Yet our farmers have no better idea now how they will be supported post-Brexit than they had a year ago.

“Farmers, as well as the local agri-food sector, are facing a very, very precarious situation.

“From the moment the referendum result was announced it was clear that agriculture here was going to be impacted greatly and so absolutely every measure that could have been taken should have been taken. Yet the opposite has happened.

“Despite Northern Ireland being the region of the UK most greatly impacted by Brexit – especially due to our land border with the Irish Republic – we are by far the least prepared of all.

“For instance, legislative plans in the guise of the UK’s Agriculture Bill to phase out direct payments in England and Wales, and replace them with a completely new system, are currently making their way through Westminster.”

“Yet no such steps are being taken here. All we have had is a limited public consultation – which couldn’t even be called a consultation because there was no Minister in place to officially put their name to it. If the situation were not so completely serious it would be bizarre.

Mr Swann believes that that any hopes that there could have been of a local Executive and a local Minister in place in time to devise Northern Ireland’s own post-Brexit agri policy were badly misplaced.

He continued: “We didn’t need to wait until now however as it was evident to many that the longer the political impasse between the DUP and Sinn Fein went on, the harder it would be to restore the institutions.

“The UK Government – despite all their protestations – will also have been acutely aware that there was very little chance of Northern Ireland at the present time devising its own Brexit policy.

“Yet never once has the Secretary of State stepped-up to explain how policy for farmers and food companies in Northern Ireland will be devised in the absence of an Executive, and in advance of Brexit.

“I fully agreed with the past comments of the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee when three weeks ago he urged the UK Government to provide clarity and confidence for the Northern Ireland agricultural sector. It’s just a shame that still, even now, no one in the Government – including the local Secretary of State – seems to be listening.”

The Ulster Unionist party leader concluded: “I want to see the development of a sustainable agriculture and land–use policy that supports our farmers and is good for nature. That means one that not only positively supports the environment but also makes it affordable for farmers to continue to survive in the industry. In my opinion that has to include land-based support payments.

“One of the largest and most urgent threats Northern Ireland farmers are facing is how the overall UK pot of money for future agri support will be distributed across each of the four regions post Brexit. That is why I see much merit in the model as suggested by the UK’s institute for Goverment which suggested a new ring-fenced agricultural support budget, protected and separated from the wider devolution budget settlement and block grant.

“Whatever the system is that is eventually rolled out across Northern Ireland, I think it is essential that a major transition period – perhaps maybe even matching the seven year duration planned for farmers’ in England - is introduced here also.”