The days of direct payments are coming to an end

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EFRA Committee Chair Neil Parish MP visited Northern Ireland this week to get a sense of how agriculture in this part of the world is shaping up to the Brexit challenge.

But before leaving he made it very clear that the UK taxpayer will have to be convinced of agriculture’s real worth to the country as whole, before any deal on a future support arrangement for farming can be brought over the line.

I sense that all of this is code for something that is quite sinister in nature: ie that Whitehall has already decided to cut the direct support budget enjoyed by agriculture under the current EU arrangements quite significantly. And, if this does happen, the consequences for local beef and sheep farmers will be dramatic.

South Down MP Margaret Ritchie accompanied Neil Parish on his visit. She, quite rightly, pointed out that without the current single payment system kicking in for farmers in Northern Ireland, the outlook for their businesses would be more than bleak.

The other aspect to all of this is the differing support footing that farmers on both sides of the Irish border will be placed on, once we get beyond 2020. This will simply further complicate a situation that is already looking difficult, from a purely trading perspective. Over recent years, very large sums have been spent by processing companies – North and South- in developing an all-island food industry. And, irrespective of Brexit, surely this is the direction of travel which the industry should continue to move in.

Neil Parish is a former member of the European Parliament. He makes no secret of the fact that he wanted the UK to stay within the European Union. By nature I am a tidsoptimist. For the record, this is a person who is habitually late for meetings and events of all kinds. So it won’t come as a surprise to learn that I was not on time for the press briefing hosted by the aforementioned Member of Parliament.

That said, I got the immediate impression that he was not that comfortable having to tell people like me that the British public is not keen on supporting agriculture. And given his farming background in Devon, neither he should be. But it’s up to him and colleagues like Margaret Ritchie to tell the public, in very direct terms, that putting taxpayers’ money behind agriculture represents a very good deal for the UK as a whole.