Uncertainty poses a critical challenge

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Ulster Unionist Party agriculture spokesperson, Harold McKee MLA, has warned that the local agri-food sector could be damaged by the collapse of the Stormont Executive.

He said it now appears inevitable that the Northern Ireland Executive will collapse and that we are hurtling towards an unnecessary and unwanted election, adding: “If the DUP and Sinn Fein are returned to the Assembly as the two largest parties, a period of prolonged stalemate seems inevitable. If a new Executive cannot be formed, the likely outcome would be Direct Rule and a Westminster MP being placed in charge of support for our local farms.

“Whilst there are a small number of Conservative MPs who do recognise the value of supporting farmers and rural communities, it really is wishful thinking to envisage Northern Ireland having a Direct Rule Minister who is prepared to dedicate as much time and attention here as a local minister.”

“The fallout at Stormont could not have come at a worse time for the industry. Tackling the backlog of Basic Payment appeals is likely to be neglected as a Direct Rule Minister will not recognise it as a key priority and the second tranche of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme would be under some considerable doubt.”

McKee continued: “Most importantly it, is outrageous that Northern Ireland’s farmers could be left without a voice at the Brexit negotiating table, especially as it will be the sector most affected.

“Given that not even the most basic preparations were put in place before the EU referendum, and payments have only been guaranteed up to 2020, it is now imperative that we have proper preparations in place. That means our negotiating position must be strong and steadfast, however, the absence of a local Minister or Assembly would likely severely diminish the voice of local farmers.

“Whatever the outcome of the current political situation, it is imperative for all parties involved to recognise that there is much more at stake than just their pride.”

Meanwhile, SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone believes the imminent collapse of the Stormont Executive will result in the drying up of numerous funding streams for farming and rural communities.

“At this week’s meeting of the AERA Committee today, I proposed that the committee demands a written briefing from the Minister giving assurances that throughout any political confusion and election, money from the EU and the block grant will continue to flow to keep our farms, agri-sector, environmental schemes and rural community interests afloat,” he said.

“Our farmers and vital agri-food sector have had to deal with serious difficulty arising from Brexit and falling farmgate prices, our rural communities are still reliant on government support and our environment is still vulnerable to flash floods and pollution.

“I am pleased that the Committee have backed my proposal and I now appeal to the minister to provide these assurances as a matter of urgency. Our rural communities and businesses should not have to suffer because of a new manufactured crisis designed by the DUP and Sinn Féin.”

Commenting on the latest political developments, Ulster Farmers’ Union president Barclay Bell said that the UFU has always supported the principle of devolution and Northern Ireland having its own farm minister.

“We believe this delivers a better decision making process, regardless of the political party that holds the brief. On that basis we would like to see devolution restored and working properly, but recognises that events are being driven by mainstream politics, with which the UFU does not engage. In the context of crucial negotiations on farm support and trade after Brexit the need for local input in crucial decisions at a UK level is all the more important.”

A spokesman for DAERA said: “The Minister remains in office and continues to fulfil her duties as before. Her decision making powers are confined to departmental issues which do not require Executive agreement.

“The work of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs continues as before.”