The Ulster Farmers’ Union will draw up its Brexit policy shopping list over the coming weeks, according to the organisation’s president Barclay Bell.
Speaking at a recent press event he said that trade issues had been the main focus of union attention since the beginning of the year.
“This is the biggest issue facing agriculture and food at the present time,” he said. “In the first instance, we need a package of policies that meet the specific needs of farming and food in Northern Ireland. But, thereafter, we need to ensure that the messages are communicated in the most effective way possible.”
Mr Bell confirmed that the union is about to appoint two additional members of headquarters’ staff over the coming weeks.
“Their appointment will provide our chief executive Wesley Aston and other senior policy specialists with more time to focus on the Brexit issue,” he explained.
“We owe it to our members to ensure that we come up with the right policy options, where Brexit is concerned.”
Mr Bell expressed concern at the prospect of Northern Ireland’s political institutions falling into a limbo type situation for a considerable period of time, despite the fact that an Assembly election will take place at the beginning of March.
“In many ways, this is the worst of all scenarios,” he said.
“The farming industry needs the strongest possible voice fighting its corner at Westminster over the coming months.”
Mr Bell agreed that political stasis at Stormont would put more pressure on the union when it comes to getting the best Brexit deal for agriculture in Northern Ireland.
“We are fully aware of this reality,” he said. “However, we are up to the task. We have already been extremely proactive, where Brexit is concerned. In fact, I would argue strongly that the union is ahead of the Department of Agriculture, in terms of working through the policy options that now confront the farming and food sectors.”
The coming weeks will see the union assess which farm support policies will best meet the needs of agriculture in Northern Ireland post Brexit, according to the organisation’s chief executive Wesley Aston.
“Our first objective is to ensure that we get a comparable level of support, in financial terms, as is currently the case,” he said.
“We can then look at how best the money can be used to meet the specific needs of local farmers. Our initial view would be that the support package must be efficiency linked.
“In other words it must be used to target agricultural production.”
Northern Ireland currently receives approximately €270m courtesy of the current Basic Payment Scheme.
But Mr Aston is in no doubt that Scotland, in particular, will push to have a redistribution of the entire UK agri support budget post Brexit. And, if successful, this could lead to Northern Ireland losing out in proportionate terms.
“We are totally prepared to fight our corner on this matter,” he said.