Union responds to criticism from protesting dairy farmers

Part of the crowd that gathered outside the EU Office in Belfast
Part of the crowd that gathered outside the EU Office in Belfast

The Ulster Farmers’ Union has responded to criticism from a group of dairy farmers who held a protest in Belfast yesterday (Thursday).

Approximately 200 farmers, all aligned with the newly established Fair Price Farming NI group, protested outside the offices of the European Commission in Belfast.

Colette Fitzgerald, who heads up the EU Commission's representation in Northern Ireland, accepts a letter of protest from Gary McHenry, Charlie Weir and Kyle Savage, members of the Fair Price Farming NI group.

Colette Fitzgerald, who heads up the EU Commission's representation in Northern Ireland, accepts a letter of protest from Gary McHenry, Charlie Weir and Kyle Savage, members of the Fair Price Farming NI group.

The event culminated with the hand-over of a letter, addressed to EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan. It was accepted by Colette Fitzgerald, who heads up the EU Commission representation in Northern Ireland.

“Dairy farmers need immediate action, if they are to have any form of future,” said Kyle Savage, one of the signatories to the letter.

Members of the new group are asking Commissioner Hogan to introduce a realistic safety net for the dairy industry.

“And in order to achieve this, he must strike a meaningful intervention price. This would act as a catalyst for recovery and, more importantly, would strengthen trader sentiment, thereby ensuring market recovery,” said Savage.

“With the introduction of intervention measures by the Commission, such as happened in 2009, €800m was returned to the Commission coffers after it was sold back in to a rising market .We need creative leadership, otherwise the crisis will deepen.”

The Fair Price letter details the plight of milk producers and rural communities as a whole in Northern Ireland at the present time. It also calls on Commissioner Hogan to ring-fence the €860million super-levy within the dairy sector to assist farmers with volatility and risk.

Savage also confirmed that the new grouping would be more than a one-off pressure group.

“We are here to stay. At the present time our focus is on the plight of dairy farmers. And, to this end, we have already garnered support from milk producers right across Northern Ireland. However, we also plan to extend our remit to include all of the other agri sectors during the period ahead.”

The group’s Charlie Weir confirmed that the Ulster Farmers’ Union had been contacted in the run-up to today’s protest.

“Our aim was to have the Union take the lead at our demonstration,” he said.

“But this request was refused out of hand. I am a member of the Union. However, I find it difficult to reconcile the sentiments expressed by the leadership of the organisation and what’s actually happening on the ground.

“Last week we were told that the time for protest was over but just a few days later the Union’s hierarchy felt it right to organise a protest at Stormont. I am also concerned about the political undercurrents to the Stormont event. Fair Price Farming NI is totally non-political.

In a statement UFU president, Ian Marshall, said that with the industry in general facing an unprecedented crisis now was not the time for farm organisations to seek publicity by criticising others. He said he recognised that all involved in protests and other action were driven by the best of intentions and the welfare of their fellow farmers and farming families.

Mr Marshall said the UFU had met Fair Price Farming NI on Saturday (29th August).

“We were told that their proposed protest focus would be on the dairy sector only and on intervention in particular. For our part while the UFU has been and will continue to do all that it can to resolve the very real financial difficulties which exist within our dairy industry, we have consistently tried to broaden the debate in that problems were occurring right across the entire industry on issues such as cash flow and the ineffective and unfair operation of the supply chain.”

Referring to dairy intervention specifically, Mr Marshall said the UFU had taken part in two separate meetings with senior officials from the EU Agriculture Commissioner’s Cabinet earlier this week in Brussels at which this issue was very strongly pressed, and that Fair Price Farming NI knew in advance that this was happening.

Mr Marshall stressed that the UFU has always made very clear that it recognises the case for protesting but it is the objective of those protests that must be carefully thought out.

He continued: “We had already committed publicly several weeks ago to our participation in the major Copa demonstration planned for Brussels on Monday 7 September to coincide with the emergency meeting of national farm ministers and with the uncertainty emerging recently of the future of the political institutions at Stormont and also other protests taking place throughout the EU in advance of Monday’s emergency agriculture council meeting, we along with wider agri-food industry representatives felt it important to hold our own demonstration on these twin themes locally.

“We shared this with the representatives of Fair Price Farming NI at our meeting on Saturday and indeed many of them saw merit in what we were intending to do but we subsequently heard through a third party that they had decided to proceed with their dairy only protest.

“In terms of our choice of venue Stormont was chosen, not for any political reasons but as a venue that would not inconvenience the public. The UFU also made it very clear from the outset that it does not become involved in mainstream politics. However in light of the uncertainties about the future of the Executive and Assembly we along with the wider agri-food industry want to underline the importance of local political influence within the context of UK devolution. Ministers and other politicians from the devolved administrations often have very different views on agriculture than the government in London. We also recognise the need for political support from all local parties in advance of the crucial farm council meeting in Brussels on Monday,” said Mr Marshall.