I was deeply concerned to hear NIFDA (Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association) chairman Declan Billington declare that he saw little evidence of joined up thinking coming from the ‘Brexit gurus’ in London, where farming and food are concerned.
He made the comment while giving a conference speech in Belfast earlier this week. It seems that NIFDA has been one of many lobby groups knocking the door of Whitehall over recent days.
There is no doubt that Uncle Tom Cobley and all have been giving their perspective on what is the right way forward for agriculture and food in Northern Ireland to anyone within the Westminster Bubble prepared to give them a friendly ear. But are these people actually listening, or are they being totally bamboozled by the plethora of differing messages they are receiving from this part of the world?
Meanwhile, there is every prospect of the real Brexit talks taking off at a rate of knots in the very near future.
To date, Scotland has been first out of the traps in putting its own clear and distinct message into the public domain, where Brexit is concerned. And, no doubt, the devolved administration in Wales is working up its own strategy. But here in Northern Ireland a political vacuum exists at a time when we really need our politicians to get-on with the jobs they were elected to do.
I genuinely sense that Northern Ireland’s farming and food sectors need to get a clear Brexit message communicated to London as soon as possible. And if this requires the Ulster Farmers’ Union joining forces with NIFDA, so be it. But, at the end of the day, one person should be charged with the responsibility of telling London what it wants to hear, regarding the priorities for farming and food in Northern Ireland.
And my money is on Declan Billington. Apart from his proven ability, he has a foot in both camps. Declan’s NIFDA pedigree allows him to voice the aspirations of the food sector. But courtesy of his day job at the helm of Northern Ireland’s largest animal feed compounding business, he is fully aware of the challenges that face production agriculture.
I have sat-in on three Brexit conferences over the past week. All of the mood music emanating from these events was pretty downbeat in nature. So here’s the reality: Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty has been triggered. Forget the two-year negotiating period that everyone keeps talking about. When hardy comes to hardy the real period of negotiation may last for a few weeks only. The rest of the time will be taken up with posturing by the parties involved.
As a consequence, someone needs to take farming and food by the scruff of the neck and galvanise opinions right now. And I am making it perfectly clear as to who I think that person should be!