A challenging environment

Chair of the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Linda Dillon, discusses the make-up of the new department and the implications of Brexit.

The integration of the functions of the former Department of Environment (DoE) into the new Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) alongside the functions of the former Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) was one of the major changes to take place during last year’s shake-up of Executive portfolios. Regarded as a major step forward in integrating the policy of agriculture with ensuring the protection of the environment, the merger was planned without the hindsight of the Brexit referendum result. Some have since argued that the merging of functions may be ill-timed, expanding the Department’s workload in an era when, more than ever, precise focus is required.

However, committee Chair Dillon views the move as a positive step. “It’s a great opportunity for joined-up thinking and being able to marry output with sustainability. Our farmers are up for change, they care about their environment and the feedback we are getting is that they want to be advised and assisted with farming in a way that is better for the environment,” she says. “I think the challenge for the Minister is to ensure that she is working with farmers to aid them in every way she can, whether that be through education or through financial assistance. Putting the functions under one roof offers the Department a great opportunity to take decisive action, where previously it would have required cross-departmental ministerial agreement.”

Newly elected Sinn Féin MLA, Dillon, is well versed in the issues affecting rural communities, having previously chaired the district council of the Mid Ulster constituency. She explains that her background in agriculture and coming from a rural family ensured a good understanding not just of agriculture, but also of the wider rural issues such as infrastructure, deprivation and isolation.

Although still early in the mandate, Dillon is somewhat critical about the relationship that has formed between the Minister and the committee, believing that not enough information is being diffused from the top down. Dillon asserts that the recent Minister’s address to the committee only served to reaffirm the level of uncertainty surrounding the challenges Brexit will enforce on the Department.

She states that a lack of engagement has forced the committee to adopt a position of lobbying, most notably around border issues. “As well as meeting with stakeholders during the summer months, the committee was also in receipt of a number of research papers on the potential implications of Brexit in various scenarios. Not very much of it would give you great confidence that agriculture is going to be in a good condition post-Brexit,” she says.

“We have to be realistic that agriculture is not a big economic driver across the water and is unlikely to be a focal point of any deal.”

“The committee are meeting with our counterparts in the Oireachtas in the early part of 2017 and the main topic of discussion will be Brexit. We have sent all of our correspondence to the Department to emphasise that those are the issues we want addressed, but we have also sent them to MEPs, the EU Commissioner and the Dublin Government.
“In my personal opinion the Department are not putting enough focus on cross-border practicalities. Dublin has a vested interest in protecting the island’s agri-food sector and co-operation is vital. Which is why I believe that it is vital that our ministers engage with the All-Island Civic Dialogue established by Enda Kenny.”

Analysing the Department’s relationship with London, Dillon says: “Some of the statements coming from London recently have been positive, but at the minute they are just words. We have to be realistic that agriculture is not a big economic driver across the water and is unlikely to be a focal point of any deal. While the Minister has said that she is speaking to those in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Brexit ministers and the Prime Minister, I would have fears for our agri-food sector and surrounding environmental legislation.”

Asked whether the committee was being hampered by diametrically opposed political stances on Brexit, Dillon states: “As a committee we have to listen to stakeholders and reflect what they are telling us, whether these are our own beliefs or not. The message that we are getting from stakeholders is that they are concerned. One example of this is the promised reduction of red tape for farmers in the event of a Brexit but what we are actually being told, very clearly by the agri-food sector, is that the current regulation must be kept in place to ensure the high qualities of our food.”

Dillon stresses that any change to the current European legislation relating to agriculture and the environment would be vastly time consuming in progressing to an implementation stage, and describes it as a “lifetime of work”.

“If you take for example the 2020 target of a 50 per cent recycling rate for household waste, or many of the other European Commission driven targets, these are targets that we really don’t want to reduce even if outside of EU. Unpicking all that legislation is a vast piece of work but we need to ensure that all of that good legislation is protected.”

Dillon points to two pressing issues on the committee’s agenda currently, including promoting growth in the agri-food sector and a long-term strategy on tackling bovine tuberculosis (bovine TB). Speaking on the Going for Growth strategy, Dillon took the opportunity to commend the resilience of those working in the sector in challenging times but added that she believed the strategy required an update in light of the referendum result.

Quizzed on her ambitions while in the position of Chair, Dillon adds: “I would like our committee to be the committee that addresses the infrastructure deficit and to put pressure on the Minister to ensure the Rural Needs Act is applied across the Executive and across all the bodies that it has legislative power over.”

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