The Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle O’Neill MLA speaks to Owen McQuade about her time in office and the challenges facing Northern Ireland’s agricultural industry.
Having been in post for four years now, Northern Ireland’s Agriculture and Rural Development Minister, Michelle O’Neill has had her fair share of crises to deal with, including the snow crisis of 2013, the fodder crisis and the CAP reform process.
However, despite what may seem like enough crisis management to last anyone a lifetime, O’Neill has thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “It has been great,” says O’Neill. “You can really see the difference we are making in rural communities in creating businesses and jobs. The current rural programme has created 900 jobs and we are now rolling out our new programme which is going to do that and more.”
The new rural development programme that O’Neill speaks of is the biggest in Northern Ireland’s history and will invest £623 million. The programme will, according to the Minister, look after farming, the environment and the wider rural economy. Discussing her views on the programme, O’Neill claims it will offer a number of tremendous benefits to the rural economy as whole but in particular to farm business improvement schemes.
“Instead of just having a pot of money for capital development and not really thinking it out, what we’re trying to do is bring it forward on a phased basis where we work with the farmers and try to identify their needs,” said O’Neill. “By that I mean we will look to find out their future goal, their strategy for getting there and how best we can help. The pot is up to £250 million and that will be of tremendous benefit to the rural economy.
“We have our Going for Growth strategic action plan that sets out our vision of looking to new markets and our vision for the sector. I think ultimately, the farm business improvement scheme will help farmers adapt to, be part of and reap the benefits of that strategy and the new markets that we get into by helping them improve their efficiency and all the other aspects of their farm business which they identify as needing help.
Despite this optimism, O’Neill is aware of the criticism that has been hurled at the Going for Growth strategy by farmers dismayed by the strategy’s direction. “It is fair to say that given that it has been such a difficult time in the agri-industry that there has been some criticism around what Going for Growth means for individuals for farmers and I think there needs to be some more work around that,” admitted O’Neill.
“We need the whole of the industry to recognise this is about them and there is a role for everyone within it and there is benefits for all of them. I think the work we will be doing around the supply chain is key. We held our first Supply Chain Forum event in October last year. The Supply Chain Forum is key to our Going for Growth strategy as there is only one supply chain. All sectors have expressed an interest in this forum.
“There is a need for a fresh way of looking at supply chains to protect against the volatility that is present in the marketplace. We are all competing on a global stage now and we need to recognise the change in circumstances and look towards how we possibly can protect the whole supply chain. I really believe the Supply Chain Forum work will be key to that, plus I think it’s fair to say that farmers at the end of the supply chain feel they are the ones pushed and under pressure to find cost efficiency and I think some of the protests that farming unions have held over the past couple of years come from that frustration.
“I remember they did a selling off of produce at farm gate prices and people were amazed at what farmers were actually getting for what they were producing. So the key to Going for Growth actually working is going to be recognition from all players that there is only one supply chain so I’m very keen to get involved in supply chain work.”
As part of the Going for Growth strategy, increasing Northern Ireland’s exports markets will play a key role. One of the key markets the Minister is hoping to bring into play is China. China has a land mass of over 9.59 million km2 and population totalling over a recorded 1.36 billion. As such it is no surprise that this market is one that Northern Irish famers are keen to cater too.
However, while obviously keen to bring China on board O’Neill also her eye on other markets. “China is a very important market for us,” says O’Neill. “I’ve been over to China three times and we are trying hard to build those relationships. We have had quite positive feedback from our inspection visits from their inspectors and we are hoping to have some positive news in the very near future in relation to pork.
“We are also looking at other markets like the Philippines, Australia and America. From my point of view, the department’s role is in relation to export certificates, letting the inspectors come out and see how we produce food and make sure their countries are happy with our processes.
“DETI undoubtedly has a role to play in going out to target new markets but one of the areas we have identified is the need for a marketing body to help us evaluate which markets to target and which markets would be most receptive to our produce. We are about to establish a new marketing body which will work with industry to assess which markets they want to concentrate their focus on and I think this will be a very positive step.”
In a drive to ensure DARD has a grasp on the local and immediate issues facing the work force on the ground the department is in a process of decentralisation. The process has seen DARD’s fisheries headquarters move to Downpatrick, the Forest Service move to Inishkeen House in Enniskillen and will see the Rivers Agency move to Cookstown by the middle of this year. By 2020 DARD will be headquartered at Ballykelly.
Such a large scale movement might cause major disruption for such a large public body but the Minister is enthusiastic about the transition and the opportunities it presents. “Looking at our progress in decentralisation, things are going well,” the Minster says.
“We hope to put our headquarters out to tender soon, so it’s full steam ahead. We’re going to be the first department that has actually moved the whole department out into a rural area. The fact we even have a spread is a tremendous benefit to the north west given we have a number of posts that are going into that area.
“There are many advantages to our decentralisation. Firstly, there’s the economic benefits, the construction and the ongoing servicing of the new buildings, the throughput in terms of footfall for the local areas will bring tremendous benefits for the north west as a whole.
The fact we have different elements going into different areas makes good sense. Fisheries is now closer to the ports thus closer to the stakeholders. For the Rivers Agency, Loughry is a central location that will make it very easy to get to all the areas they will be servicing across the North. I think the move will provide for a better work life balance for those who work in the department and will have the opportunity to access employment closer to their homes.
It is an all-round positive move that I’m very proud of. Rarely does a dispersal like this happen. Whilst you accept there are a number of people who want to work in DARD but don’t want to move, the wider trawl across the civil service showed a large appetite for those job opportunities. It’s a big time of transition and a big time of change. Everything is changing, however we have quite a number of years getting us to this stage and making sure staff are informed and ready for the change as we progress through it.”
The island of Ireland has a long history of cross-border trade and co-operation especially in the agriculture industry. However in recent times policy decisions have made this more difficult. O’Neill is keen to see this co-operation continue.
“I think we should be working with BordBia,” says O’Neill. “There is a traditional trade across the island with the nomadic cattle issue. However, country of origin labelling is producing a massive challenge for us.
“We have approached Europe and they are open to some local approach, to say the produce is from the island of Ireland and therefore local produce so we are trying to work our way through that. I do believe there are more potential problems in the offing for other sectors as well. But given that traditional trade pattern, we should be working collectively across this island in terms of the Going for Growth marketing opportunities and the establishment of this new food marketing body. The food marketing body will have an all-island dimension so there is an opportunity to strength our links and show how we can best use our resources to work together.
“It is an unprecedented time for agriculture on the island of Ireland. All our sectors are struggling. Usually we’d have challenges in the dairy sector then challenges in the poultry sector but at this moment in time all sectors are struggling.
“I still believe our Going for Growth strategy is the best way to get us through these problems and I do believe the best way we can help the industry is to open up as many markets as we possibly can. Having the farm business improvement scheme there offering practical help and support is just one of the many things my department is doing to try and help those who are struggling at this present time. Whilst it is a challenging time the future does look good with a global demand for food.
“We’re also trying to get to the stage where there will be one disease status across the island of Ireland. Hopefully this will mean that when it comes to all the different diseases there will be one disease status across this whole island. Fortress Ireland served us well in the past in terms of keeping out disease and serves the island well and hopefully we will be able to implement something like that again.”
Ultimately, O’Neill understands that there are a lot of issues currently facing agri industries of all shapes and sizes but claims that the responsibility for rural dwellers must not rest solely with her department. “I’ve brought forward a rural proofing bill which I’m very keen to see through before the end of this mandate to ensure that all departments accept their responsibility,” declared O’Neill.
“I firmly believe it is all departments’ responsibility to look after rural dwellers so the rural proofing bill will put the need for all departments to take into consideration the needs of rural dwellers in strategy and policy making decisions on a statutory footing,” she concluded.
“There is a need for a fresh way of looking at supply chains to protect against the volatility that is present in the marketplace”
“country of origin labelling is producing a massive challenge for us”