Political vacuum deprives agri-industry of oxygen

The recent Assembly elections could not have come at a worse time for agriculture in Northern Ireland. Agricultural journalist Richard Halleron details the recent headwinds facing the industry.

It is universally accepted that farming and food are the industries most exposed to the impact of any Brexit deal. As such, for both of these sectors to be potentially deprived of representation in the upcoming negotiations, involving the UK and the European Union, could prove to be a nightmare scenario. This may well be the case if the political parties up at Stormont cannot patch up their differences over the coming weeks.

No political deal means no return of the Executive. This, in turn, means that Northern Ireland will be represented by Secretary of State James Brokenshire in the Brexit talks. Despite being a member of the British Government, he does not have a permanent seat at Theresa May’s Brexit Cabinet table. Thus, he could well find his overall influence in the process curtailed.

Likewise, initial soundings on how May might want to play the farming card in the upcoming Brexit negotiations are not encouraging. The recently published Brexit White Paper makes only passing reference to the future role of farming and food within the UK. This is an extremely worrying development. The entire document extends to a mere 77 pages.

Production agriculture, on the other hand, was allocated a single paragraph; a paragraph which gives no indication as to how future Whitehall administrations intend dealing with the sector. Surely, this development alone, highlights the need for farming in Northern Ireland to be represented at the Brexit negotiating table by local political leaders.

At the same time, in isolation, the Brexit negotiations only represent a part of the challenge moving forward for agriculture in Northern Ireland. Once the UK actually severs the umbilical cord with Brussels, the question arises of how much money Whitehall will actually pump into agriculture by way of support for the industry. Current sounding would indicate that the deal put on the table will be around 50 per cent of what currently emanates from Brussels.

Furthermore, the method by which this money will be divided up amongst the regions of the UK is open to contention. For instance, if the Barnett formula is used, then agriculture in Northern Ireland is set to experience substantial reductions. The industry currently receives about 10 per cent of the United Kingdom’s total CAP cake, whereas if the Barnett option for distribution is applied post-Brexit, this figure could be reduced to approximately 4 per cent.

Again, we will need our politicians galvanised to make the case for the status quo, where the distribution of farm support monies is concerned. That simply cannot happen with a suspension at Stormont. Plan B, I assume, would be to leave the detail of the negotiations in the hands of the Secretary of State and the top thinkers within the Department of Agriculture. The problem with this option is that Brokenshire has no track record of negotiating on behalf of Northern Ireland. As for the civil servants, no one can question their capacity for forward planning, but they don’t like being forced into a decision making role. In any event, it would not be right to have them assume such a responsibility. It is this very function for which elected representatives receive a salary. Irrespective of the voting trends registered at the last assembly election, there is a very clear consensus among the voting public that they want to see the political institutions fully operational at Stormont.

“Current sounding would indicate that the deal put on the table will be around 50 per cent of what currently emanates from Brussels.”

I carried out a straw poll of farmers at a recent meeting held in County Derry. Everyone in the audience – some 60 in total – suggested that canvassing politicians had not discussed agriculture in any meaningful way when it came to asking for votes. That’s not altogether surprising. Conversely, on the ground, even in the darkest days of ‘the Troubles’, agriculture was never split strictly along nationalist/unionist lines. There was always a general acceptance that the interdependence of the various farming sectors was such that a ‘one for all and all for one’ approach was required, when it came to agri-politics.

Since the consolidation of the new political institutions, trends have indicated a predisposition of nationalist/republican politicians to gravitate towards the Department of Agriculture ministry. From my perspective, a business-as-usual approach always seemed to be the order of the day. Indeed, during his tenure as deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness spoke at the Balmoral Show on at least three occasions. In fact, he always made a more-than-positive impact, such were the quality of his presentations.

However, the problem facing agriculture in Northern Ireland today is the pending political vacuum at Stormont. In theory, this is a gap which the Ulster Farmers’ Union should fill. But I sincerely hope that the UFU makes a better fist of this challenge than its less-than-impressive performance when tasked with facilitating any form of constructive agri-debate on Brexit, prior to last June’s referendum.

The last few weeks have seen the Ulster Farmers’ Union President Barclay Bell highlight the need for local farming to have a strong voice at the heart of UK affairs as the Brexit negotiations gather pace. How right he is, but this work has to start now. London needs to hear a clear voice from Northern Ireland, regarding the importance of farming and food to our local economy.

In this regard, ‘many voices will not make light work’. Space around the upcoming negotiating will be tight enough. In any event, a myriad of incoherent voices trying to make a pitch for Northern Ireland will only serve to confuse the minds of those within Whitehall charged with the responsibility of making the final Brexit deal.

I genuinely sense that we need one person dedicated to the task of communicating the needs of our farming and food industries to London and Brussels. In a perfect world, our Farm Minister would take on this role. But given the current stalemate up at Stormont, we cannot rely on this being the case. Plan B must, therefore, be the appointment of an agri-food ambassador for Northern Ireland. This person must have the experience of our industry at the very top level, the personality to deliver the message properly and the mettle to tell Theresa May, Andrea Leadsom and David Davis when they are getting it wrong
Furthermore, this person should be seen to be totally independent of the farm lobby groups. I sense that if the Union pushes to fulfil the role, it would only serve to encourage groups marking similar territory to snipe from the side-lines, rather than put their shoulders to the wheel.

The good news is that there is no shortage of expertise amongst our political representatives, where food and farming are concerned. Northern Ireland’s last three Farm Ministers – Michelle Gildernew, Michelle O’Neill and Michelle McIlveen – have all been returned to Stormont. Each, in their own way, made a valuable contribution in forwarding the needs of the industry. They don’t need to be briefed on the needs of agriculture, so they are perfectly qualified to represent the industry over the coming months. But all of this will count for nothing if they can’t cut a deal at Stormont, which sees the re-establishment of a working Executive.

Politics is supposed to be the ‘art of the possible’. Unfortunately, Northern Ireland’s political leaders haven’t always lived up to the required level pragmatism.  

 

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