Election uncertainty confronts agriculture in Northern Ireland

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) sources have confirmed that Northern Ireland’s Minister for Agriculture, Michelle McIlveen, will continue in office until such times as an election is called.

But, after that, all bets are off as to what the future ministerial responsibilities will be put in place for agriculture north of the border.

It is now widely anticipated that an election may be called within the next fortnight, with an early March election date the most likely option.

Meanwhile, McIlveen foresees fundamental change in the support systems available to farmers in Northern Ireland beyond 2020.

Speaking at this year’s Ulster Arable Society conference, she said that Brexit will pose challenges for the farming sectors moving forward.

“But it will also deliver opportunities. Change is inevitable and we are already getting a sense from Whitehall that new support measures will be made available to agriculture post Brexit.”

McIlveen reflected on the views expressed by DEFRA Minister George Eustice, who visited Northern Ireland prior to Christmas. At that stage he espoused the principle of income insurance as the main template for future agricultural support in the UK.

“These ideas were further fleshed out at last week’s Oxford Farming Conference.”

We know that the current basic payment support scheme is not working. It is too bureaucratic and is not flexible in terms of meeting farmers’ specific needs.

McIlveen confirmed that Northern Ireland must have total flexibility when it comes to putting in place a support mechanism that reflects the bespoke needs of local farmers.

“I also want to ensure that the current cross-border trading arrangements in agricultural commodities are fully maintained post-Brexit. New market opportunities will be created for our agri-food sector during the years ahead. And this must be regarded as an important opportunity moving forward.

“But it is also important for the production standards delivered day-in: day-out  by farmers in Northern Ireland to be fully reflected in the quality of the food imports coming into the UK, once we leave the EU. I will not tolerate double standards in this regard.”

McIlveen said that the arable sector continues to play a key role within Northern Ireland agriculture.

Annual output from the sector amounts to £56m with 36,000ha dedicated to crop production.

“I am aware of the profitability challenges that confront the arable sector at the present time. The future of the industry is very much dependent on the adaptation of new technologies and the ongoing attainment of new skills by producers.

McIlveen also reflected on the crisis that has engulfed the political institutions at Stormont over recent days.

“I will continue to represent the needs of the industry in the most effective way possible throughout my term of office,” she said.

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