Opinion

IFA and UFU become production focused at their peril

Forget about Brexit: the one issue that truly united IFA President Joe Healy and UFU Deputy President Ivor Ferguson while speaking at this week’s cross-border farmers’ meeting in Co. Derry was their intention to have the current area-based support payment significantly tweaked.

Both made it clear that they wanted to see the support money on offer to agriculture better targeted at those farmers who are more production focused.

Ferguson even suggested that this message had already been accepted by a number of hill farmers, who benefited proportionately from the Pillar 1 payment changes made during the last review of the CAP.

OK: time for a reality check!

I would dare to suggest that the instant Joe Healy tries to push the production-focussed CAP argument, the Farm Centre will be put under siege by hill and commonage farmers from Donegal to West Cork all shouting in unison: ‘over our dead bodies’.

And if Ivor Ferguson thinks that Sinn Fein will accept any dilution of the area based payment concept in Northern Ireland, I would strongly propose that he is deluding himself.

The political party in question would go apoplectic if they even suspected that changes of this type were coming down the track.

Both farm leaders seem to forget that the link between farm payments and production agriculture was broken, courtesy of the Fischer Reform package of 2003.

The process was called de-coupling and it was introduced to keep the EU on the right side of WTO regulations. And these requirements are as relevant today as they were back then.

The best deal both farming organisations can hope to achieve moving forward is to ensure that the total level of funding available to agriculture north and south is retained at current levels.

Where the Republic of Ireland is concerned the big worry has to be the €3 billion annual shortfall in the EU’s funding pot, once the UK says ’cheerio’.

If Brussels fails to come up with a funding alternative, Ireland stands to lose approximately €75m per year across both Pillar 1 and 2 schemes. And, in such circumstances, could Dublin afford to cough up this amount of money from national funds? This could turn out to be the real question confronting Joe Healy and friends.

Meanwhile in Northern Ireland, the issue will soon become one of keeping the Scots away from the biscuit tin.

The UFU is already flagging up the potential for a fall out between themselves and their ‘colleagues’ in Edinburgh over the share out of the future support funding package that will come out of DEFRA.

The Scots were very sore last time around at what they regarded was the unfair share out of the UK’s CAP budget. And I sense they will be seriously re-visiting the issue of who gets what in the big support carve up, once Brexit becomes a reality.

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