Opinion

100 years on: Past times of even greater uncertainty for Ulster farmers

The Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) celebrates its centenary at a time of great flux for agriculture.

But one could argue that the organisation was founded at a time of even greater uncertainty. Politically, the island of Ireland was in genuine turmoil back in 1918.

The Irish War of Independence was about to get underway and the very thought of trying to get an effective rural organisation off the ground in any part of the country genuinely staggers belief.

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Partition followed in 1922 and the UFU was provided with the relative tranquility and political stability of a ‘fledgling Northern Ireland’ to get on with its work.

The focus placed on agriculture by the initial Stormont governments also helped the union’s cause.

Some 50 years on, however, the challenges confronting the UFU were ratcheted up immensely with the UK’s entry into the then Common Market.

Almost overnight, the union found itself having to take its demands to Brussels, rather than simply dealing with decision makers in Belfast and London.

There’s no doubt that fighting the cause of agriculture in Northern Ireland at the very heart of Europe put a more-than-significant strain on union resources.

But the challenge was made that little bit easier, given the fact that farmers in the Republic of Ireland were fighting the exact same battles.

I have always found the relationship between the union and the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) to be a very close one. And let’s hope this will always remain the way of things.

It’s much easier being a big fish in a small pond than a “little chappie” in a big ocean.

I would argue that the union’s cause in Brussels was not helped by what seemed the eternally lukewarm attitude of British politicians, when it came to them being on EU-watch.

When I was a staff member of the UFU, it was always guys with “Irish accents” who could pull the rabbit out of the hat, when required.

Given all of this background, it hasn’t come as a complete surprise to me that Brexit is fast approaching. But is it a real opportunity or genuine threat for agriculture in Northern Ireland?

I sense this is a question that all of those involved with the UFU will be consumed with for the next decade and more.