Opinion

A political vacuum is bad news for agriculture in Northern Ireland

This week’s Assembly elections could not have come at a worse time for agriculture in Northern Ireland.

It is universally accepted that farming and food are the industries most exposed to the impact of a Brexit deal. And for both of these sectors to have – potentially – no political representation in the upcoming negotiations, involving the UK and the European Union, could well be a nightmare scenario.

And this may well be the case if the political parties up at Stormont cannot patch up their differences over the next three 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. And, as far as I am aware, he doesn’t have a seat at Cabinet, though he is a member of Government. So his influence in the process may well be pretty limited.

I carried out a straw poll of farmers at a recent meeting held in Co Derry. Everyone in the audience – some 60 in total – confirmed that canvassing politicians had not brought up agriculture in any meaningful way when it came to asking for votes. And that’s not altogether surprising.

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.

Recent history also shows that nationalist / republican politicians have mostly held the reins of power within the Department of Agriculture, since the new political institutions were bedded down. And, from what I could make out, a business-as-usual approach always seemed to be the order of the day.

During his term as Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness spoke at Balmoral Show on at least three occasions. And, in truth, he always made a more-than-positive impact, such was the quality of his presentations.

But 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 encouraging any form of constructive agri-debate on Brexit, prior to last June’s referendum.