Opinion

Is Declan Billington the Brexit Guru of the North’s agri-food industry?

I was deeply concerned to hear NIFDA (Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association) Chairman Declan Billington declare that he saw little evidence of joined up thinking coming from the ‘Brexit gurus’ in London, where farming and food are concerned.

He made the comment while giving a recent conference speech in Belfast. It seems that NIFDA has been one of many lobby groups knocking on the door of Whitehall over recent days.

There is no doubt that Uncle Tom Cobley and all have been giving their perspectives on what is the right way forward for agriculture and food in the North to anyone, within the Westminster Bubble, who will give them a friendly ear. But are these people actually listening, or are they being totally bamboozled by the plethora of differing messages that they are receiving from Northern Ireland?

Meanwhile, there is every prospect of the real Brexit talks taking off at a rate of knots in the very near future.

To date, Scotland has been first out of the traps in putting its own clear and distinct message into the public domain. And, no doubt, the devolved administration in Wales is working up its own strategy. But in Northern Ireland, a political vacuum now exists at a time when its politicians should be undertaking the jobs they were elected to do.

I genuinely sense that the North’s farming and food sectors need to get a clear Brexit message communicated to London as soon as possible. And if this requires the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) joining forces with NIFDA, so be it. But, at the end of the day, one person should be charged with the responsibility of telling London what it needs to hear, regarding the priorities for farming and food in Northern Ireland.

My money is on Declan Billington. Apart from his proven ability, he has a foot in both camps. Declan’s NIFDA pedigree allows him to voice the aspirations of the food sector. But, courtesy of his day job at the helm of Northern Ireland’s largest animal feed compounding business, he is also fully aware of the challenges facing production agriculture.

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