Stormont stalemate tightens grip on Northern farms

Farmers have voiced their frustration that decisions affecting some of Northern Ireland’s biggest agricultural issues have been put on the long finger, because of politicians’ inability to reach agreement.

It’s believed ministerial action is required for some decisions affecting:

  • TB recommendations;
  • Flood relief aid;
  • Proposals to cope with the region’s soaring ammonia emissions.

The doors of Stormont have been closed for more than a year now. More than 12 months have passed since former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness penned his resignation after a row with the DUP over the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme.

Despite several attempts, talks continue to fail with disagreement over the Irish Language Act and other legacy issues causing an impasse.

The damage

The task of devising a budget was left to former secretary of state James Brokenshire. The move cost Northern Ireland agriculture dearly – it’s projected the department could lose up to £20 million (€22.7 million) from its budget in just two years’ time.

AgriLand previously reported that a meeting involving Northern Ireland’s TB taskforce – the TB Strategic Partnership Group – had also been delayed by the absence of an agriculture minister in Northern Ireland.

After several months of delays, the meeting eventually proceeded without a sitting minister for agriculture; the delay meant measures to tackle TB were set back; while the disease reached its worst level in well over a decade.

Proposals to ban splash-plate slurry tankers by 2025 made in the ammonia report would also require legislative changes – something which cannot go ahead without ministerial approval.

The issue has surfaced yet again this month as government officials tell the UFU they cannot give the go-ahead to any aid for flood-stricken farmers without a minister in place.

In the Republic, flood-stricken farmers were able to avail of a maximum of €15,000 each. It’s understood the majority of those affected have already been paid.

Flood aid

Speaking at an Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) roadshow, deputy president Victor Chestnutt said he met with James Brokenshire just before Christmas.

He said: “We do need someone to take decisions; James Brokenshire clearly told me that he was not there to make decisions.

“One of the things I raised with him was the small number of farmers who got their farms wiped out in the flooding.

I asked him: ‘What would have happened if the farmers affected by the flooding in the north of England a few years ago had gotten no aid. Do you not think you would be under pressure?’

“He assured me that it wasn’t his job and he wouldn’t be dipping into any department to make any decisions to go ahead with this or go ahead with that.

“He talked about an election and I told him that was the last thing we needed; we need to get them back to work.

“I think history will judge our politicians very poorly for not being in place in such a critical time in the history of our country.”

‘It’s what everyone is talking about’

One farmer said the lack of political direction and its affect on agriculture was the biggest talking point at the marts. “It’s what everyone is talking about,” he said.

UFU policy and technical manager James McCluggage added: “There’s two buzz words at the moment – one’s ‘collaboration’ and the other is ‘public goods for public money’.

Environmentalists; farmers – we all start with Stormont. It’s a public good and it’s paid for by public money, and if they don’t do it they shouldn’t be there. Cut the pay.

Plans are for talks to start tomorrow (January 24) with a view to the parties agreeing to reform a power-sharing government.

Fresh talks

There is no deadline in place for an agreement; however, Simon Coveney, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister, told the press: “We are talking weeks rather than months.”

He added: “The pressures have been building for some months now in the context of decisions, which need political input from a devolved government here in Northern Ireland, that can’t be made in the absence of that.”

Karen Bradley, newly-appointed Secretary of State, added: “I think it’s fair to say this is urgent.”

However, when asked what the plan was in the event of no agreement being reached Bradley said she “was not thinking of that” and added that the priority was to get a devolved government up and running in Northern Ireland again.