European funding legal case 'a total embarrassment'

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A UUP MLA said a disagreement over European funding should have been resolved at the Executive table and not at the High Court, on 20 January 2014.

Jo-Anne Dobson proposed her party's motion following a recent court case involving two Executive ministers.

At the end of 2013, Finance Minister Simon Hamilton took legal action to prevent the Agriculture Minister, Michelle O'Neill, distributing more than £100m of European funding over six years without consulting the Executive first on exactly where it was going.

Mrs O'Neill told an earlier debate that she believed transferring 7% of Common Agricultural Policy funding to rural development projects represented a good balance between the other priorities she had to consider and would have helped support investment in the agri-food industry.

Ms Dobson said the circumstances surrounding the case would be considered a "total embarrassment in other countries".

She raised concerns with how the situation had been tackled by both ministers.

"The agriculture minister was entirely mistaken if she thought this was an issue that didn't need to go to the Executive, but I was also disappointed that the lines of communication evidently weren't in place as the finance minister felt that he had to resort to legal action," she said.

Anna Lo of Alliance said although she supported the "main thrust" of the UUP motion she had proposed an amendment as she felt it was "unfair to place the blame solely on the agriculture minister".

She said Northern Ireland now had the lowest EU allocation for rural development in Europe and she shared the suggestion that the legal challenge "could easily be viewed as a politically-motivated action by the DUP in the run-up to the elections".

This was a view shared by the agriculture minister who told the house that she had written to the finance minister Simon Hamilton on two occasions and no concerns had been raised.

"The DUP are electioneering and I think that's very evident to everybody," she said.

This claim was denied by the DUP's Thomas Buchanan who said the St Andrew's Agreement had set out that a minister "could not go on a solo run".

He said Ms Dobson's comments were "ridiculous" and described the motion as "contradictory".

He added there was a "pot of £227m" allocated to rural development funding from the European Union and it was now the agriculture minister's responsibility to bring forward proposals for future funding to the Executive for approval.

The SDLP West Tyrone MLA, Joe Byrne, expressed his support for the motion and the amendment.

He described the court case as "a turf war squabble" and said farmers and the rural community now had "grave concerns" over the implications of the decision not to transfer funding.

Northern Ireland receives around £300m a year in agricultural subsidies from the EU.

Each region can decide to earmark as much as 15% of the funding for environmental and rural development projects.

Traditionally, the farming community pushes for as much money as possible to be allocated to direct payments to farmers.

England has announced it will transfer 12%, Scotland 9.5% and Wales 15% to rural development projects.

The second part of the debate can be viewed here.

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