Northern Ireland

Controversial farm remark raised by MLA

Tony O'Neill chair of the Agri Food Strategy Board Image copyright DETI
Image caption Tony O'Neill is chairman of the Agri Food Strategy Board

The Agriculture minister has refused to be drawn on whether she has faith in the head of a key industry body after recent controversial comments.

Tony O'Neill chairs the Agri-Food Strategy Board, charged with overseeing expansion of the sector.

Earlier this month he made remarks about the future of farming which caused controversy.

Mr O'Neill said that Northern Ireland needed 6,000 intensive farmers to produce food.

Image caption Mr O'Neill called for 6000 intensive farms in Northern Ireland

He told the agriculture committee that the other 20,000 farmers could be asked to look after the countryside.

That sparked an angry response from the Ulster Farmers' Union and the assembly's agriculture committee.

Union president Barclay Bell said it was "alarming and deeply disappointing" that Mr O'Neill seemed to want to "write off 20,000 farms".

Chair of the agriculture committee Linda Dillion said the idea was "impossible and implausible" to implement.

Image caption Ulster Farmers' Union president Barclay Bell said Mr O'Neill's comments were "alarming and deeply disappointing"

At assembly questions on Tuesday, Robin Swann asked Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen whether she "still had faith" in Mr O'Neill as chair of the board.

She said she did not agree with Mr O'Neill's comments.

"I'm very much focused on championing the position of all farmers and not being selective about who I support.

"With regard to having confidence in Mr O'Neill, that's a very loaded question, but the member will be aware that the agri-food strategy group's tenure comes to an end next February."