Northern Ireland

NI farming could 'fall behind rest of UK'

cows in a field
Image caption Environmentalists say there is now a decision-making and policy vacuum over farming in Northern Ireland

Farming in Northern Ireland could be "left behind" because there is no minister to drive forward a new agriculture policy, it has been claimed.

Both environmentalists and the main farming union have expressed concern that the Stormont stalemate could frustrate work to develop it.

Northern Ireland has been without an executive since last January.

There have been a series of meetings to address the agriculture issue.

The meetings involve include civil servants, the Ulster Farmers' Union, the agri-food industry and representatives from environmental groups.

'Hugely frustrating'

They have been working on finding common ground which could feed into Northern Ireland specific legislation.

But details of the work have not been made public.

Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) president Barclay Bell said it was "hugely frustrating" that ideas worked up in 15 months of meetings could not be advanced.

Environmentalists involved in the process said there was now a "decision-making and policy vacuum" here.

Image caption The new policy suggests moving farmers from a system of subsidies based on the land they own, to one which pays them for 'public goods'

The Environment secretary Michael Gove has published proposals for a new agricultural policy for England.

It suggests moving farmers from a system of subsidies based on the land they own, to one which pays them for "public goods".

That includes things like soil health, water quality, improved biodiversity and public access to farmland.

Image caption Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) president Barclay Bell is frustrated ideas developed in 15 months of meetings can not be advanced

The Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) consultation document says Northern Ireland will have the flexibility and greater powers to draw up its own policy specific to its circumstances.

But in the absence of a minister, that has stalled.

"The industry has been sitting down together for the past 15-16 months trying to come up with ideas of how a future agricultural policy looks and probably have got there," Mr Bell said.

"They have done a lot of hard work but in the continued absence of a minister we can't push this one on, so there's a clear risk to the industry that we could very much get left behind or that we could get something imposed on us which we don't really want."

'Cause for concern'

Environmentalists involved in the discussions work under the banner of the Nature Matters NI group.

It includes organisations like the RSPB, the National Trust, Ulster Wildlife and Northern Ireland Environment Link.

Its spokesman John Martin said there was real concern that the absence of an assembly and a minister could hold up important work as Brexit loomed.

"The DEFRA consultation will inform the development of the agriculture bill which needs to pass through Westminster before we leave the EU in March 2019.

"Without an Assembly in place to form policy or legislate for any future changes, there is clear cause for concern.

"There is a clear decision-making and policy vacuum for future policy development in Northern Ireland that must be urgently addressed," he said.

The Defra consultation opened on Tuesday, and will last 10 weeks, closing on 8 May.

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