Northern Ireland’s leading farmers organisation has “cautiously” welcomed the outcome the Brexit negotiations deal secured by British Prime Minister Theresa May, warning that a “no deal exit” would be disastrous.
The stand taken by the Ulster Farmers Union is significant for the Democratic Unionist Party, since the farmers’ group has traditionally been close to the unionist communities.
The president of the UFU, Ivor Ferguson said: “The situation remains very fluid and we are reviewing the document in detail. Ultimately, we would like a UK-wide solution – full stop.
“However, this agreement does provide an insurance policy to prevent a no deal outcome, which would be disastrous for farm businesses and the economy in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Ferguson said the UFU has always believed that any deal “must allow the agriculture industry free and frictionless trade with the EU”.
“Agri-food is the cornerstone of the Northern Ireland economy and any significant barriers to trade between NI and EU member states, NI and the Republic of Ireland, or NI and Great Britain would have a major impact,” he added.
He went on: “Farmers here provide safe, traceable and affordable food, while at the same time meeting some of the highest animal welfare and environmental standards in the world. We have always argued that any deal, as far as possible, must allow the agriculture industry free and frictionless trade with the EU. Agri-food is the cornerstone of the Northern Ireland economy and any significant barriers to trade between NI and EU member states, NI and the Republic of Ireland, or NI and Great Britain would have a major impact.”
The draft protocol states, if necessary, that there would be no regulatory barriers between NI and GB. Goods from NI would still have unfettered access to the UK’s internal market. However, confirmation is needed that there would also be no commercial barriers when trading into GB, it said.
Saying that such confirmation is “critical”, the UFU said Great Britain is the main market for exports from Northern Ireland’s farms. “Northern Ireland must be able to trade in the UK’s internal market without restrictions,” said Mr Ferguson.
The plan also ensures minimal disruption to the long-standing trading relationship between NI and Republic of Ireland. “These relationships have been central to agriculture here since long before the UK joined the EU,” he said.
“While there are still some areas where we would like clarification, overall, the document now on the table would secure Northern Ireland’s existing agricultural trading relationships. That has always been our aim,” said Mr Ferguson.
The UFU president stressed that the organisation’s key focus has always been farming and it steers clear of wider political issues. “Throughout the UK, Brexit has become overly political and emotive. We are focused on what is best for the future of family-run farm businesses in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Despite the progress, Mr Ferguson says there is still work to be done. “We are at a critical point. The 29th March is fast approaching and I would urge all involved to consider the deal carefully.”
Meanwhile, the The UK’s draft EU withdrawal agreement “may not be perfect” but it is “vastly preferable” to a “no deal” Brexit, according to the chairman of one of the North’s largest business organisations.
Brian Irwin, the chair of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), said the organisation welcomed the UK agreement because it was a “positive development” in the ongoing Brexit negotiations. The group’s members directly employ 22,000 people.
“We would be hopeful that this will enable more substantive talks around our future trading relationship with the EU,” said Mr Irwin who is also the chairman of Portadown-based Irwin’s Bakery which employs 400 people.
Brexit was the main topic of conversation at the NIFDA’s annual dinner on Thursday night in Belfast.
Mr Irwin said that no one in the organisation was in any doubt that “a no deal outcome would be disastrous for Northern Ireland, particularly the agri-food sector”.
Mr Irwin said: “We simply could not absorb increased customs, tariffs and regulatory costs on trade between Northern Ireland and the EU.
“Whilst this agreement may not be perfect, and further clarification on certain aspects will be required, it is vastly preferable to a no deal scenario and offers us an effective insurance policy in the interim period until a new trading relationship is agreed. A UK-wide solution that avoids a hard border and allows Northern Irish firms frictionless access to markets in Britain, Republic of Ireland, and the European Union offers our members the best chance of surviving in a post-Brexit world.”