Business

Farmers plan Stormont protest message to Brussels

Tractors and tour buses at Stormont last month as farmers gathered at Stormont to protest over falling milk prices

FARMERS in the north are to stage a major demonstration at Stormont this Friday to highlight the ongoing difficulties facing their industry.

The Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) says it hopes the protest will send a strong message to the European Commission.

And members are also expected to picket a meeting between the Commission and national farm ministers in Brussels next Monday alongside farmers from across the EU.

UFU president Ian Marshall said: "People in Northern Ireland understand the importance of a vibrant food industry to the local economy - our aim is to make sure this message is heard in Brussels.

"We do not want to be in a situation where the farm commissioner, Phil Hogan, sees protests in Dublin, Paris or anywhere else but not in Belfast and uses that as a reason to conveniently ignore us."

In recent weeks dairy farmers, who warn they are facing their worst crisis in decades, have mounted protests at supermarkets with convoys of tractors used to block deliveries while individuals removed milk from the shelves.

Even though the dairy industry has been grabbing headlines, other agri-food sectors are also hurting, the union said.

The UFU has cautioned against collapsing the fragile political institutions at Stormont for fear they could be marginalised if direct rule from Westminster was imposed.

Mr Marshall added: "The Government at Westminster and the devolved administration here, in Scotland and in Wales have very different views of what the industry need. We are concerned that in an era of UK devolution we risk being marginalised in Westminster and Brussels if we do not have our own local political representation.

"While we recognise that there are always going to be constraints on what a local administration can and is allowed to do, having locally accountable politicians and decision-makers who better understand our farming industry has helped us in the past."

A sizeable UFU delegation will also join forces with farmers from across the EU at a major protest in Brussels next Monday to coincide with the meeting of the Commission.

That meeting will be attended by Dard minister Michelle O'Neill – and Mr Marshall says her presence in support of local farmers also raises very real concerns about the vacuum that could be created if the local Executive or Assembly were to collapse.

He emphasised that this was not about politics, but about the needs of the most important private sector industry in Northern Ireland to secure not only the help that it needs to survive the present serious financial difficulties, but also to assist it strategically develop and grow to ensure that the north's economy "doesn't miss out on the opportunity to benefit from the growing world demand for food".

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