Business

Brexit would be 'disastrous' for Northern Ireland agriculture, minister claims

Agriculture minister Michelle O'Neill

A UNITED Kingdom exit from the EU would spell disaster for agriculture, the minister for the industry has said.

Michelle O'Neill said too many questions remained over how relationships with European countries and others worldwide would be negotiated following a so-called Brexit.

"Trade arrangements will be at the heart of this uncertainty," she said.

"Trade is vital for the agri-food industry in Ireland. Only 27 per cent of food and drink produced in the north is sold here. Around 21 per cent of total external sales of food and drink from the north go to the south. A further 16 per cent go to other EU member states. When all goods (not just food and drink) are considered, then 60 per cent of exports originating from the north go to the EU.

"It is extremely difficult to predict what access our industry might have to EU markets following Brexit. Access to the EU is something that would have to be negotiated in the wake of a vote to leave and I find it difficult to see a scenario that affords us the same access to EU markets as we currently enjoy. Our agri-food sector would be worse off under Brexit," she added.

And Ms O'Neill, speaking at event debating a possible exit from the EU, said a vote to leave would have a "significant impact" on Northern Ireland's links with the Republic.

"We have also witnessed greater collaboration across this island in terms of greater business and trade opportunities, innovative infrastructural projects and effective all-island integration," she said.

"As minister, I have championed the all-island animal, health and welfare strategy and our farmers livelihoods depend on cross-border livestock movement to make their farm businesses profitable. It would be catastrophic in this regard if customs posts were redeployed along the border, infringing on the social, community and business interests of this island's population."

The conference, held at the Balmoral Hotel in Belfast, was also attended by a number of MEPs and members of national parliaments from across the European Union

Ms O'Neill told delegates that post-exit, "there would not be sufficient funds within the block grant to permit the assembly to continue making payments" at the level currently received from the EU.

"Our farmers and rural communities would be worse off under Brexit. I fear that a significant reduction in direct support would see production go into free-fall and this would leave most of our farmers in significant financial difficulty.

"I am not going to argue that the EU is perfect. There is certainly room for improvement. I have pushed for change and I will continue to do so, particularly with respect to achieving greater simplification within the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP)."

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