Farmers may face competition for funds from Stormont
FARMERS currently in receipt of payments from the EU may have to compete for cash with hospitals and schools when Stormont takes control of agricultural subsidies.
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers has signalled that responsibility for the £300m-plus of funds currently paid by Brussels will be devolved to the regions after the UK leaves the European Union.
It means Stormont would receive money to cover the annual payments as part of the block grant, alongside spending for health, education and infrastructure.
"One would expect given the way the current devolution settlement works that Stormont would be in the driving seat in terms of allocating those farm subsidies," Ms Villiers said yesterday.
Her remarks came as it emerged that some farmers and landowners in the north received more than £250,000 from Brussels last year.
Figures available from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in London show there were 135 recipients of £100,000-plus payments.
Many of those who drew down the EU cash are private firms and organisations, but many of the highest payments also go to individuals.
Maintaining the level of subsidies may create future difficulties for an increasingly cash-strapped Stormont faced with competing demands in health, education and other sectors.
Newry farmer Damien Conlon recorded the highest Single Farm Payment in the north in 2015, receiving £217,000. He also received £67,000 under a scheme which pays landowners when they face "natural and other specific constraints".
Former Ulster Farmers Union president Campbell Tweed is also among the top recipients of EU funds, drawing down £190,000 last year.
Others identified on the Defra database included Norman McBurney from Ballymena, who received £213,000 in subsidies last year, Omagh's Mona Sawyers with £181,000 and William McConnell Jnr from Ballyclare who was paid £168,000.
It is claimed that subsidies account for up to 87 per cent of farm incomes in the north.
In February the future leader of the Ulster Farmers Union, Ivan Ferguson, warned that Britain's withdrawal from the EU would be a "step into the darkness" that would create uncertainty for the north's farmers.
The Defra figures show a total of £321m was paid out through various Common Agricultural Policy (Cap) schemes.
The lion's share of the funds – around £260m – was paid to landowners as a Single Farm Payment, which is calculated on the basis of land area and historical entitlements.
The money is only one element of Cap, however, and farmers can augment their basic payment by joining environmental schemes or by applying for business improvement grants.