Brexit plan for farmers needed, assembly hears
Northern Ireland's agricultural sector is in danger of falling off a cliff if plans are not developed to replace lost EU subsidies, the Assembly has been told.
A joint Opposition Day motion tabled by the Ulster Unionists and SDLP demanded ministerial action to secure the long-term sustainability of the industry post-Brexit.
The parties noted that 70% of EU funding in the region benefitted the farming and rural sectors, the majority under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).
They said the £350 million in annual subsidies represented almost 90% of farmer income and stressed the need to ensure this level of assistance was provided from alternatives sources when the EU tap was turned off.
SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone called on Agriculture Minister Michelle McIlveen to draw up a detailed strategy.
"A strategy that doesn't leave us in the situation and our farmers and our agri-food sector in the situation that, come 2020, we are just financially and otherwise just dropping off the edge of a cliff," he added.
"That has to be avoided at all costs and, irrespective of what people's views are in relation to Brexit or not to Brexit, we must at all costs avoid that situation."
He said the Stormont Executive had to plan for the future and tell the UK government that continued assistance for Northern Ireland farmers was a "red line".
"The DUP and Sinn Fein have a responsibility to alleviate the concerns of those in the agricultural sector who are fearful for their livelihoods, their jobs and indeed their farms," he said.
DUP MLA Edwin Poots said the next CAP deal would have seen cuts to subsidies if the UK had remained within the EU.
He said farmers had been "regulated to death" and wanted to be freed from EU red tape so they could generate more income of their own.
"Northern Ireland farmers voted overwhelmingly to get out of Europe and I think that's something this House needs to reflect upon when they have a debate coming forward on agriculture and rural affairs," he said.
Mr Poots said farmers made clear their feelings on the doorsteps during the referendum campaign.
He said: "Farmer after farmer after farmer was saying 'we want to get out of Europe' - and why did they want to get out of Europe?
"Because over the period of the 45 years we were in Europe they managed to invent something like 2,800 different regulations affecting farming.
"That's one for every week we were actually in Europe. They were regulated to death - farmers couldn't get on with the work they needed to do because they were so busy looking at the regulations, they were in fear of some mandarin coming to their farm as a result of the European regulations."
He said farmers wanted to be "properly paid" for their work rather than take EU "hand-outs".
"They want to be freed up to make money off their own labours," he said.