Northern Ireland

Daera gives assurances about farmer funds following Countryside Services boardroom purge

Countryside Services director Ian McNiece was removed last month alongside eight other directors
Countryside Services director Ian McNiece was removed last month alongside eight other directors

THE delivery of more than £20 million of public funds to farmers via a company wholly-owned by the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) will be unaffected by a recent boardroom clear out, Edwin Poots' department has said.

The union last month removed the board and managing director of its commercial arm Countryside Services in a move that according to a former member of Stormont's agriculture committee has "prompted concern among the north's tight-knit farming community".

Nine directors, including the Dungannon-based company's managing director Ian McNiece and the UFU's chief executive Wesley Aston, had their directorships terminated on August 26.

They have been replaced on the board by UFU president David Brown and deputy president William Irvine.

In a statement to The Irish News, the farming lobby group's president said: “Regrettably the removal of the Countryside Services board was the only mechanism available in order to implement the direction of the UFU board."

“In relation to other aspects impacted as a result of this decision, we are not able to comment as the process is ongoing.”

Countryside Services administers a number of grant schemes for farmers on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera).

It is currently overseeing two schemes with a combined value of up to £24.1m.

The company is set to be paid up to £4.4m for administering capital grants for Daera's Farm Business Investment Scheme and the department's Agri-Food Cooperation Scheme.

Daera confirmed to The Irish News that it has no concerns about the governance of Countryside Services and said it is satisfied the removal of the company's board will not impact on its ability to administer the current schemes on the department's behalf.

SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone said: "This development has prompted concern among the north's tight-knit farming community and I share the concerns about the removal of the entire board of Countryside Services and the circumstances surrounding it".

The Mid Ulster MLA welcomed the department's confirmation that "the vital services they administer to our agricultural sector have been unaffected by the upheaval".

“Countryside Services have oversight of significant sums of money that they deliver through initiatives like the Farm Business Investment Scheme and it’s important that our rural businesses can continue to access these vital support schemes, particularly given the pressures the sector is facing as a result of the cost of living emergency," he said.