Post-Brexit divergence between UK and EU rules is putting the future of some farming sectors in Northern Ireland at risk, peers have been warned.
Alexander Kinnear, parliamentary officer for the Ulster Farmers’ Union, said it was the UK Government which had delivered the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Windsor Framework – and it now had to deliver a mechanism to deal with divergence.
The House of Lords European Affairs sub-committee on the Windsor Framework is investigating regulatory divergence – the development of differences in the legal standards separately imposed by the EU and the UK for the manufacturing, import, export and marketing of goods and services.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, negotiated to avoid a hard border in Ireland after Brexit, tied Northern Ireland to the rules of the EU single market for goods.
The Windsor Framework, which was introduced to reform the protocol earlier this year, reduced the application of EU rules in Northern Ireland and contained mechanisms for managing divergence.
Asked about the impact of regulatory divergence on agriculture, Mr Kinnear said it had been negative.
He said: “This has been going on right from when Brexit kicked in, right throughout the period of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the protocol bill, the period in between and now we have the Windsor Framework.”
He gave the example of the use of glyphosate on farms for the desiccation of crops.
Mr Kinnear said the EU was in the process of approving glyphosate use for a further 10 years, but not for the purpose of pre-harvest desiccation.
He said: “If we can’t use it for that purpose the viability of the cereal sector in Northern Ireland comes into question, which should set alarm bells ringing.”
He said other EU countries were seeking a derogation on the use of lyphosate.
He said: “Northern Ireland is not a member state, neither is the UK.
“We are completely at a loss as to how we channel our efforts into a lobbying campaign or request government to do that on our behalf.”
Mr Kinnear also drew attention to the organic egg sector in Northern Ireland, which he said is worth £5 million a year.
He told peers that the EU is planning on restoring a regulation, suspended following the invasion of Ukraine, stating that hens in this sector must be fed with 100% organic feed while farmers in Great Britain will continue to be allowed to use 95% organic feed.
He said: “The big problem is in terms of cost, we supply GB with our organic eggs.
“If these rules come into effect, these EU regulations, again the viability of that sector comes into question because we can’t compete with GB farmers on that tariff.”
Mr Kinnear was asked about the main risks associated with regulatory divergence.
He said: “Divergence is like an assassin.
“We don’t know when it is going to strike under the current set of rules, lot of stuff we find out second hand.
“The risk is the possibility of the end of some sectors… the viability of a sector, that’s a huge risk.
“All business groups in Northern Ireland make a concerted effort to keep these things out of the public eye and be diplomatic but that doesn’t appear to be getting us very far.
“The first part of any problem is acknowledging it’s a problem and have government moved into that head space? I don’t think so.”
He told the committee: “It is the UK Government that delivered Brexit, they delivered the Northern Ireland Protocol and they have now delivered the Windsor Framework – and it is their responsibility to now deliver a mechanism to properly deal with divergence.
“Not only to listen on divergence, but to act on it and to mitigate it.”
He added: “It is nearly like a game of pass the parcel and the parcel represents responsibility here. When the music stops nobody wants to be the one holding the parcel.”