After months of uncertainty for the farming industry in Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill has opted for a single region model for the distribution of Single Farm Payments from January 2015.
Farmers will have a seven-year transition period to allow them to plan their businesses for the change in the annual payment, which is commonly regarded as accounting for the bulk of farm profits.
The announcement is in contrast to the preferred option of a two-region model which had been favoured by the Ulster Farmers’ Union.
UFU president Ian Marshall said that while the final positions on regionalisation and transition are not exactly what the Union was hoping for, farmers will be relieved that an agreement has finally been reached.
He added: “This hasn’t been an easy or smooth process for anyone involved and farmers across Northern Ireland have been seriously worried over the past few months that we would be facing a default position come August 1. The fall-out would have been a complete disaster for the industry and undoubtedly it would have put many farm businesses at risk.
“The Agriculture Minister has been true to her word that she would not let it go to a default position and our politicians have done their bit to show their support for the future of farming in Northern Ireland.
“Farmers at least now know where they stand, and while it isn’t exactly what the Union was hoping for we need to look at the positives.
“A seven-year transition means that Northern Ireland has the longest transition period of all the UK regions and it gives farmers some time to adapt their businesses.
“However, this may be of little comfort to Northern Ireland’s beef farmers in disadvantaged areas (DA) who will be the ones hardest hit through a combination of redistribution under a single region and also coming out of the Areas of Natural Constraint (ANC) scheme.”
Mr Marshall warned that wider UK convergence of direct payments, especially the ‘Scottish Factor’, still remains a threat to Northern Ireland and it is no secret that Scotland is still actively pursuing a review of UK CAP budget allocations.
“Since we are the only part of the UK to opt for a single region under the CAP, and have an average direct payment well above the UK average, we are an easy target for Scotland.
“It will be up to the Agriculture Minister to ensure that she defends our historical CAP allocation and prevents Northern Ireland farmers from losing €100million annually as Scotland look for a redistribution of CAP monies across the UK,” he added.
Making her announcement, Mrs O’Neill said she was pleased that the Executive had also agreed to support her proposals for a Rural Development Programme 2014–2020 of up to £623million, and additional funding which would help to deliver on the aims and objectives in the Agri Food Strategy Board’s Going for Growth report.
“Compromise was needed and we have succeeded in finding a fair and balanced solution which represents a good outcome for farmers’ right across the north.
“We were all well aware that if decisions on these issues are not notified to the EU Commission by August1 , then the default position would be imposed on us by Brussels. This was a situation I was determined to avoid, especially when I fought so hard to secure the right to make decisions locally,” she added.
Mrs O’Neill said the package of support will provide a solid platform from which to drive the industry forward and help fulfil its full potential.
Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister Arlene Foster described the Executive’s approval as positive news for the agri food industry.
She added: “Going for Growth sets ambitious targets and challenges for both Government and industry but I would expect nothing less from a sector which has continued to grow, despite the recent economic downturn.”