The Ulster Farmers Union needs to come off the fence on the Brexit debate, Ian Paisley Junior said yesterday.
The DUP MP for North Antrim was speaking at the Belfast launch of a document to make the case for leaving the European Union.
“I am hugely disappointed at the lack of leadership by the UFU on this issue,” Mr Paisley said in his address to the launch, at the Hilton Hotel in the Waterfront.
“They are out of touch with the vast majority of farmers. They are not providing leadership one way or the other.”
Mr Paisley was speaking from the podium at the unveiling of a 28-page document published by Leave.EU and Global Britain, that makes the “positive case” for Northern Ireland outside of the EU, alongside the rest of the UK.
In further comments to the News Letter after his short talk to the document’s media launch, Mr Paisley explained his frustration with the UFU.
“They should take a line, not be neutral,” he said. Mr Paisley said that there was a sense that the UFU was briefing behind the scenes that it was best to stay, but that while he would prefer them to take a strong line to quit Europe, he would respect it more if they took a line to remain than took no line at all, as at present.
But he added: “They know they can’t take that stance [Remain] because it is not popular with the rank and file.”
Mr Paisley said that farm subsidies are set to fall even if the UK stays in the EU. Outside of the EU, he believes grants can be increased and improved.
In his address to the launch, Mr Paisley also said that there was a public hunger for information about the referendum. “People want solid, decent, sound information. There is an interest in this debate.”
He said that the treatment of the Irish land border would “not change dramatically in any way” in the case of Brexit.
“Those who keep coming back to that issue are scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of arguments.”
The UFU President Barclay Bell said it had always been clear that this would be a contentious issue, and that people’s views would not be based solely on whether or not the EU delivered for farming.
“This was why we made clear from the outset that we would not be telling members how to vote,” he said. “We have left that up to them, while saying that we have not seen a compelling argument that farming would fare better outside the EU. This issue has been discussed widely within our internal structure and this has been our agreed position from the outset, and it will not change between now and the referendum,” he added.
Commenting on claims that the majority of farmers favour Brexit, the UFU president said that like the rest of society farmers were divided in their views, with polls suggesting a fairly even split of opinion.
“Some have already decided how they will vote, but a lot remain undecided. It is not our job as a farm lobby organisation to try to drive those floating voters one way or the other. We do not become involved in mainstream politics, and over this issue we are happy to trust our 12,000 plus members to take a view on what they believe will best suit their businesses and their families,” said Mr Bell.
He added that members had backed the UFU’s neutral stance in discussions, and said that to encourage an open and informed debate the UFU would be holding a Referendum Forum on 7th June, with representatives from Leave and Remain.
“We are happy with our position and will not be altering it despite suggestions that we should be telling our members how to vote,” said Mr Bell.
The other speakers at yesterday’s launch were Jim Allister MLA, Brian Monteith (head of press at Leave.EU), and the businessmen Irwin Armstrong and Jeffrey Peel.
Mr Allister said in his talk at the launch that it was a privilege to endorse and welcome the publication, which sets out “in a cogent and logical fashion the case for leaving the EU”.
He said that it was refreshing to read such a document, which with “common sense” makes arguments that can assist voters in making the most important national decision in their lifetimes.
“Many see the opportunity to have a rebirth of this nation,” he said.
The TUV leader said that when Britain joined the Common Market in 1973, most UK trade was with it. “Today most trade is outside it,” he said.
Britain, he added, was a great trading nation that would prosper outside the EU, which “has become the moribund part of the world economy”.
Mr Allister also welcomed the prospect of the UK regaining control of its borders.
“If as a nation we cannot control our own borders, we are not a nation at all.”
Mr Armstrong, who manufactures and sells healthcare products, said that he rejected the notion that there was a European “single market”.
“It doesn’t exist,” he said.
When he wanted to sell a product such as pregnancy test kit in the United States, he only had to register once with the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) after which he could sell in all 50 states. In Europe, he potentially had to comply with 28 national interpretations of the same EU directive, and so he had to comply with different rules such as in countries where the product can only be sold in pharmacies.
The document, entitled ‘Secure, Peaceful and Prosperous – Why Northern Ireland would be better off leaving the EU’, concludes that Northern Ireland is a net contributor to the EU to the tune of £67 million a year.
The Province’s pro rata share of the UK’s £18.8 billion EU contribution in 2014 is around £500 million, and it got around £433 million in agricultural subsidies and structural funds, leaving a net shortfall of around £67 million.
In the event of Brexit, the publication says, key powers relating to employment law and industrial regulation and agriculture would be returned to Stormont.
The paper also points out that North America is Northern Ireland’s biggest export market outside the Republic of Ireland and that the greatest growth from 2001 to 2011 was in emerging markets such as Kuwait and Thailand and China.
It says that “Brexit has the potential to open the door for local companies to take a global approach”.
Noting that 3,580 EU regulations and directives that had an effect on UK businesses were passed during the last parliament, which was particularly burdensome for the Small and Medium Enterprises that make up 75% of private sector employment in NI, it concludes that “leaving the EU offers the potential to cut red tape for NI’s businesses”.
The publication said that the number of fishermen in Northern Ireland fell from 1,159 in 1985 to 654 in 2009, and Brexit would take back responsibility for fisheries policy.
It said that customs barriers at the Irish border would not be necessary in the event of Brexit, and that the Common Travel Area between the UK and Republic of Ireland was enshrined in Westminster statute.