Brexit would be disastrous for NI farmers: O’Neill

Michelle O'Neill said the farming sector received �2.5bn from the EU
Michelle O'Neill said the farming sector received �2.5bn from the EU

A Brexit will spell disaster for Northern Ireland farmers and leave everyone in the Province paying more for agri-products, Stormont’s Agriculture Minister has warned.

Michelle O’Neill told the Assembly a potential loss of billions of euro of European farm subsidies if the UK exited the EU was unlikely to be replaced by the Government in London.

However, DUP MLA Gregory Campbell challenged the minister and said talk of “nightmare” scenarios was hindering a rational debate on the important issue of whether the UK should stay or go.

Outlining her views on Brexit during Assembly question time, Ms O’Neill said the future outside the EU was an uncertain one, claiming the impact of exit would be “disastrous”.

She said in the period 2014-2020 the agriculture and rural sector in Northern Ireland was set to receive €2.53 billion (£1.9 billion) from Europe.

“There are so many uncertainties,” she said.

“We don’t know what the future holds, we don’t know what a post-Brexit situation looks like. And without any of those certainties it is very difficult for anyone to make a rational choice in terms of going forward.

“However, I think 2.53 billion (euro) is significant and speaks volumes in terms of what it means to our local economy, what it means to the agri-food sector and what it means to everybody – because if farmers aren’t subsidised to produce food then all consumers will be paying more for food, which we will have to import from other countries around the world.”

She said a Conservative government would be unlikely to meet the multi-billion shortfall.

“I wouldn’t hold out much hope in terms of the Tories, who have an ideological position opposed to subsidy,” she said.

Mr Campbell said the tone of the debate needed to change.

“Would the minister not agree that to talk in terms of nightmare situations in the context of a Brexit situation doesn’t help the discussion?” he asked.

“It should be a rational discussion on whether the UK, and Northern Ireland as part of the UK, stays in Europe or leaves it and that the uncertainty she rightly talks about equally exists whether we stay in Europe or whether we leave, in terms of the financial assistance that may be on offer to our farming communities.”

Ms O’Neill said there was the need for a “real and meaningful debate” and acknowledged that change within the EU was required.