There has been further criticism of the UFU’s leadership after its chief executive came out in support of Theresa May’s Brexit plan.
North Antrim MLA Jim Allister said its position is “madness”, whilst prominent unionist farmer David Campbell expanded on criticism he heaped upon the union at the weekend, dubbing its leadership “out of touch”.
Meanwhile, another Co Antrim farmer declared simply the union has “lost the plot”.
It all comes after UFU chief executive Wesley Aston told the Nolan Show on Friday: “We want to make sure we avoid a no-deal situation... We’d support the deal going through and against that background we would ask the DUP to consider voting for this deal.”
Whilst a UFU spokeswoman said the union did not tell members how to vote in the original referendum, Mr Aston, back in March 2016, told Parliament’s Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that “in the absence of any compelling reason for agriculture to leave the European Union, we feel that it is better for the minute, given the circumstances and the knowledge we have, to stay. That is the official position”.
Among the fears voiced by unionists over the deal which the Prime Minister now backs are that, if no wider agreement is reached by the end of the transition period, a backstop scenario would kick in which will keep Northern Ireland under certain EU single market rules concerning agriculture and more – something which will not apply to GB.
Mr Allister said: “How the UFU in particular could join this chorus of embracing the break-up of the UK single market – on which they depend – is beyond rationalisation.
“Urging MPs to vote for an Irish Sea regulatory border is madness, as well as accepting NI as part of the EU’s custom territory ... rushing to impede GB/NI trade is as dangerous as it is absurd.”
On Friday night, David Campbell, a former chairman of the UUP who was a negotiator at the time of the Belfast Agreement (though is no longer a member of the party), had declared himself “shocked” at the UFU’s stance.
And now he has gone further, setting out his reasons.
When it comes to the rank-and-file reaction among farmers to the UFU leadership position, the 53-year-old (who farms about 350 acres outside Carrickfergus with about 70 cows and 100 sheep). said: “I think there’s a considerable annoyance. I’m not sure how many of our members will sit down and study the agreement – I’d urge them to do so.
“I’ve yet to come across one farmer who tells me he supports this agreement.
“I just think unfortunately it’s typical of how the farming union does business, and that needs to change.”
He stressed that on most matters the union works well for members, and that it is run by “honourable people”.
However, on this issue it has suffered a “crisis of judgment”.
“I just feel on this occasion they’re misguided and out of touch,” he added.
His objections to the prime minister’s agreement with the EU are first and foremost constitutional ones as a unionist he said, dubbing the deal “the biggest challenge we’ve faced since the whole negotiations around the Belfast Agreement 20 years ago”.
He asked what would happen if – for example – in 10 or 15 years time there was a resumption of republican violence in the border areas, and “we are unable to put in a hard border because the EU would have to permit that”.
But he has practical farming fears too.
Say, for example, he wanted to sell milk to a processor in Scotland, but the backstop means there is now a regulatory border in the Irish Sea.
He wondered if “it could well be the case the processor in Great Britain isn’t able to accept our raw material”.
He was not alone in criticising the actions of the union.
One Co Antrim dairy farmer with around 200 animals, whose name the News Letter is withholding, said “I think the farmers’ union has lost the plot.”
His own view is the UK should simply plump for a ‘no-deal’ situation, and get out now.
He said: “They are getting involved in politics by saying they support that deal.
“They are playing politics there. I’m saying no. From what I’ve seen of the deal – I’ve just read what was in the newspapers – I think it’s a bad deal.
“David Davis, the Brexit secretary, resigned, and Dominic Raab resigned. They didn’t come up the Lagan in a bubble. They think it’s not a good deal. I’d support them.”
As he spoke to the News Letter, he said he had just been eating wheaten bread, and had been reading the ingredients on the back.
The wheaten bread was made using buttermilk produced by a Northern Irish firm, which buys its cream in from England.
“Now if there’s going to be a red line down the Irish Sea, [they] won’t be able to buy their cream out of England; it probably won’t be allowed in because it won’t have been made to the right standards.”
The DUP’s Diane Dodds had also hit out at the pro-deal stance taken by the UFU and much of the business community on Friday.
The UFU has responded to the criticism, saying, with president Ivor Ferguson saying: “As with any large industry, there are wide ranging views within our membership. During the EU referendum, the UFU didn’t take an official position but following the result we got down to the business trying to secure the best Brexit deal for agriculture. As always, our focus is securing the best future possible for our family-run farms in Northern Ireland.
“We are a democratic organisation and we represent around 11,500 family farms.
“It is unrealistic to expect that all our members will agree 100 per cent on everything, all of the time. The UFU has argued that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would have a devastating impact on farmers in Northern Ireland. This has been supported by a number of independent reports from AFBI, LMC, and more.
“‘No deal’ has been considered extensively within the UFU’s internal committee structure and has consistently been found to be the worst of all possible options. The position was confirmed again at our Executive meeting in October.
“Also, we have always called for a solution that allowed NI farmers unfettered access to the GB market, while at the same time allowing the long-standing trading relationship between NI and ROI to continue.
“Unpicking the UK’s 40+ year relationship with the EU was always going to be a challenge. Both the UK and EU have had to make compromises.
“While the withdrawal agreement is not perfect and we need clarification on some areas, the majority of farmers want to see the process move on. A UK-wide Free Trade Agreement with the EU is the goal. The transition period, which includes the whole of the UK, will allow time to negotiate this deal. The specific protocol that relates to NI and ROI focuses on standards but would still allow NI to implement our own domestic agricultural policy and would only kick in as a last resort.
“However, the aim is to never get to that point.
“Without a withdrawal agreement, this process can’t even begin and on the 30th March we crash out of the EU with no deal. This puts family-run farm businesses at risk. Our biggest concerns are not only that additional tariffs and checks would be introduced on our exports but also that the UK market could be flooded with cheaper, lower-standard food from beyond the EU-27.”