A row has erupted over whether a law forcing processors to pay minimum prices for farm produce would be legal under European law.
Farmers For Action (FFA) pressure group spokesman William Taylor said yesterday that they met with chairman of the Assembly agriculture committee and DUP MLA William Irwin this week about the proposal for Northern Ireland.
FFA believes the law – if passed by Stormont – would give many farmers a reasonable income where many are currently struggling financially.
But Mr Irwin told the News Letter: “The difficulty is that we in the Assembly took legal advice and were told this law is not possible under European rules. We asked where else in the world it was done and he [Mr Taylor] did not know.”
Mr Irwin, who runs a dairy farm, said current farm-gate prices were “disastrous” but added that the market “has to find a level” in the midst of current overproduction. Under European competition law a minimum farm-gate price “is not doable” he added.
A further problem is how to sell your product to the rest of the market outside Northern Ireland if the law is introduced, he said.
“We in Northern Ireland export 75 per cent of our produce. Some 12-13 per cent of our fresh milk is bottled and the rest is sold as powder or cheese and so on.”
But Mr Taylor disagreed.
“We have checked this out and it is not illegal,” he told the News Letter.
“William Irwin said they would ask a legal opinion from civil servants, the Agriculture Minister said she would love to back the law but it is not a devolved matter, while the Secretary of State said it is a devolved matter.
“We went back to William (Irwin) and asked him to spell out the legal reasons he had been given but he declined, saying it was under parliamentary privilege.”
However, Mr Taylor said that when they asked a top competition official in Brussels they were told it was possible.
“We were advised before Christmas that introducing this law at Stormont was a regional matter of discretion.”
Mr Taylor believes the law would be allowable under EU law because the welfare of many almost bankrupt farmers trumps competition law rules.
He also cited a recent EU ruling which allowed a similar law on minimum alcohol pricing in Scotland.