Farmers at the Balmoral Show at the Maze gave a Government minister a traditional Ulster welcome on Thurday – heckling her for her campaign to keep them within the EU.
Liz Truss, Secretary of State for the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs, had just begun to pose for her first public photo-shoot as part of the “Northern Ireland stronger in Europe” charm offensive when a group of passing farmers stopped and shouted repeatedly “Northern Ireland out!”.
A few minutes earlier her entourage had accidentally gathered to begin their tour outside the tent of the passionately pro-exit DUP; party leader Arlene Foster had spent much of the morning inside meeting and greeting the farming community – and passionately preaching the opposite message to Ms Truss – that Northern Ireland is stronger out.
For one comical moment outside the DUP tent, the Truss camp suddenly realised where they were standing as they locked eyes with the DUP apparatchiks standing at their own door; the two sides visibly stiffened like cats who had entered each other’s territory, before the Truss camp expressed surprise and hurriedly moved on.
Despite the fun atmosphere at the Maze site, concerns about the Brexit referendum on June 23 were just below the surface.
The News Letter did a brief vox pop with dairy farmers who appeared to be fairly evenly split on the question.
Asked by the News Letter what message she had for her hecklers, Ms Truss replied that “being part of a single market” is incredibly important for Ulster farmers as 83 per cent of local food and farming exports go to the EU.
She added: “If we were to leave that market it would mean facing things like customs checks, potentially tariffs.”
Asked by the News Letter whether the Treasury would continue subsidies for farmers outside of the EU she said: “What the Prime Minister has said is that he wants to support farmers.”
But she went on to say that leaving the EU would mean less trade, less income and less tax revenues, resulting in less public money to share out for farmers, schools or hospitals.
When pressed whether it should be taken from her comments that the UK would not leave farmers “high and dry” on subsidies, she replied again that there would be “less money to go round overall” outside the EU.
Earlier Mrs Foster told the News Letter that during recent canvassing the public had backed her party’s desire to leave the EU.
“Many of them were talking to us about over-bureaucracy and the fact that the EU hasn’t stepped in to help them when they have had difficult times, particularly in the dairy sector and in the pork sector.“
She emphasised that “there is the same uncertainty if we stay as there is if we go” and noted that single farm payments are only certain until 2020; money we receive back from the EU is “our money” she said.
Asked if the Tories may be happy for ambiguity to remain on subsidies so farmers will not support the Brexit campaign, she replied: “I do not know what their reasoning is.”