North, South share interest in retaining agri-food relations
British and Irish authorities are both working towards their shared interest in limiting Brexit-related damage to the North-south trade of agricultural goods. Agriculture Minister Michael Creed told a special Seanad debate on Brexit and agriculture that he believes the worst-case scenario of a hard Brexit and trade tariffs will be avoided. Even after Brexit, Britain, he said, will continue to be Ireland’s leading as well as most lucrative market. “Market diversification is a key part of the strategy but the UK should, and hopefully will always, be probably the most important single market for us because of our geographical proximity, and cultural and historical ties,” said Minister Creed.
“It is the market we understand best. It is the best paying market for many of the commodities we export. That is why our endeavour is to keep the relationship as close as possible to the present one.” That said, he anticipates that the post-brexit agricultural trade relationship will not be “as good as what we enjoy now”.
All of those involved in agrifood in Ireland and Britain are working on damage limitation exercises for business life after Brexit, which Minister Creed described as “a democratic decision that we have to respect and get on with”. Brexit was just one of the questions raised by senators during the Minister’s attendance in the Seanad. Fianna Fáil’s Senator Paul Daly and some others said Irish farmers had been undermined by seven years of cuts across a range of farm schemes, and let down by the absence in Budget 2019 of any measures to boost farm incomes and farmer exposure to price volatility in overseas markets. However, Brexit remained the primary focus of the Seanad debate, which was also attended by the Ulster Farmers Union. Speakers noted that 11 out of 12 border stations were not up to scratch, which would lead to huge delays in border crossings for future trade. The EU negotiators have insisted that a continuation of the current frictionless, borderless trade on the island will not be an option once Britain leaves the EU bloc. Senator Paul Daly sought reassurances for the protection of the family farm model, which still sustains 140,000 farming families in Ireland.
Both Senator Daily and Minister Creed pointed to the Lakeland and Lacpatrick dairies as a positive for future of dairy on the island. Minister Creed noted that, in 2017, Irish agri-food companies exported €700m worth of product to Northern Ire- land, while Northern Ireland exported around €600m to the Republic in value terms. “The all-island economy is very much in the cross-hairs of the Brexit conundrum and how we resolve the issue,” said Minister Creed. “That is why the issue of the Border and the Government position in the context of the negotiations under way on Brexit are really important. We cannot have a situation whereby that trade is impacted. “We cannot allow the other issues that arise from the border and the identity politics of different traditions on the island, especially in Northern Ireland, to have an adverse impact,” said Minister Creed. “We know about the implications of going back to a situation where the border infrastructure would be reintroduced. That is what informs the Government position in the negotiations.” Minister Creed also said Irish agri-food remains upbeat about its own future. He pointed to the bigger picture of soaring global demand for food products, driven by the world’s steadily rising human population. Market diversification, he said, is an important part of Ireland’s agri-food strategy. He cited the launch this year of new Irish beef exports to China, among other reasons why Irish agri-food remains optimistic despite the Brexit threats.
“We have been following the opportunities available to us by virtue of our membership of the European Union in a focused way,” he said. “We are riding the coat-tails of recent engagement by the Commission on new or improved deals between the EU and other trading blocs such as Canada, Mexico, Japan and Korea, following in and opening up opportunities for the Irish agrifood sector.
“Who would have thought, not that long ago, that while the UK is our biggest market for dairy products, for example, it imports 80,000 tonnes of cheddar cheese a year, the next biggest market for Irish dairy exports would be China? It is also the second biggest market for pork exports.” Nonetheless, he said, the Government remains firmly committed to maintaining the best possible Irish-british trade outcome. The Irish agri-food sector has significant exposure to British trade, with €5.2bn worth of Irish exports going into the British market in 2017; that is more than 50% of total food and drink exports. Some 280,000 tonnes of Irish beef and 80,000 tonnes of Irish cheddar cheese also went into the British market in 2017. This minister said that finding a new home for these export products will not be easy.