North, South share in­ter­est in re­tain­ing agri-food re­la­tions

Irish Examiner - Farming - - COMMENT - Joe Der­mody

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.

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