New Year message from UFU President Ivor Ferguson

Friday, 27 December, 2019

It is hard to believe that well over three years on from the EU referendum in 2016 I am beginning another New Year message on the theme of Brexit.  The process has certainly taken a lot longer than my predecessors thought when they wrote their New Year messages in 2017 and 2018, and in my case this time last year.  However, with the election out of the way and a government in place at Westminster with a massive majority we hopefully will finally see progress on the key issues that affect agriculture.

No matter how anyone voted way back in 2016, we need to make sure Brexit is a success for agriculture. That will not be achieved by simply leaving the EU.  Success will be measured for agriculture by what is agreed in two key areas.  These are the support structures put in place as an alternative to the CAP and the trade relationships we have with the EU-27 and the rest of the world.

On the support side, we want to see structures that will make the industry competitive, profitable and technically efficient.  Farmers have always delivered environmental gains and will continue to do so, but we want structures that continue to recognise the importance of food production and food security.  That will be what we and other farm lobby organisations across the UK will be seeking.  With Brexit done, to use the government's own catchphrase, we are expecting an urgent acceleration of discussions that have been in the slow lane for far too long.

We need a trade deal with the EU.  We cannot afford further brinkmanship.  The prize is too big for politicians to set the pace and we need a deal that maintains unfettered access to our two biggest markets - the rest of the UK and the EU-27.  I genuinely believe that in both Brussels and London there is now the necessary goodwill and commitment to get a trade deal in place.

I cannot leave the subject of politics without once again expressing the hope that our local politicians will find the compromise needed to get an executive back in place at Stormont.  The coming year will be critical for all sectors of the economy here, particularly agriculture and food, as post-Brexit economic plans become reality.  London will base this around devolution, and we will be at a disadvantage to the other UK regions if we do not have the local political input the process demands.  We are, rightly, impatient for progress and hopefully we will see it sooner rather than later.  Realistically, later may be too late for many businesses relying on politicians to make sure the right decisions are taken for the new world we will be in when we leave the European Union after 47 years.

There are of course many more practical issues facing the Union in the year ahead.  We need to see progress on bovine TB.  It may not be an issue a local DAERA minister would relish tackling, but the issue has been talked out and researched out.  We need action and that will demand political commitment to do the right thing for the taxpayer and for farming families whose livelihoods are threatened by TB. Planning permission continues to be a major obstacle for many farm businesses as well, making future development difficult, and we are keen to see progress made around this issue. We will continue to push for better prices, for fairer treatment when it comes to public services in rural communities and for the progress in reducing farm accidents.  Boris Johnson loves quoting Winston Churchill so I will conclude by paraphrasing one of his famous quotations.  On Brexit, I believe we are not at the end of the process – but I do now believe we are finally at the end of the beginning.  To all farmers, on behalf of all at the UFU, wish you a happy, peaceful, prosperous – and above all – a safe 2020.