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A border between NI and the ROI already exists – politics is driving the Irish Brexit issue

Beef farmer and Nuffield scholar John Henning, from County Armagh, says the difficulties around the Irish border issue are being played up by politicians and are not insurmountable.  

This year’s spring has been memorable for all the wrong reasons, with seemingly incessant rain and colder temperatures, aided by ‘the beast from the East’, which exacerbated poor ground conditions after a wet autumn.


We have also had a tough winter, with shortage of straw and poorer silage resulting in spring-born calves reaching turnout between 50-100kgs lighter than last year.


It was Tolstoy who said ‘spring is the time of plans and projects’, and despite the difficulties of recent months many farmers will continue to plan ahead given the nature of farming.


But it is unlikely that weather conditions will be the only variable taken into consideration next spring when the UK plans to leave the EU on March 29.




Much has been written, and said, on the subject since the EU Referendum on June 23 2016 and sadly it still takes quite a bit of effort to differentiate fact from fiction - on both sides!


It is therefore interesting to speculate how much progress could have been made on developing a new British agricultural policy if a fraction of the effort expended on trying to overcome a democratic decision had been focused in a more positive direction.


We now have a once in a lifetime opportunity to develop a bespoke agricultural policy better suited to British agriculture, taking into account regional farming variations.


When we consider the range of farming types and systems across the UK, and how they could best be accommodated within a new policy, it helps illustrate the ongoing challenges of a CAP which was expected to deliver across 28 very different countries in Europe.




In Northern Ireland (NI), the average farm size is just over 100 acres, with 24,958 registered farm businesses of which 76 per cent are classified as ‘very small’, but farming is three times more important to the local economy than is the case across the whole of the UK.


Total output from the food and drinks processing sector in NI is £4.42 million, of which 14 per cent is exported to the Republic of Ireland (ROI), 9 per cent to the rest of the EU, and almost 50 per cent to the Great British market.


There are of course significant sectoral variations, with almost 50 per cent of lambs exported live to ROI and almost 20 per cent of milk exported, with a significant volume of milk processed in NI by ROI dairies.


Potentially Brexit will have a greater impact in Northern Ireland given the land border with the ROI/EU, however this is not the insurmountable problem that many seem to claim.




The reality is whilst the border may be largely invisible, it does still exist without presenting major day-to-day difficulties for farmers and the agri-food industry.


In many cases, the perceived difficulties of the impact of a border post-Brexit are being driven by political, rather than practical, reasons.


Unfortunately, the absence of a fully functioning Executive in NI also adds uncertainty around the likely impact of Brexit, with no direct input from local politicians into the decision-making process.


However, the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement between DUP MPs and the Conservative Government in Westminster should provide at least some local input to this debate and the Brexit deal being negotiated.




Undoubtedly many farmers in NI did vote leave in the EU referendum due to concerns about the future of the CAP, increasing bureaucracy and memories of milk lakes, beef surpluses and grain mountains.


Underlying this thinking was a confidence in the ability of UK Agriculture plc to deliver for both farmers and the environment, without the constraints of an EU system which was not always fit for purpose.


So when the Northern Ireland farming community gathers for that annual celebration of farming and food which is the Royal Ulster (Balmoral) Show on May 16-19, it will not just be the weather which is the major topic of conversation for farmers – Brexit might be discussed too.

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