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The Irish question: Farming in the Brexit battleground

With uncertainty surrounding the future of farming in Northern Ireland as it considers Brexit, the border implications and the breakdown of power sharing at Stormont, Alex Black spoke with farmers either side of the border to find out the practical reality.

Northern Ireland sheep farmer Campbell Tweed
Northern Ireland sheep farmer Campbell Tweed
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The Irish question: Farming in the Brexit battleground

Farming across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is closely linked.


Each day, sheep cross the border south to be slaughtered while pigs head north and dairy cattle frequently cross the border both ways.


Northern Ireland will probably have the most to consider from the Brexit vote, despite most of the country voting to remain.


The border with the Republic has been a key point of concern for both sides in the Brexit negotiations and this uncertainty has been added to by the breakdown of power sharing at Stormont.


Campbell Tweed, a sheep farmer in Ballygally and Northern Irish NSA regional chairman, said there was not the processing capacity in the North to handle the sheep currently sent south.

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Crosby Cleland believes farming needs an open border
Crosby Cleland believes farming needs an open border

“A lot of milk is crossing the border and a significant number of pigs come north to be slaughtered. The red meat sector here would be more predominately beef than lamb,” he added.


Walking round the farm, Mr Tweed highlighted a pen of rams due to be sent south that week.


Mr Tweed they would lose money if they were unable to send sheep across the border and it was important to allow the live export of lamb from north to south.




Ulster Farmer’s Union (UFU) beef and lamb chairman and sheep farmer Crosby Cleland said they needed the open border.


He said: “From August to December we depend on those in the South coming north to buy lamb.”


However, he said he did believe some plants would open for more sheep in the North, and called on the industry to work together.


“They cannot work without us and we cannot work without them.

“I am of the belief they will try to keep us here. I hope the amalgamations mean they will sell better and not be undercutting each other as much.”


Mr Tweed added the other risk was labour as many abattoirs hired non-UK EU nationals.


“If we find ourselves in a situation where it is even more difficult to get stock killed here, we are heading for more difficulty,” he said.


He said he believed devolution had not been well thought-out, with ‘antagonism’ between Westminster and devolved ministries driving the Scottish independence movement.


With the breakdown of power sharing in Stormont during such a crucial period in Northern Irish politics, Mr Tweed said he, alongside friends and colleagues across the water, were concerned about poor governance in the UK as a whole.




He added there was nothing to give him the confidence the UK could deliver on major projects.


“If you look at any area which is not EU influenced, such as education or transport, you have got major problems.”


On the mood in Northern Ireland before the vote, both agreed there most people there voted to remain, although there was a significant number voting out.


Mr Cleland said: “The ones who went for it seemed to be of the opinion regulations would disappear.


“Even in the first week, we had people ringing up asking if they could cut their hedges.”


Mr Tweed added Northern Ireland’s traditional green and orange divide had also affected decisions.

The view from over the border

The view from over the border

Alan and Valerie Kingston, dairy farmers at Glenilen Farm, West Cork, Ireland, has a family-run dairy farm producing natural fruit layered-yoghurts and other dairy products. The UK market currently accounts for 20 per cent of its turnover.


Mr Kingston said the Brexit decision was met with surprise in Ireland, with nobody, including the EU, prepared for how to deal with it.


But his priority was to continue trading with the UK. While he was concerned about UK dairies eyeing up opportunities to displace imports, he highlighted how much the UK relied on Irish imports.


“The UK needs to trade with the EU and Ireland in particular, as it is the UK’s nearest geographical twin and has a similar taste profile,” he said.


No difference


He added his business was ‘no different’ to any of the small, UK dairy and yoghurt producers.

The fall of the pound had knocked nearly 20 per cent off the value of their exports which he said had put significant pressure on the business.


But Mr Kinston was confident a solution would be reached as the EU and UK had ‘no choice’ but to reach a deal on the border issues.


However, he said he was preparing for real challenges to ensure the business was prepared.


“Our hope is we can continue to trade in an open market as the need to trade is mutual,” he said.


And for Glenilen Farm, he predicted it would continue to play a significant role in the UK yoghurt category after Brexit.


Currency was highlighted as the biggest driver of what would happen to farming after the UK left the EU.


Mr Cleland said: “The biggest impression it has made on farming is the fact the pound has dropped in value. This has been an asset to farming.


“Whatever happens to currency seems to govern what people are getting.”


But he said it was unclear how the pound would react to Brexit.


Mr Tweed said his ideal Brexit solution would see the UK remain inside the customs union and single market, perhaps in something similar to the Norwegian model.


“On the border, it is vital there is as little impediment as possible to the French and continental markets,” he added.


He also expressed concerns about the prospect of trading agreements with countries such as New Zealand and Australia as they would be looking for greater access to UK markets for their agricultural goods.


“I think it is a long shot there would be significant exports from the UK to New Zealand. Although there is potential for UK lamb to go to the US, we know the Americans are saying they will not be taking any of UK lamb until you take US beef.


“There are no quick wins out there.”


Mr Cleland was also concerned about future trade deals, highlighting the current negotiations with the Latin American Mercosur trading bloc despite the scandals in Brazilian meat, and he had been told agriculture came bottom of the agenda when negotiating these deals.


He added other countries were getting away with things which would result in UK farmers being penalised.


Hard border


Mr Cleland also warned a return to a hard border could aid criminal gangs, as farmers looked for ways around handling the border, which had been brought under control with the current ‘invisible’ border arrangement.


He also suggested, due to the impact on the trading relationship and border with the UK, Ireland may also have to leave the EU.


Outside of Brexit, both were concerned about the coming winter having had the ‘most appalling summer’ with significant difficulties in harvest.


Mr Tweed added: “It is going to be an expensive and difficult winter.”


Mr Tweed added the other risk was labour as many abattoirs hired non-UK EU nationals, with many from south of the border and workers from Northern Ireland working in the Republic.

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