A senior figure within the DUP has said the party would have no problem supporting a deal with the EU around plant and animal health, so long as it applied on “a UK-wide basis”.

Taking part in an Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) pre-election hustings event on Monday night, Upper Bann MLA Diane Dodds said the party would have to study the detail of what might be proposed. However, in principle, she had no objection if new arrangements were the same for NI as other parts of the UK.

The issue is one of three key asks from the UFU ahead of the July Westminster election, with their manifesto setting out the “urgent need” for a new UK government to seek agreement with the EU on controls related to food safety as well as animal and plant health. These sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures would be included as part of a new veterinary agreement with the EU.

The case made by the UFU is that a SPS / Veterinary deal is required to solve post-Brexit issues, including around future supply of animal medicines to NI, as well as livestock movements, and access to seed varieties and plant protection products. But a deal would also remove many of the other trade barriers that exist between Britain and NI, while benefiting UK exporters to the EU. A recent study by researchers at Aston University has suggested a veterinary deal would increase agri-food exports from the UK to the EU by at least 22.5%.

Labour position

In its Westminster manifesto, the Labour party has again reiterated it will seek a veterinary agreement with the EU if in power post the election. However, there will still be various hurdles to overcome, with any agreement likely to require the UK to align closely with EU rules. Close alignment could make it more difficult for the UK to do future trade deals with non-EU countries.

The other issue is that the EU is likely to demand that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has oversight of a veterinary agreement, which could attract criticism from Eurosceptics and the right-wing press. When asked for her view, Dodds acknowledged that the ECJ would have to be the arbiter in any deal between the UK and EU.

UFU manifesto backing

As well as the urgent need for a SPS / veterinary agreement, the Ulster Farmers’ Union has included two other main asks in its 2024 Westminster election manifesto.

The first is for the UK government to commit to farm support payments for at least 10 years and to adjust these payments to match inflation. The union points out that in 2020 the total support budget was £329.4m.

That figure has held constant in cash terms, but if inflation is allowed for, it should be £389m in 2024.

On the stage on Monday night, each of the representatives from the main political parties (Diana Armstrong – UUP; John Blair – Alliance; Denise Johnston – SDLP; Declan McAleer – Sinn Fein; Diane Dodds – DUP) were supportive of the UFU position.

The party representatives were also clear that funding for a Just Transition Fund for Agriculture, as legislated for in the NI Climate Change Act, must be from a new pot of money. This fund is supposed to provide financial assistance to farmers to help meet future greenhouse gas emission targets.

“If the money for this ends up coming from the current farm support budget it will be the most unjust transition fund ever,” suggested UFU President William Irvine.

Food security

The other key ask from the UFU relates to the need for government to protect domestic food production and put food security on an equal basis with the need to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

UFU members were critical of politicians in the last Stormont mandate for pressing ahead with a net zero target for NI by 2050, despite being warned by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) that it went “well beyond” its best advice.

Concerns were also raised about strict controls around ammonia emissions and the negative impact that is having on farm planning applications, and how the finger of blame seems to be consistently pointed at farmers for water quality issues in Lough Neagh.

Bovine TB

On the issue of bovine TB, representatives of the UUP, DUP, SDLP and Sinn Fein all said they want to see DAERA move ahead to implement the TB eradication strategy published in 2022. Included within that wide-ranging strategy is a roll-out of wildlife intervention in TB hotspot areas.

John Blair from the Alliance party was a little more circumspect, although he said he “wasn’t against meaningful wildlife intervention”.