What Brexit means for Northern Ireland’s farmers

We all know that the 310 mile border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is the biggest sticking point in the Brexit negotiations but how many of us understand why?

The easiest explanation is to harken back to the ‘Troubles’ before the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and a fear that a hard border might lead to a resumption of those incidents but there are other, non-violent and potentially more important reasons for an open border.

Agriculture and the food industry are a crucial part of the Northern Ireland economy and one of its major employers in rural areas. The Common Agriculture payments (CAP) have played an important part in supporting the farming sector and leaving it will have major implications for both farmers and the wider economy. Moreover, farmers are the caretakers of the natural environment in the province so their economic survival has wider implications.

These implications are exacerbated by the absence of a functioning Northern Ireland Executive, which has been suspended since January 2017 because of disagreements between the two major parties about the status of the Irish language in the province and the legalisation of same-sex marriage. This governmental vacuum has meant a lack of a normal political process and political direction to decide how agriculture in the province will be funded post Brexit. That exacerbates the problem because farmers in the province are more dependent on CAP than farmers in the rest of the UK.

Trade in food and other agricultural products between north and south in Ireland is important to both sides of the border. Currently that means that farmers in the north have to comply with a number of environmental, animal welfare and food quality standards if they want to sell across the border or to anywhere else in the EU. Those standards will have to be maintained if they don’t want to lose access to those markets. Currently, there is a two-way movement of goods across the Irish border and many of the agri-food businesses operate on an all-Ireland basis.

The EU recognises this and has proposed an open border in the island of Ireland but a notional border down the Irish Sea between the island and the rest of the UK. That is politically unacceptable to the UK and to Northern Ireland because it breaks up the constitutional relationship between them and increases the possibility of renewed campaigns for a united Ireland.

There are other economic reasons why that will not work. More than half of exports from Northern Ireland go to the rest of the UK. The province also exports to the EU and post Brexit imposition of tariffs will hit that trade.  Northern Ireland farmers also fear that post Brexit the UK might also import lower quality foodstuffs from elsewhere.  They also look to the EU to recruit skilled labour and need post Brexit immigration policy to take account of Northern Ireland needs and not to have them subordinated to an English obsession with reducing immigration from the EU.

As for every difficult issue there is a need for Christians to pray for guidance to reach a wise and righteous outcome and this is certainly appropriate in this case. Northern Ireland has more self-identifying Christians in its population (82.3%) than the rest of the UK (59.5%).

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