Viewpoint: Tory triumph is a cause for real concern
Published 13/05/2015 | 02:30
The general election results from Britain should be a cause of serious concern for Irish farmers and our food industry.
That last week's ballot delivered a Conservative government is of relatively minor importance to most people south of the Border on this side of the water.
But the new British government's commitment to holding a referendum on the UK's continued membership of the EU is of massive significance for our economy as a whole, and for the food sector in particular.
The trade figures underline the importance of the issue for Irish farmers. The British market last year took almost €4bn worth of Irish food and drink exports.
Each year the market takes close to 250,000t of Irish beef or almost half our total beef exports. The value of the trade is worth in excess of €900m.
The United Kingdom is also a crucial market for dairy exports. Last year dairy sales in Northern Ireland and Britain earned more than €996m for Irish co-ops and dairy companies. Pigmeat exports were worth €357m, while poultry exports totalled €300m.
Britain is by far the most important market for the Irish food sector. The heavy investment by Irish meat and dairy processors in the North and Britain - Dawn Meats and ABP are among the biggest operators in the British beef sector - highlights the extent to which the food industries in both countries have become enmeshed.
Any fundamental change to the nature of this close trading relationship is certain to be hugely disruptive and extremely costly for Irish co-ops and companies and for Irish farmers.
If the UK votes to leave the EU and Ireland opts to remain, it could conceivably result in the return of import duties and trade tariffs between the two jurisdictions.
People might scoff at such suggestions, but Europe will underestimate the extent of anti-EU sentiment in England at its peril.
On a special general election edition of the BBC programme Question Time last Friday evening, the former Labour Party spin doctor Alistair Campbell bemoaned the fact that such an important issue as the UK's membership of the EU would be publicly debated and decided by referendum.
Campbell was rightly savaged by the audience for his arrogance, but he made a valid defence of his position when he argued that any public debate on Europe would, by its nature, be divisive and emotive and would not focus on the core issues.
Whether the UK stays in the EU or not will now be a matter for its people. However, the referendum will be the most important ballot for Irish farmers - bar none - in more than a generation.
On an aside, you have to take your hat off to David Cameron for standing over his commitment to hold the referendum.
There is a lesson there for Irish politicians.