John Downing: Northern farmers will rue UFU's fence-sitting in Brexit campaign

Downing on politics

Theresa May. Photo: PA
Theresa May. Photo: PA
Ivor Ferguson
John Downing

John Downing

The Ulster Farmers' Union, in some ways the IFA's counterpart north of the border, is at a very serious crossroads amid this ongoing Brexit crisis.

The organisation has been on the go since 1918 and its stated aim is to represent farmers, with almost 12,000 farmers across Northern Ireland.

But given the history of the North, it was widely perceived as "culturally unionist" and was often seen as closely interwoven with the old Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

There are now undoubtedly links into the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has totally eclipsed the UUP over the last 15 years. But the DUP is still a relatively new entity and links with the Ulster Farmers' Union are not as easy or reflexive as the old days of "UUP-UFU."

We must state that the UFU has for a long time formally insisted it had no links to any political party, and that the organisation maintained contacts across the political spectrum to do its job.

Last week UFU president Ivor Ferguson, who is based in Markethill, Co Armagh, denounced reports suggesting Brexit strains with the DUP-UFU, making the point that the his farmers' union remains independent in politics.

But there is a clear rift between the DUP and the UFU over Brexit.

The UFU, in common with many Northern business representatives, believes that Theresa May's deal should be supported on grounds that the risk of a no-deal Brexit is unthinkable.

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Throughout the short Brexit referendum campaign of late 2015 and up to polling day on June 23, 2016, the UFU surprised many in the Republic by sitting on the fence.

Many of us in this jurisdiction would have said a Northern farmer knows the value of a pound and was aware that 88pc of Northern Ireland farm income comes from direct Brussels payments.

In the end the UFU, in a position similar to the National Farmers' Union, which represents farmers in England and Wales, opted to not campaign and not directly advise its members on which way to vote.

They confined themselves to the rather equivocal statement that they remained to be convinced that there was a good case for the UK leaving the EU.

Their non-committal referendum stance was surprising given the long-standing attitude within the UFU that it was in the interest of farmers in the North to "have a little of UK and a little bit of EU".

Going back to the mid-1990s, the UFU moved might and main to have Northern Ireland cattle exempted from the EU's ban on UK cattle due to the BSE crisis.

It has to be recalled that the Irish government and the IFA extended a hand of friendship to the UFU in that matter.

Then IFA president, John Donnelly, and their Brussels representative, Michael Treacy, were extremely generous in giving moral and practical support to Northern Ireland farmers.

The outcome strengthened a sensible island-of-Ireland animal health regime which was further enhanced after the 2001 foot and mouth crisis.

That is among a list of things which makes a nonsense of DUP claims that the North must not be treated differently on Brexit.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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