Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (AERA) Committee chairperson, Declan McAleer MLA, used the recent Stormont debate on the budget to highlight his belief that Brexit has driven a 'wrecking ball' through agriculture and rural affairs in Northern Ireland.
He said: “When considering the impact of funding on agriculture and rural affairs, we have to look at the impact of Brexit, because no sector of our community has been impacted as much by the budget and the financing of those initiatives.
“I am concerned about the £19.5 million shortfall in DAERA's [Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs] budget this year as a consequence of Brexit. That has been compounded by the British Treasury's decision to net off £34.4 million of EU funding."
According to the Sinn Féin MLA, had Northern Ireland remained in the EU, £34.4 million could have been rolled over under what is known as the N+3 rule.
He continued: “We could have spent that £34.4 million up to 2023, which we had in the rural development programme, but because it has been netted off, the rural projects have been deprived of that £34.4 million.
“Had we been able to keep it, it could have directly supported innovations and developments in our rural communities, but unfortunately, it has been pinched off us by the British Government.”
Brexit impact on agriculture
McAleer firmly believes that Brexit has driven a 'wrecking ball' through agriculture and rural affairs.
He commented: “Not only has leaving the EU created a policy void as we left the CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] Pillar I basic farm payment scheme and Pillar II, which is the rural development programme, but it has also deprived our communities of investment and development.
“Whilst we have some certainty for the year ahead for farmers, we have no certainty beyond next year.
"In comparison, the south of Ireland has secured a £10.7 billion chunk of the EU budget for its farmers and rural communities on top of their national contribution."
Bidding for funding
McAleer went on to express deep disappointment at what he described as the failure of DAERA to bid for June monitoring.
“Unfortunately, I feel a sense of déja vu. In January, DAERA did not bid when the Finance Minister invited bids for the additional £200 million that had become available at that stage," McAleer said.
“When we quizzed the officials in January, we got the same excuse - it was too late in the financial year to draw up any schemes and the department could not run the risk of underspend, even though all other departments had made bids for that money.
“That was despite the fact that, on behalf of Sinn Féin, I had made suggestions to the department for schemes to support farmers.
“I propose that the Agriculture Minister make a bid to June monitoring in order to implement, for example, a rural basic services scheme that is similar to the scheme that we had under the EU rural development programme, not to mention similar to the pilot scheme that the minister has in his draft rural policy."
McAleer said that an overly cautious approach may make it easier for the department to balance the books at the end of the year, but such approach, which "lacks ambition also deprives local communities of investment" and development.
The MLA added that the situation has been "compounded" as DAERA has been "dragging its heels" on introducing a new rural policy.