Controversial Gove gets top agri job in UK cabinet change

There has been mixed reaction across the water after Michael Gove was appointed UK Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet reshuffle.

The appointment comes after Gove controversially decided to enter the Tory leadership race after the Brexit referendum, which saw then Prime Minister David Cameron resign from the post. The move was seen as a way to undercut rival Boris Johnson’s own bid for the position.

He will now be in charge of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) – the ministerial UK equivalent to the Irish Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

The Edinburgh-born politician served as Secretary of State for Education for four years under Cameron, where his proposed shake-up of the education system left the National Association of Head Teachers condemning his “climate of bullying, fear and intimidation”.

Who is Gove?

An MP for Surrey Heath since 2005, Gove – who is also a columnist with The Times newspaper – spent a year as Justice Secretary until May sent him to the backbenches after she won the race for leader in 2016.

A graduate of Oxford University and a strong leave campaigner in the Brexit debate, Gove’s main familiarity with the agricultural sector may stem from the fact that his father used to run a fish processing business when he was growing up in Aberdeen.

Farmers in Ireland and the UK face an uncertain future with Brexit negotiations set to commence on June 19. The Conservative government suffered a setback last week when it lost its majority in the House of Commons despite the snap election being called in a bid to increase its control.

The Tories are now working on securing a minority government with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). However, critics have predicted any deal will be short-lived, with former British Chancellor George Osborne describing May as a “dead woman walking” on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show on Sunday, June 11.

The National Farmers’ Union, the UK’s largest farming organisation, sent out a tweet on Twitter yesterday stating: “We look forward to working with @michaelgove to ensure all areas of Whitehall understand the need to #Backbritishfarming.”

NFU Cymru (National Farmers’ Union for Wales) has also tweeted congratulations to Gove following his appointment.

Many environmentalists, however, have criticised the decision, highlighting Gove’s past as Education Secretary when – according to the BBC – attempts were made under his leadership to remove climate change from the geography curriculum at school level.

Implications for Ireland

Gove has previously described the Good Friday Agreement in the North as a “rigged referendum” and a “humiliation of our army, police and parliament”, according to The Irish Times. This is a view likely to raise cross-border anxiety given the ongoing concerns of a hard border with the North after the UK leaves the European Union.

And in response to a possible deal between the Conservatives and the DUP, outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny spoke with May over the weekend to warn her of the risks to the peace process given the lack of a nationalist presence in Westminster since Sinn Fein abstains from taking its seats. The SDLP was wiped out in the election.

Estimates from the Irish Department of Finance suggest a hard Brexit would reduce Irish GDP by almost 2% within two years of trade barriers being imposed.