Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson has said he has “many concerns” surrounding the future of farm payments in Northern Ireland.

The MEP added that clarity is still required from Michael Gove after his recent speech to the Oxford Farming Conference, which set out his proposals for agricultural subsidies post-Brexit.

He called on the UK government to “ring-fence” future payments for farmers in Northern Ireland.

He said: “It is positive to see a commitment up until 2024 for direct payments, albeit for England. This now sets a level and needs to be replicated for Northern Ireland.

A Northern Ireland agriculture minister – in a functioning ‘Executive’ – is now more important than ever, to ensure this commitment is followed through to Northern Ireland.

‘Different circumstances’

However, Nicholson warned that Gove’s approach to future farm payments – including public access to land – may not work on farms in Northern Ireland.

He said: “Gove’s proposal to move away to ‘public money for public goods’ will prove to be a contentious move, especially for farmers in Northern Ireland.

“While this proposal may work for the large arable farms in England, it may not be best suited for the Northern Ireland family farm structure.

“Careful consideration will need to be given to a Northern Ireland agri policy, where different circumstances exist; a more localised approach will be required.

“What concerns me most about these recent proposals from Michael Gove is the lack of clarity. For example, how will the agri-industry be impacted with potential new trade deals – including a trade deal with the EU?

“How will the UK agri-sector deal with potential cheaper produce flooding the UK market? That will be a question on the lips of many farmers.”

Concerns about farm payments

Nicholson added: “Gove has failed to address in full detail how food standards and security, and produce traceability, will be impacted post-Brexit.

“Currently the UK – and, in particular, Northern Ireland – has some of the highest standards of food in the world, with the strongest levels of traceability.

I will wait to see the ‘fine print’ on this, and will study it in detail. But, it must be recognised that the UK is entering a new post-CAP era – where choices will have to be made and tremendous challenges overcome.

“Northern Ireland has, potentially, much to lose in a botched post-Brexit agri deal.

“Currently, Northern Ireland receives the highest amount of money per hectare, compared to the rest of the UK – and therefore an immediate assurance is required that Northern Ireland’s current subsidies from the EU are ring-fenced and not unfairly reallocated.

“What Gove has failed to address is more telling than what he actually has said,” Nicholson concluded.