Sinn Féin MLA and chair of the Stormont agriculture committee, Declan McAleer has given a guarded welcome to the amended farm policy reform package, unveiled this week at Stormont.

The newly proposed measures represent the response from Northern Ireland agriculture minister, Edwin Poots, to the recent public consultation on the matter.

“I commend the decision by the minister to reduce the eligible area for the envisaged safety net payment down to 5ha,” McAleer said.

“Setting it at 10ha, as was the original proposal, would have ruled out too many smaller farmers from the support measure.

“The minister has also rowed back on a number of targets originally laid down for the suckler cow and farming for carbon measures. This development will particularly suit farmers with native breeds of cattle."

Support for sheep sector in farm policy

However, McAleer is far from happy with the continuing absence of bespoke support measures for sheep producers within the farm reform package.

“This situation must be actively addressed. I also note that the minister had included the restoration of the previously available Less Favoured Area and Areas of Natural Constraints payments.

“These are other important policy areas, which must be revisited.”

According to the Sinn Féin politician, only 5% of active farmers in Northern Ireland are women.

“This is another issue that must be fully addressed in our future policy priorities,” he stressed.

“Encouraging more women to enrol for agricultural college qualifications would be a start in this regard. But the bottom line remains that we must encourage more women to look proactively at a career in production agriculture.”

Rural funding

This week has also seen McAleer raising serious concerns about shortfalls in rural funding, courtesy of the final stage of the Budget Bill 2022-25 debate at Stormont.

He commented: "I and my party are severely concerned that the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs [DAERA] has made no allocation to tackling rural poverty and social isolation framework funding.

"The money is used to fund the rural networks and many localised initiatives such as the assisted rural transport scheme. For whatever reason, the department has opted this year to fund this out of in-year monitoring."

"That is not acceptable, because there are people who are employed in this sector and the networks are in place."

McAleer said that it is essential to be able to forward plan, arguing that this is not possible when relying on in-year monitoring.

“That is regrettable, and, of course, again, it is made impossible by the fact that we are not fit to do a three-year budget as a consequence of the DUP's walking away from the [Stormont] Executive," McAleer added.

McAleer said that he is also deeply concerned about the state of rural development funding in the north.

“As part of the EU, we had the certainty of a six-year, multi-annual budget, which gave communities assurance," he explained.

"As a consequence of Brexit and as a consequence of the DUP forcing the British Government into the hardest possible Brexit, we are now out of the EU rural development programme and we are going to experience a 67% drop.

“This will have a serious impact on our ability to deliver basic services in rural communities.”