Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) policy director Wesley Aston has told AgriLand that the Stormont executive must meet today in order to ratify the transfer rate that will be effected between Pillars I and II of its (CAP) Common Agricultural Policy, so as to agree the level of funding that will be available from the next rural development programme in Northern Ireland.

He added: “My understanding is that the members of the executive do not have to physically meet as a group in the same room. The issue can be addressed by proxy.

“As far as I am aware the European Commission must be notified of the transfer rate agreed by close of play tomorrow. If the executive fails to settle on a figure then Brussels will assume that a zero-transfer rate has been set.”

Aston went on to point out that the Union had asked Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill to keep the transfer figure as low as possible.

“Our members had identified the need to make Pillar II available funds for areas of natural constraint payments and future suckler cow support measures.”

Just over a week ago the North’s Agriculture Minister had announced her decision to set the transfer rate between Pillars I and II at seven per cent. This was immediately objected to by Finance and Personnel Minister Simon Hamilton, who sought leave to have the matter addressed courtesy of a Judicial Review. This hearing was held in Belfast’s High Court on Friday last with Lord Chief Justice Declan  Morgan proffering that Minister O’Neill should have brought the transfer funding issue before the membership of the Executive.

Commenting in the wake of the court case Hamilton said: “This was a significant and controversial issue that should have been brought to the executive. It was the Finance Minister’s view that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development Minister was therefore acting in breach of the ministerial code – that has now been proven through the court.”

Responding to these developments a DARD official said: “This matter will now go to the executive for consideration and agreement. It is the minister’s clear view that a transfer of seven per cent is necessary and it is therefore of vital importance that the executive agrees this view to meet the appropriate deadline set by DEFRA and the European Commission.

“It is important to note that this seven per cent transfer from Pillar I to Pillar II was designed primarily to benefit farmers through the rural development programme. Any delay now could mean we miss the deadline, potentially reducing funding for rural job creation through agri-food growth and schemes for smaller hill farmers.”