Ulster Farmers' Union members have given their backing to plans to run this year's annual general meeting as a 'drive-in' event.

The union's board had considered five options for the AGM and recommended the drive-in AGM as its preferred option for the Executive Committee to vote on.

The proposal will see members remain in their cars during the AGM, which will take place at the Eikon Centre in late July.

Staff will set up screens and speakers to allow outgoing president Ivor Ferguson and the incoming president to address members.

On Thursday evening, union officials confirmed the idea had been approved through an online consultation of the Executive Committee.

Chief executive Wesley Aston explained that provided the event satisfies Northern Ireland Executive rules that are being reviewed and relaxed, the drive-in AGM will hopefully take place at Balmoral Park, Lisburn and will ensure that the organisation has a new president in place by August 1.

“We are glad our novel approach was fully supported by the members of our executive," Aston said.

It is not the way we would have wanted members to meet, but many things are different now. We believe this is the best way to deliver an outcome as close as possible to a normal AGM and we will now move into the detailed planning stage for this unique event.

Those behind it say it would give the organisation's next president the mandate needed to represent the region's 11,500 union members during what is set to be yet another difficult time for farmers.

Votes on the day include the election of the organisation's new president. Current deputy president Victor Chesnutt is the sole nominee.

A second vote will also take place to decide on the organisation’s new vice president. Three candidates are currently in the running for two positions:

  • Incumbent vice president David Brown (from Florencecourt, Co. Fermanagh);
  • Former Hill Farming Committee chairman Ian Buchanan (from Dungiven, Co. Londonderry); and
  • Former Dairy Committee chairman William Irvine (from Markethill, Co. Armagh).

However, it's understood the idea received a mixed response with some members calling for the union to run a postal vote alongside the drive-in event.

The main concern with the plan is that older, more vulnerable members or those with someone shielding in their household may not wish to venture out as far as Lisburn.

The Covid-19 situation means it is not possible for those who do not drive or are uncomfortable driving long distances to share a lift with others.

The UFU constitution explicitly disallows proxy voting while no reference is made to postal votes. Reference, however, is made to the fact that members have to be "present and eligible" to vote.