The Ulster Farmers’ Union has stressed the importance of finding a solution to the Irish border question, after talks to kick-start a trade deal between the UK and EU collapsed yesterday.

Prime minister Theresa May was reportedly close to reaching an agreement with the EU and Irish government over the post-Brexit status of the Irish border, until the DUP vetoed the deal. It insisted the party - which supports the Conservative minority government in Westminster - would not accept “any form of regulatory divergence” that separated Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

Food and live animal exports account for the largest share of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic, with Northern Ireland importing 61% of its food and animals from its southern neighbour [HMRC]. 

Leaked reports from the negotiations had suggested the UK was ready to guarantee Northern Ireland “regulatory alignment” with the Republic after Brexit, a move Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones and London mayor Sadiq Khan all suggested would amount to allowing Northern Ireland to remain in the European single market.

However, DUP leader Arlene Foster scuppered any deal by insisting Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.

It throws the prospect of a moving negotiations towards a trade deal with the EU - and potentially increasing the chances of avoiding a hard Brexit at the next EU summit on 15 December - into uncertainty.

The UFU said today (5 December), it was watching events in Brussels, London and Dublin with interest.

“As Brexit negotiations continue, our goal will be to ensure nothing happens to undermine access to our market in the rest of the UK, which is and will remain our biggest,” said UFU deputy president Ivor Ferguson. “At the same time, we have stressed from the outset the importance of finding a solution that allows long-standing trade relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to continue with minimal disruption.”

Whatever finally emerged on regulatory alignment, it was “essential nothing is done that would jeopardise these critical objectives”, he added.

Speaking on Irish radio last night, Irish Farmers’ Association president Joe Healy suggested the ideal outcome for the Republic would be for the UK to remain in the customs union. The value of the UK agrifood market also had to be maintained, he said.

“At a European level, if product is displaced, that’s going to disrupt the EU market hugely,” he warned.

“There is a lot of uncertainty among UK farmers. We may be their competitors but they would far prefer to be competing with us, than with countries where the costs of production aren’t nearly as high as they are in the UK.”