A referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU is now firmly in the offing, and the time for careful language is over. So let me be clear: leaving the EU would be a disaster for our agrifood industry. It would effectively slam the door on a major source of funds particularly for regeneration in rural communities in peripheral areas of the UK such as Northern Ireland.
I find it impossible to understand why some politicians should seek to separate us from the EU and leave regions like Northern Ireland totally dependent for the vast majority of funding from the Treasury in London, which is committed to restricting regional financial support to balance the books. And I really don’t think the UK has harnessed the range of EU funding programmes effectively to achieve utmost benefit for the agrifood and indeed other industries.
Regions like Northern Ireland are striving to bridge the productivity and prosperity gap with the Home Counties. I believe we should stay in and make what is one of the world’s biggest markets operate to the benefit of everyone, particularly in our rural communities.
The EU - especially France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands - is an immensely important market for our meat and seafood. And our focus has been on expanding business there over many years. This has been essential because other global markets such as the US and China have been closed to our meat for some time.
While I accept significant changes are needed in the way the EU operates, pulling out of the community altogether is really not the way to proceed. We should be working within Europe to sort out the things we don’t like or that aren’t working properly such as the bureaucracy, the imperfect single market and very volatile currency.
A British withdrawal is likely to be very acrimonious and could mean an angry EU would endeavour to drive a hard business bargain with Britain. While the negotiations on a possible withdrawal would be likely to involve some continued access to the EU, physical, financial and mental barriers could develop. Competitor producers in the remaining member states would continue to be subsidised and our farmers and food companies would have to compete against that. The Republic of Ireland is benefiting substantially from the strength of its commitment to Europe. It is among the UK’s biggest markets for food. And it’s also Northern Ireland’s most important export market for food and drink.
This is why the agrifood industry in Northern Ireland came down firmly in favour of working positively within the EU in a strategic action plan for faster growth by 2020. The plan, published in 2013, seeks to help ensure the continuing competitiveness of our companies in the EU and other markets.
We really don’t need barriers likely to inhibit the growth of the UK’s biggest manufacturing industry, which generates £4.5bn to the Northern Ireland economy and employs 100,000 people across the supply chain.
Tony O’Neill is chairman, Agri-Food Strategy Board for Northern Ireland, and deputy MD of Dunbia Group