Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol has left local farmers in a “no man’s land” amid concerns they will be unable to benefit from new international trade deals, MPs have been told.
Victor Chestnutt, president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, said the unique regulatory position the North has found itself in could frustrate the efforts of producers to export overseas.
Mr Chestnutt was one of several witnesses giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on free trade deals the UK has recently struck with Australia and New Zealand.
While expressing concern that the deal has seen the “door flung open” for Australian and New Zealand farmers to export produce to the UK, Mr Chestnutt claimed Northern Ireland farmers may not reap the benefits of free trade deals, whether struck by the UK or EU.
The Brexit protocol has seen the North remain in the EU single market for goods, meaning European regulatory rules still apply in the region.
“The protocol was sold to Northern Ireland as giving us the best of both worlds, but the fact is that our produce cannot be sold on an EU trade deal, so we are limited to UK trade deals,” said Mr Chestnutt.
“In the case of divergence (of regulatory rules between NI and GB), our product will be a slightly different standard than of the (rest of the) UK, does that freeze us out of the UK trade deals or leave us at production price disadvantage with the UK?
We're hearing from our first panel:
- Michael Bell, Executive Director, @NIfoodanddrink
- Victor Chestnutt, President, @UFUHQ
- Ian Stevenson, Chief Executive, @LMCNI
Watch live: https://t.co/bKQWU2R19R pic.twitter.com/ZxsHBwRuIY
— Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (@CommonsNIAC) January 26, 2022
“So, we are concerned that we could be left in no man’s land.”
He said the protocol had already created a no man’s land for farmers in relation to animal medicines and other regulatory issues where the “EU authorisation doesn’t cover us nor does the UK”.
He added: “That is a concern going forward that we can’t access both EU and UK free trade deals.”
The committee also heard evidence from high commissioners from Australia and New Zealand, both of whom emphasised the positives of the free trade deals.
Australian High Commissioner George Brandis QC said he had visited the North before the pandemic and spoke with exporters.
“What was apparent to me was there was an anaemic amount of business done with Australia from Northern Ireland, but that Northern Ireland businesspeople were extremely eager for the free trade agreement for the opportunities that it presented,” he said.
Mr Brandis said the agreement is not confined to agri-food produce.
“It is important to remind ourselves that this is an all economy agreement. And the benefits of the free trade agreement will be felt across the economy, they’ll be felt by some sectors more than others, but they’ll be felt across the economy.”
Bede Corry, High Commissioner for New Zealand, echoed those comments.
“This is not solely about impact on one sector, it’s about the opportunities for the United Kingdom as an extremely powerful exporting nation, including a nation which exports agricultural produce, and so this FTA is good news for British exporters, which in turn is good news for the British economy and for British jobs, whether that’s in respect of goods or services or the ability of British people to live and work in New Zealand,” he said.
The committee hearing also saw farming and food production representatives express concern about one of the two proposed climate change acts for Northern Ireland.
Two separate climate Bills are currently proceeding through legislative stages in the Assembly – a private members’ Bill from Green Party NI leader Clare Bailey and one tabled by Environment Minister Edwin Poots.
Ms Bailey’s Bill, which is supported by a majority of other Stormont parties, sets a 2045 target for reaching net-zero carbon emissions.
Mr Poots’s Bill sets the less ambitious goal of reducing emissions by 82% by 2050.
Witnesses told the committee that Ms Bailey’s Bill, if enacted, could have a devastating effect on the farming industry.
Ian Stevenson, chief executive of the Livestock and Meat Commission for Northern Ireland, said economic analysis of Ms Bailey’s Bill indicated it could result in an 86% reduction in cattle and sheep numbers.
He said it had the potential to “destroy good businesses”.
He added: “In an FTA, yes you’re facing more competition from international players, but through the climate change private member’s Bill effectively you’d almost have to wipe out profitable businesses to achieve the targets that are being met.”