Ulster farmers and the strange silence of our once fearless and bellicose politicians…

The following is an article from the Irish News, which is reproduced here in its entirety with the paper’s permission… It provides an important insight on the little publicly remarked upon influence of the farming lobby in Northern Ireland.

By John Manley

A NATIONALIST politician for whom I have some uncharacteristic regard recently confessed to me that there were three sets of people and institutions he would never publicly criticise – the Catholic Church, the GAA and farmers.

As he’s a man known for his outspokenness and unwillingness to be cowed, it was disappointing but, this being Northern Ireland, not entirely unsurprising.

For unionist politicians you can substitute the sacred cows of the GAA and Church with the royal family and the Orange Order but the reluctance to say anything negative about farmers will prevail.

This situation is not healthy politically as it stifles proper debate about policy
affecting the environment, the countryside and the use of significant public funds.

The politicians’ agricultural omerta results in a largely apathetic media, which tends to regard farming as quaint and discrete.

Consequently farming features on the periphery of newspapers or among the broadcasters’ specialist programming, rarely engaging meaningfully with the mainstream.

It’s a situation that in turn leads to the marginalisation of farming as an industry and as a lifestyle, while reinforcing the insular mentality of the conservative farming community, which is often suspicious of the urban establishment.

This detachment was starkly highlighted earlier this week when Alex Attwood travelled to Cookstown to speak to Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) members about proposals first tabled almost a decade ago to designate parts of the north as a national park.

The concept of national parks is one employed successfully the world over from Yosemite in California to Serengeti in Tanzania.

The purpose of such a designation is generally twofold – to preserve a natural asset for general societal good and to promote a particular area as a tourism destination or brand. These are worthy sentiments for any 21st century democracy and implicit behind these ideas is a sense of shared ownership – the land may be private property but the landscape belongs to us all.

This unfortunately is a concept lost on the UFU and its members, who like to style themselves not just landowners but custodians of the countryside.

The UFU’s argument against the “imposition” of a national park is that only those within the designated area should have a say in its future. They believe, with some degree of justification, that the designation would bring with it restrictions on development and farming practices. If it didn’t, the title national park would be in name and nothing else.

But farmers have no natural entitlement to unilateral localised self-determination and far from being protectors of the countryside, they are in reality its greatest threat.

For instance, Northern Ireland’s water quality is among the worst in Europe, with potential hefty EU fines looming if it is not cleaned up. Farming and the spreading of nutrient-rich fertilisers on land is largely responsible for this, yet the UFU resisted every effort to curtail the practice.

Farmers only agreed to stop the unfettered pollution of our lakes and rivers when the Stormont executive signed off the largest capital grant scheme ever run by the Department of Agriculture, through which some 4,000 farmers received grants worth £121 million so they could build huge slurry storage tanks.

But even this substantial sum is dwarfed by the £300m-plus the north’s farmers receive each year in taxpayer-funded farm subsidies, with a sizeable number of individuals being paid in excess of £150,000.

Yet despite our generosity are we afforded any say in how the countryside is shaped?
In its arguments against national parks, the UFU also continues to cite the potential for increased bureaucracy, a dog-eared card it plays every time, whether resisting efforts to curb greenhouse gases or improving environmental governance.

The UFU’s stance is one that will lead Northern Ireland into an even greater mess unless compliant politicians begin to challenge the scaremongering and sophistry of its arguments.
The UFU has around 13,000 members – less than a quarter of the National Trust membership in the north. Yet it wields a profoundly disproportionate amount of power and influence, effectively vetoing every proposal with which it does not agree.

It is a case of the tail wagging the dog – a small minority imposing their outdated ideas while refusing the majority the right to explore and enjoy the countryside – the upkeep of which we pay £300m-plus a year for.

Farmers are always talking about a fair return but that works both ways.

PS, anyone thinking this is a nationalist only issue does not know their Ahoghill from their Aghaloo…

  • Farming has always been advantaged in Ireland over competing interests – just ask the fishermen about how Ireland signed them over when joining the EEC because there were ten times and more votes in farming than fishing.

    The way farmers north AND SOUTH define who gets to control land and determine its use reminds me of a sketch about Celtic on “Only An Excuse” back when the Kellys were still running it:

    “Go away. Gie’s a break. It’s no oor fault we’re just custodians. Gie us money”

    Programmes like REPS have shovelled money at farms in the south (with huge amounts of forms and consulting time – I know as I used to work for a company which offered that service a decade ago) but are the waterways much better? Sounds like the same thing going on in the north.

  • I have some views on the agricultural lobby upon upon which I’ll blether another time. But it seems to me the biggest potential National “Park” in this part of the world has been ignored and that is Lough Neagh.As to the development of same it certainly is the cheapest option, and as a strategic asset it should be nationalised immediately.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Why don’t yous all just starve! Without the Farmers you couldn’t live, of course you could import the food, mainly from areas that used to be the Amazon. Or remove the subsidies and pay the REAL price for your food.

    There are around 25,000 farm business btw, which gives an average of £12k subsidy each not the £150k he focused on, these rates are set by Europe.

    PS Mick, I doubt many will know their Aghaloo, although I believe it is the RC parish I reside in currently.

  • BIGK

    Some people talk some s..t. Manley obviously has one of those jobs where you lie in bed till ten every morning and request payment for getting up. Maybe he should try farming for a while and then his views might change. Farmers are tasked with feeding the likes of him with the best of food(and in his case quite a lot) as cheap as possible and are slated for spending money to upgrade their business which the likes of him demands. Farmers per say pollute nothing. The animals they produce do. Maybe if we stopped produceing beef,pork and chicken for the likes of him at a price he can afford pollution would not be a problem. Why would any person spend thousants of pounds to build slurry stores?.They are not structures that you can live in,I dont see how having one enriches the owner.
    “But farmers have no natural entitlement to unilateral localised self-determination and far from being protectors of the countryside, they are in reality its greatest threat” So says who?.How dare he . Maybe if it were left up to him things would be perfect. He may find his ivory tower is not what he thinks. Farmers have been the costodians of the country side for thousants of years and I dont think they have made such a bad job of it. If things are so bad why the push for the likes of national parks?.Who in their right mind would want to visit a polluted dead countryside which the farmers have destroyed with their fertiliser and slurry?.And have taken all that eec money to enrich themselves. Most of them have their private yaughts moored in the south of France you know.
    When Manley is prepaired to pay ten pounds for a pound of sausages,one pound for a pint of milk,five pounds for a stone of potatoes etc,etc,etc and justify that cost to his neighbours who may not be on as big a salery then and only then should he start spouting. Surley the Irish news could find something interesting to write about.

  • Mister_Joe

    It is important that farming be supported, now and increasingly, in the future if the climate forecasters are correct. Here in Canada, we are set for bumper crops this year but the situation in the US is dire due to a prolonged drought. Once again, as a few years ago, food prices will likely soar leading to starvation, poverty and riots around the world.

  • Drumlins Rock

    The food processing business also directly employs a similar amount, obviously without the farmers these industries would also disappear.

  • aquifer

    Careful, now, we do not want an outbreak of real politics and a mass cull of the infected political herds, with huge bonfires of the inanities and billowing smoke rising towards heaven, with the army standing by.

    Recent planning legislation has now established Bungalows as a recurring cash crop for the fat wad in ragged trouser pocket brigade.

    And we will pay the extra to get electricity to them, to keep the water clean as they dump chemicals into it, to lay square miles of tarmac to get people to the new jobs in town.

    And pay the PSNI to keep people off ‘their’ land, so generously over-subsidised by farmer-friendly bureaucrats that the EU had to fine us.

    Home and international tourism is more valuable than a nasty rash of bungaloids on the hillsides.

    Farmers work hard, but without us they would be scratching a living or gone, so lets have our national parks before it is too late.

  • Drumlins Rock

    auq, tourism employs less people than the food industry.

    “recent” legislation ie. PPS21, has all but eradicated the bungalow bonanza that a few cashed in on.

    Farmers pay extoronate fees for electric connections and get buttons for it crossing their land.

    I have never heard of the PSNI being called out to remove trespassers on farmland.

    You are right farming as we know it wouldn’t exist without the subsidy, it would have to be come much much more intensive to be viable, rip more hedges out, add more chemicals, factory farming essentially, which the current system prevents.

    My family has a typical farm, it is virtually organic and only the paperwork and lack of a real premium prevented them choosing that route, it is well run according to advisors accountants etc. yet only for the subsidy is unviable, the un-necessary paperwork and dranconian manner it is enforced are the second biggest curse, after the weather.

    Any additional regulation would force them to reconsider also, so I can smpathise with those in possible National Parks.

  • Turgon

    This is an interesting thread as it produces strong views on lines different to usual.

    Some in towns despise farmers and vice versa. Equally many of those even without farms have close connections to farmers. Few here outside some of the urban working class and the urban wealthy will not be within a generation or two of farming and most will have farming or farm related industry working relatives.

    As such relating to the issue in the opening post, politicians are careful regarding the farming lobby as it reaches out to a constituency much larger than the number of farmers. Taking regard of the views of large numbers of your constituents is partly what being a politician is about.

    On the issue of farmers.

    Clearly some mercilessly sold sites for bungalows in a way which is simply not permitted in mainland GB. The problem is of course even greater in parts of the RoI with the bungalow blight ruining some picturesque areas.

    Even here in NI we have over exploited the countryside with houses in a way which simply does not happen in mainland GB where even in areas of high population density there are villages and countryside between them without multiple houses. Here too often farmers claimed they wanted a site for their son to build on or for their own retirement and promptly sold it on.

    However, the farmers also get far from a good deal. So poor have been the prices paid for their produce that the best way to make money was to sell their land seeing as any other money making strategy was largely doomed by our desire for cheap food.

    Some of the environmental problems have been created by non farmers. The chicken litter incinerator which was needed to comply with environmental standards was opposed not by farmers but by those in the locality of the proposed incinerator.

    As DR notes above there is a way to make farming more profitable without subsidies and that is to further industrialise it. That would mean massive fields with no hedge rows; huge intensive dairy farms where the cattle never see the light of day etc. etc.

    The problem is that the farmers at times want licence to do whatever they want and some abuse that licence making money whilst the responsible ones do much worse financially. The days of selling their land over their dead bodies seem to have long gone for some.

    Equally some non farmers want to preserve farming and the countryside in a sort of 1950s aspic with happy yokels on grey Fergies with hay stacks and geese in the farm yard yet of course not clogging up the roads with their tractors. They want this but fail to note that the farmers cannot make a living from this sort of lifestyle and they (the farmers) are not actors in some sort of giant rural theme park.

    I suspect part of the reason politicians avoid this issue is that it is so complex with hypocrisy on all sides. National Parks may be a way forward but are no panacea and at times I know the Snowdonia National Park boundaries have been changed specifically to increase development to try to help keep people in the countryside.

    How we solve all the above problems is a complex question. All that can easily be noted is that recently we have been remarkably bad at trying to do so.

  • Farming is not an easy job, particularly when your holding is too small to be financially viable. There appear to be two answers to this problem: a) give farmers lots of taxpayers’ money to compensate them for running unprofitable businesses, or b) find a way to make farming genuinely profitable. And option a) isn’t working.

  • I remember an English Tory MP, off the record, whinging that doctors, lawyers and farmers had the most ruthless trade unions going.

    Farming aside, I don’t know where “easy jobs” exist these days — OK, that’s excluding political SpAds, obvs. Even so, I seem to pick up financial supplements and the like which tell me the price of (admittedly, English) land is rising — most recently, today.

    I was born and grew up in the countryside. I feel for the small farmers, but …

    Why is farming “when your holding is too small to be financially viable” so different to (say) a small rural shop, filling station, whatever? Ah! of course, it’s the “custodians of the countryside”! In fact, the countryside we see — mechanised, electrified, drained, artificially fertilised — is a very recent artefact. Heads you win, tails you mustn’t lose. Root out hedgerows, convert barns, build bungalows, dump hard-core (or worse), turn grazing over to dirt-track racing … that’s “adding value”. Don’t, and expect subsidy?

    My latest figures:

    A total of £20,733,736 in CAP payments were made for Northern Ireland in 2010.

    Of which just £8,500 went to the Sean Quinn Group of Enniskillen (who he?). On the other hand:

    The biggest beneficiary was TMC Dairies (NI) Ltd which has a milk powder plant near Strabane. It got £2,677,340.
    Greenfields Ireland Ltd – a Belfast-based dairy products business – got £1,979,049 and Dale Farm £1,094,376.

    Ummm. Curious dispensing of funds, methinks. He put in his thumb, and pulled out a plum, and said something about his supermarket contract.

  • Malcolm,

    Why is farming “when your holding is too small to be financially viable” so different to (say) a small rural shop, filling station, whatever?

    It’s not. Small rural things as a rule tend to be financially unviable. But the obvious solution – to let small rural things pass into the mists of history – tends to evoke an allergic response in the body politic. Farm subsidies are just one of a long line of ideas that are based more on misty nostalgia than logic.

  • “Farmers per say (sic) pollute nothing. The animals they produce do.” :rolleyes

    One thing I’d like to see gone on both sides of the border is green diesel, with some other way found to help farmers with energy costs. Not only is a stupid idea from an environmental perspective and from an economics perspective because it sidesteps use reduction and emboldens washers/resellers but there is also the matter of who benefits from such activities. Colm MacCarthy advocates for a repayment scheme ( http://www.farmersjournal.ie/site/farming-Time-to-change-diesel-arrangement-14362.html ), not sure I’d endorse that method myself, I’d rather find other ways to increase farmer incomes generally benefiting fuel-efficient farms along with fuel-guzzlers but I think the time has come to do something.

  • Old Mortality

    Drumlins Rock
    ‘PPS21, has all but eradicated the bungalow bonanza that a few cashed in on.’

    If only: everywhere I go in the countryside I see new houses going up.
    It’s the fear that housebuilding would cease completely that has the farmers running scared of national parks. They would find the Lake District, with hardly a new house to be seen, a very frightening vision of their future.
    Atwood, of course, was at pains to suggest that our national parks would reflect our ‘unique circumstances’ which I take to mean building ugly houses wherever you want. If NI ever does national parks you can be sure they’ll be the least attractive national parks in the world.

  • Drumlins Rock

    mortality, most of those sites were passed over 5 yrs ago pre pps21,

  • Old Mortality

    I very much hope you’re right.

  • thethoughtfulone

    Many, many, years ago before I threw myself to the vagaries of self-employment, I had a proper job. You know, the sort where the kettle went on in the morning as soon as we were in the door, and a half hour (at least) recovery period was necessary before any work could even be contemplated, that sort of thing.

    Anyways, about a mile down the road from the “workplace” was a dairy farm and the farmer was pretty decent and brought his cows in at exactly the same time every morning, a time which allowed all the workers to pass without hold up and be through the gate at the required starting time.

    However, if you were a couple of minutes late, you’d catch the cows and then be sure of being 5 or 10 minutes late for “work”. So a guy in our department got caught out one morning and when he did get in was giving (over his recovery cuppa) the farmer the usual verbal blah blah blah, “bloody farmers, think they own the countryside”, to which somebody listening from the sidelines replied, “well generally, they do!”

    Something which I think the utterly toothless UFU should remind the townies of a bit more often.

  • HeinzGuderian

    Bumper crops or no,I’m afraid we will still have starvation and poverty.
    I’m not sure we really need a National Park in sunny Northern Ireland though. I mean to say,it wouldn’t exactly be Yellowstone.
    As a chap has already pointed out above,Lough Neagh is a ready made National Park.
    Let it be done.

  • commonsenseunionist

    Yes farming is a business and yes it is a valuable business and yes it employs a lot of people in NI.

    It is however a business which creates smells and road congestion on a scale which would not be tolerated by the public towards any other business.

    Let us not forget also that NI farmers demand world prices for their produce and even store the same until the world price is high enough to sell. So forget the idea that NI farmers benefit NI in the form of price.

    Farmers as a business extract what they can from the land by whatever legal means. If that causes smell, disruption and polution of waterways so be it.

    But for you as a member of the public if the NI farmer was gone you would pay the same world price for your food regardless.

    That is a fact to bear in mind

    But for you as a member of the public if the NI farmer was gone you would pay the same world price for your food regardless.

    Not necessarily depending on which commodity you could be paying more, less or the same, the Common Agricultural Policy distorts internal and external markets.

  • jthree

    Lough Neagh national park is not a thought through idea. Access to much of the lough shore is non existent

  • Not from the Lough it isn’t, but I take your point. As to not being a thought through idea give me £30k and I’ll give you a feasibility study, an intern could write it.

  • commonsenseunionist

    Lough Neagh is owned by The Earl of Shaftesbury ownership would need to be sorted out firstly

  • And how was the land for Craigavon found?

  • sorleyboy

    We really need to address the whole issue of countryside access in this part of the UK. We are very much the poor relations in comparison to GB, and this disparity of access rights makes us second class citizens in our own country. In GB, rural communities benefit in multiple ways from having open access to the countryside, or access to a network of bridleways and footpaths, and therefore a highly developed activities tourism industry which has taken advantage of these circumstances. We can no longer afford to continue to do nothing if we are serious about improving the economy. For decades we have heard complaints about rural poverty, and spent hundreds of millions of pounds on programmes to supposedly help. Despite this we see the same old issues.

    The vast majority of rural people have no access to the land in which they were brought up. This has led to a severe lack of diversification of the rural economy, with subsequent rural poverty. An old Irish politician (whose name escapes me) used to say that you can’t eat scenery. Well he was wrong. You can make money from scenery if you allow people access to it. Walking, cycling, horse riding, all such activities can happen only when there is access to land. Structured access of course, not a free for all. Access which will allow the creation of a whole new strata of tourism. The rest of the UK and Europe understood this decades ago. Ulster farmers need to realise that they’ll be the main beneficiaries of these opportunities as more income streams will become available. The landowners in Scotland were opposed to National Parks and access law reform too, but now they are its greatest champions. More importantly, those landless rural people whose prospects of working in the countryside are very limited should see their prospects improve

    We’re in competition with the rest of the world for the tourist dollar and we can’t see what is staring us in the face – that our landscape is our greatest sustainable asset. We need to grasp the nettle and develop the landscape as an economic resource. National Parks, as long as they were enacted effectively and weren’t just in name only, would be a good first step.

  • commonsenseunionist

    re farming quite agree articles.

    I suppose I am alluding to the fact that we need perhaps more manufacturing industry and politicians should spend less time considering farming issues.

    If half the farmland dissappeared and was replaced with factories, apart from the increase in jobs and decrease in countryside smell nobody would notice.Prices in the shops would be much the same.

    Let us destroy the myth that in some way having an indigenous agricultural industry benefits those who dont own farms.

    Farmers benefit from owning land held for generations in the same family. This land attracts subsidies which are lucrative. Any jobs they create are low skilled and low paid.Sucessive NI governments and government types have pondered to their desires and financial needs and greeds.

    It is interesting to note, as a unionist, how the ” unionists” with farming intertests reacted when a UK government, under direct rule ended bungalow blight.

    It did not suit these ” unionists” to accept UK governance even though the secretary of state at the time was only bringing us into line with the rest of the industrialised UK.

    Fact is the UK is largely a modern industrial muticultural multi religous state. Such a state is more likely to deliver real jobs in the future.

    Agrarian non liberal inward looking societies are less likel;y to do that.

    NI in the 1960s before the troubles as a society and with the help of industry had started to move in that direction.Not perfect and no reflection on the government of the time but the people had started to move.

    So lets get more industry, and face it, the country is not even the right shape for large scale industrial farming. Our farming suits the interests of many families of farmers not the food needs of NI nor the employment needs of NI.

  • commonsenseunionist @ 11:18 am is being commonsensical.

    Even so, agriculture is a business, and a big one. Which is one reason why the UFU and its Big Brother the NFU have so much clout.

    When an industrial operation is in difficulty it may resort to diversification, an appearance of “added value” and a change of branding to emphasis any “unique selling point”.

    The diversification in NI ought to include encouraging tourism; and the image and status of a National Park is one aid to that end.

    Anything from the 32 Counties has an obvious USP in the world market. So, it was when I started on “branding” I hit the problem, a fundamental one in Sluggerdom (and a pitfall into which, in a moment of carelessness a long while ago, I painfully fell).

    How could we brand local products? “Food from Ulster”? “Food from Northern Ireland”? Food from our wee corner of the archipelago?

  • Greenflag

    @ malcom redfellow ,

    How could we brand local products? “Food from Ulster”? “Food from Northern Ireland”? Food from our wee corner of the archipelago?

    No need to go there .There is another way which this far sighted company have developed over the past decade or so and now as a response to the EU long overdue abolition of milk quotas scheduled for 2015.