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…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty