Brexit and NI protocol to the fore as Balmoral Show returns

At North’s largest agricultural show, ‘everyone is your brother or your friend’

  David Lester with his daughter Lily at the   Balmoral Show on Wednesday. Pedigree breeders have been virtually ‘wiped out’ by Brexit, he says. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

David Lester with his daughter Lily at the Balmoral Show on Wednesday. Pedigree breeders have been virtually ‘wiped out’ by Brexit, he says. Photograph: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker

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The Balmoral Show is back. “I’ve seen people here I haven’t seen in two years,” says farmer Desy O’Hanlon. “It’s good to see it up and going again. The country needed it.”

Held on the site of the former Maze Prison in Lisburn, Co Antrim, the Balmoral Show – which opened on Wednesday is Northern Ireland’s largest agricultural show and one of the North’s biggest events; in 2019 it attracted approximately 120,000 people over four days.

“We’re big advocates of the ploughing [championships], says Michael Carroll from Wellington Bridge, Co Wexford. “I said to my father, will we just come up, because it’s our only chance of getting to the likes of this.”

“It’s our first time here,” adds his father Paddy. “And we’ll be back again.”

Usually held in May, it was cancelled last year due to Covid-19 and was postponed this year; as the first Balmoral Show to be held under Covid-19 rules, all entrants must prove they have been double vaccinated or have a negative Covid-19 test.

Uncertain year

Anyone who has not yet had the vaccine can get their jab at the show’s pop-up vaccination clinic; running until Saturday, there are competitions for livestock breeders and handlers, sheep shearing and horse jumping, a food and drink showcase, plenty of stalls and even a funfair.

There was also business to be done: also at the show on Wednesday morning was the Minister for Agriculture, the DUP’s Edwin Poots, announcing an additional £15 million (€17.4 million) for farmers and re-emphasising his opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol. For those farmers, Brexit, the protocol and Covid-19 have been key components of what one describes as a very uncertain year; at the show, it seems as if everyone has a story to tell about the lives lost to Covid-19, or the mental impact of the last 18 months, or the pressures felt by healthcare staff.

“It’s the not knowing what’s going to happen, that’s the hard part,” says one breeder.

David Lester rears both commercial and pedigree cattle in Co Armagh. Pedigree breeders have been virtually “wiped out” by Brexit, he says. New rules under the protocol which require a six-month residency period in Britain for animals travelling from there to Northern Ireland have stopped breeders from the North selling livestock at the big Scottish shows.

“Ninety per cent of the breeders in Balmoral, I’d say that’s what they’re aiming for, to go there, but now it’s just out the window, you can’t take them over,” he says. The rules need to be “changed urgently or get rid of the protocol”.


James McKane, from Ballymena, says it has had little practical impact on his business. “Costs have gone up, but we’re also getting more for our beef.” His concerns are around the supply of goods, particularly medicines, from Britain and he feels the North is being “sacrificed” over Brexit.

“The EU and the Southerners seem to have just decided that Northern Ireland is the price Britain has to pay for leaving the EU,” says McKane.

However, O’Hanlon disagrees, saying the protocol is “a lot of hype about nothing” and the whole situation “hasn’t changed a lot” for him.

James Killen prefers to concentrate on other things. Smiling broadly as he gives his cattle a wash and blow dry, he proclaims that politics and Covid-19 are “the farthest things” from his mind.

“Here, everyone is your brother or your friend.”