Unions say EU must protect rural areas and food sector from Brexit

Government urged to set up task force to convince EU of threat to agri-food sector

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed: UK’s impending departure is “one of the most significant challenges Irish agri-food, farming and fisheries have faced since the foundation of the State”. Photograph: Alan Betson

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed: UK’s impending departure is “one of the most significant challenges Irish agri-food, farming and fisheries have faced since the foundation of the State”. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The Government must seek special funding from the EU to protect rural Ireland and the 167,000 food industry jobs at risk from Brexit, trade unions have said.

Impact and Siptu, along with the Charter Group, a pro-European civil society organisation, urged the Government to set up a special task force, with employer and worker representation, to impress on Brussels the grave threat faced by Ireland’s agri-food sector.

Food and agriculture sustain almost 10 per cent of jobs in the Republic, and 40 per cent of the sector’s exports go to Britain and Northern Ireland, leaving it badly exposed if the UK leaves the single market. “The social partners should aim to agree a joint approach on the measures necessary to meet the challenges,” said Blair Horan, secretary of the Charter Group. He added that Brexit posed a real threat to jobs, farm incomes and “the fabric of rural Ireland”.

Addressing a seminar organised by Impact and Siptu on the implications of Brexit for agri-food, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed said the sector was at the top of the Government’s agenda for the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

Describing the UK’s impending departure as “one of the most significant challenges Irish agri-food, farming and fisheries have faced since the foundation of the State,” Mr Creed said the Government’s long-term priority was ensuring unfettered access to the UK market without tariffs.

Dependence on UK

He said one of the biggest challenges was to reduce the Republic’s dependence on the UK market. While that dependence was understandable, “with the benefit of hindsight” it was excessive, and the Government was “redoubling our efforts to reduce our exposure” to the UK.

Paul Kelly, Ibec’s director for the food and drink industry, warned that the imposition of tariff barriers could force some Irish businesses to transfer their activities to the UK market, resulting in job losses here. He also pointed out that 80 per cent of agri-food jobs were in the regions, meaning that “already economically disadvantaged areas will become more disadvantaged”.

Edgar Morgenroth, associate research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), said the potential damage from Brexit was not limited to exports but could involve imports as well. If Brexit turned out to be severely damaging to the UK economy, one way it could respond would be through cheap imports.

Imports and exports

Moreover, if food from the UK were to become more expensive to buy in Ireland, that would affect all consumers and put upward pressure on wages. “It’s not just exports that matter here – imports matter too,” Mr Morgenroth added.

In a separate contribution, Andy Pike, national secretary of Impact, queried the resources available to the Department of Agriculture to deal with the fallout from Brexit. Staff numbers at the department had fallen from 4,500 to 3,000, meaning there were “simply not enough staff . . . to deal with the challenge of Brexit”.

Gerry McCormack, an organiser in Siptu’s manufacturing division, told the seminar the parts of agri-food that would bear the brunt of Brexit were beef, pork, cheese and prepared consumer foods. It was imperative that the Government and the EU relaxed state aid rules so that the Irish industry could be supported through the coming period of uncertainty, he said.