Michelle O’Neill, Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development in the north of Ireland gives an overview of her priorities for 2015 including tackling rural isolation and progressing the ‘Going for Growth’ strategy
A difficult budget for 2015/16 means we will face a challenging year ahead. This is why I remain committed to working diligently to protect services for farming, agri-food and fishing industries and rural communities through 2015 and beyond.
We ended 2014 with a record performance of 95% of approximately 30,000 farmers receiving their Single Farm Payment (SFP) in December. These are the best results the department has delivered since the introduction of SFP in 2005. While this is very welcome, I want to see the remaining claims processed as quickly as possible.
Last year, tough decisions were required under the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). I undertook comprehensive engagement before reaching balanced decisions for the betterment of all farmers across the north of Ireland. This year sees significant changes in payments to farmers so my Department is focussed on communicating the new rules.
The Greening Payment will have particular implications for farmers who have larger areas of arable land and the Young Farmer Payment is intended for younger farmers with a qualification who are taking control of the farm. A considerable amount of information is available on the Department’s website. I have also committed to investing in the information and communications technology to comply with Europe’s requirements and help farmers avoid penalties. My simple message to claimants is: claim online, ensure your maps are accurate and that you meet the eligibility rules.
Tackling rural isolation and progressing the ‘Going for Growth Strategy’ are key priorities. I will allocate £3m to initiate the actions identified in the ‘Going for Growth’ strategy including the delivery of the Farm Business Improvement Scheme (FBIS). This represents an initial step towards delivering long term investment. I am also committed to delivering a range of measures within the new Rural Development Programme including establishing the new Local Action Groups under the LEADER programme and delivering payments to farmers through the Areas of National Constraints scheme. I will also ensure funding is available for Tackling Rural Poverty and Social Isolation (TRPSI). I also intend to bolster rural economies through the Department’s programme of relocation.
There is a Programme for Government commitment to advance the relocation of my headquarters to a rural location by 2015. Work is ongoing to relocate DARD HQ to Ballykelly. The preferred option points to a phased approach to construction, with 400 workstations being completed by the end of 2017 and a further phase of around 200 workstations being completed in 2020.
This is a considerable programme of work which will help to share wealth across the economy and contribute to better-balanced economic growth, by commencing to address disparities in the distribution of public sector jobs in the north of Ireland. The proposed relocation will also stimulate the local economy through increased local spending, provision of high quality and high-value public sector jobs and potentially jobs associated with the construction of and the ongoing servicing of a new building. I remain committed to taking all reasonable steps to effect the transition of a Belfast based Headquarters to one based in Ballykelly.
The relocation of DARD headquarters to a recognisably rural location is part of a wider programme which will see Forest Service move to Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh and Fisheries Division to Downpatrick, Co Down by June 2015, and also Rivers Agency to the Loughry Campus in Cookstown, Co Tyrone by March 2016. This will also help contribute to the further distribution of posts across the north.
Individuals want to find a better work/life balance and a job position closer to home. I, along with my officials, will continue to drive forward this programme of change.
Over the coming months, I will work with my counterpart in the south, Simon Coveney, to target new markets for our agri-food produce and to maximise these opportunities through all-island cooperation.
In 2015, we will apply to the European Commission seeking Official Brucellosis Free (OBF) country status and we will continue to work to eliminate TB in cattle.
The Executive’s draft budget for 2015/16 has been a focus of debate over the last number of months, particularly given the scale of Tory cuts, which have forced me to reduce my budget by £29.9m. This will be very difficult as we need to reduce staff by about 10%. We have already put a hold on recruitment and promotion and shortly we will be offering a voluntary exit scheme. Nonetheless, my Department will adapt to a new model in order to maximise delivery.
My Department leads on flooding and we work with the south to manage the flood risks across Ireland. We are progressing flood alleviation works across the north, investing some £11m in Belfast alone.
I welcome the opportunity to work with the fishing industry on the implementation of the Inshore Fisheries Strategy and the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund, which will replace the current European Fisheries Fund.
While I face difficult decisions, I will remain true to commitments I have made and will not be deterred from delivering my policy priorities under the north’s Programme for government
I will build for the future, supporting the vision of the agri-food sector and developing a leaner, more modern and more efficient department, and I will continue to direct resources to high priority programmes and services.
Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development
Department for Agriculture and Rural Development – Northern Ireland (DARD)