N Ireland’s farmers urge DUP to back Brexit deal

Ivor Ferguson has farmed quietly in Northern Ireland’s County Armagh for decades. But Brexit has thrust him into the political battle in faraway Westminster.

Like many other farmers and businesspeople in the region, he is rapidly losing patience with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party over its rejection of Theresa May’s Brexit deal, which he sees as good for his business.

As president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, Mr Ferguson is campaigning to get the DUP to support Mrs May’s agreement. “By far the vast majority of our members support the prime minister’s deal,” he said. “We as farmers have bank managers to report to and that’s our main concern.”

The support of the DUP’s 10 MPs is crucial to the prime minister’s effort to pass her disputed agreement in a third parliamentary vote. The party has twice voted against the deal, saying the so-called backstop to avert border checks is unacceptable because the region will have different trade rules to the rest of the UK. But many government supporters say that, if the DUP can be convinced to vote for the deal, dozens of Eurosceptic Conservatives will likely fall in behind it.

Business and farm groups in Northern Ireland say that Mrs May’s agreement gives them an advantage in allowing them to trade freely within the UK and the EU.

Ivor Ferguson, president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union © Paul McErlane/FT

“From a business perspective May’s deal — for Northern Ireland anyway — is a fabulous deal. We’re going to be a bridge between the EU and the rest of the UK,” said Denis Corry, a unionist who is managing director of HMG Powder Coatings, an industrial paint maker in Belfast.

“I see a lot of inward investment. For us as a manufacturer already in Northern Ireland, we’re really getting the best of both worlds.”

He added that he would be contacting the DUP to relay his concerns over its opposition to the deal, as many other companies have already done, spurred on by Mrs May’s introduction last week of a plan for new trade tariffs in a no-deal Brexit that was criticised for putting Northern Ireland at a disadvantage.

“I think there’s pressure there. There’ll be a lot of pressure coming from the really big manufacturers,” said Mr Corry.

Over the weekend the DUP said there were “still issues to be discussed” with Mrs May, who has said failure to support the agreement would mean Britain “will not leave the EU for many months, if ever”.

Government officials said on Sunday that they expected the party to be offered more guarantees that EU regulations applied to Northern Ireland would be extended to the rest of the UK through a so-called Stormont lock.

Mr Ferguson, the farmer, showed his frustration over the DUP’s stance — although he was careful not to refer to the party or its MPs by name. “I know that politicians get all excited about backstop and stuff but we don’t see any problem with that,” he said. “It keeps a common external tariff which protects us. From that point of view we think we’re doing well with the backstop.”

Sitting in a Derry hotel as large crowds nearby watched international rugby on TV, Mr Ferguson admitted “we have come under a bit of pressure from politicians” for opposing their position. But, he added, the farmers had not changed their position. “We’re quite confident we can run our own organisation.”

Neil Gibson, chief economist with EY accountants in Belfast, said the local business community is universally opposed to a no-deal. “For some sectors it’s absolutely all they can think about, but for others it’s way down the risk register because they have other problems,” he said.

“There is definitely a Brexit frustration. Firms are very anxious and very worried about what might happen, particularly in the agrifood sector and smaller firms around the border area.”

The DUP appeared unmoved by the criticism from business and farming leaders. Lord Hay of Ballyore, a DUP peer, insisted that efforts will be made “right up to the last minute” to settle the matter.

“There’s different points of view being raised by the business community. They are coming slightly from a different position. It’s the uncertainty more than anything else. We really want to end that uncertainty as far as possible for business,” he told the FT.

Lord Hay argued that the party was aware of, and understood, the concerns of farmers who supported the withdrawal deal.

“I think both sides have a better understanding of where one and the other is coming from. That is right. We have made it absolutely clear. We’re very, very supportive of the farming community generally and individual farmers as well,” he said, adding: “Yes, we do understand where quite a number of them are coming from.”


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