Trimble snubbed farm minister
By Donald MacPhail
NORTHERN Irelands First Minister has been accused of not consulting his agriculture minister over a bid to secure government aid for farmers.
David Trimble directly approached UK Prime Minister Tony Blair asking for help to relieve farmers bank debts estimated at 490 million on Thursday (13 January).
Under the plan, the government would give farmers breathing space by authorising a 100m interest free loan.
Banks would be persuaded to match this amount and the total sum be used to reduce the rate of interest from 8.34% to 4.94%.
Northern Irelands banks are reported to have been surprised by the announcement, and say they want to hear more details.
Agriculture minister and nationalist SDLP Assembly Member Brid Rodgers, who was questioned by the assemblys agriculture committee, earlier said she was unaware of Mr Trimbles approach.
Asked whether she knew about Mr Trimbles presentation, Ms Rodgers admitted to BBC Radio Ulster: “No, indeed I didnt. It was news to me.”
But she added: “I would welcome any idea or initiative which can help with the present predicament in which the farming community finds itself.”
However, Ms Rodgers believes the initiative may be stymied by European law which prohibits aid that gives farmers unfair advantage over counterparts.
“Without knowing the details and what is behind this, on the face of it, it does appear not to be viable,” she said.
“Because of the problem with state aid to industry within the European regulations, were not allowed to do it,” she said.
But Ulster Unionist Party agriculture spokesman and deputy chairman of the assembly agriculture committee George Savage, disagreed.
“We believe such a scheme would not be open to challenge by the European Union. As a repayment loan it could not be fairly classified as state aid.”
An Ulster Farmers Union spokesman said any efforts to alleviate the crisis on Northern Irelands farms were to be welcomed.
Recently, Northern Ireland farmers launched a campaign to encourage shoppers to buy locally-produced goods, and linked up with supermarkets.
According to UFU figures, total farm income has plummeted by 75% to 82m in the past five years.
Official figures for 1997/98 revealed the average net farm income was 3093 and 38% of farms made a loss.
Earlier this week the assembly announced an extra 6.7m for the department of agriculture from savings made by other departments.