NORTHERN Ireland’s econ-omy can recover from Covid-19 and make the most of the UK’s exit from the European Union given the right support, political leaders were told at the 24th Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA) Annual Dinner.
Speaking at the event, NIFDA Chair and Group Chief Executive of dairy cooperative Dale Farm, Nick Whelan, called on political leaders to urgently address the need for a capital support scheme for Northern Ireland food manufacturers, and a Northern Ireland food export marketing body.
This year’s event, held in partnership with HSBC UK, was broadcast remotely from Belfast’s Hilton Hotel on Thursday, October 15, and was attended virtually by 120 industry leaders and political representatives. Keynote speaker at this year’s event was ASDA CEO Roger Burnley.
Speaking at the event, Mr Whelan said: “2020 has been a year like no other. As an industry, we have faced unique, unprecedented challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Our food processors redesigned factories to ensure, where physically possible, social distancing was enabled and continuously reshape how we do things to improve the welfare of our employees. Put simply, our industry has demonstrated its critical importance, and shown its ingenuity.
“At the same time, our industry is also facing the very real challenge of EU exit – which is 78 working days away. NIFDA has been working to get clarity on new arrangements, and provide input. EU exit has the potential to be highly positive or negative for the Northern Ireland agri-food Industry. If it is to be a success – and if we are to recover from Covid-19 – the ability of the industry to reshape and retool, to adapt to new market demands must not be curtailed.
“We therefore have three critical asks of the Northern Ireland Executive. Firstly, we are the only nation in the UK today that currently does not have a processor capital grant. This is competitive disadvantage in its starkest sense, and magnifies the twin challenges of Covid-19 and Brexit. Delivering a capital support scheme for Northern Ireland processors would drive innovation, productivity and win value adding new business to our food and drink industry.
“Similarly, with an added value export marketing body we can boost exports and turn our unique post-Brexit position into an opportunity for the industry. Northern Ireland food and drink is known for its innovation, quality and integrity in terms of animal welfare and sustainability. Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland already have such support structures and they are producing results.
“We are not asking for special treatment – we are simply asking for a level playing field. With our competitors benefiting from capital grant support and dedicated export bodies, the industry here has had to work with two hands tied behind its back. This unfair situation cannot continue, and all we seek is fairness.
“NIFDA and the Ulster Farmers’ Union have established a new strategic partnership to re-engage with the Northern Ireland Executive. We call on ministers to work with farmers and processors, and realise the immense opportunities that lie ahead for the industry.
“Despite the challenges we face at present, the industry remains strong. Agri food is the largest part of the local economy, representing around 25 per cent of all NI manufactured output and supporting some 100,000 jobs. We have the potential to grow further, to double our growth and match that of the Republic of Ireland, create sustainable jobs and make EU exit a positive opportunity for the Northern Ireland economy. But to deliver it, we need support.