Thursday, 27 October 2016
13. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the extent to which he continues to interact with his colleagues in Northern Ireland and in the UK in the context of making the necessary preparations to safeguard the interest of the agrifood industry here in the aftermath of Brexit; if he has identified specific issues deemed to be fundamental in this regard; if he expects to make progress on any such issues in the near future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32282/16]
This is an attempt to identify the initial soundings that may have taken place or may be taking place regarding the situation that will arise after Brexit and the extent to which soundings have been made with the UK authorities, the authorities in Brussels and perhaps our colleagues in Northern Ireland.
The UK remains by far Ireland's most important trading partner as far as the agrifood sector is concerned, with a trade surplus of €1.3 billion last year. There are also significant levels of trade in agri-sector products between North and South. In 2015, we exported almost €750 million of agrifood sector products to the North, of which beef represented €133 million; live animals represented €99.8 million; beverages came to €89 million; cereals and cereal preparation, €84.4 million; dairy products, €68.5 million; fruit and vegetables, €53.3 million; and forestry, €48.7 million. By contrast, we imported almost €569 million worth of agri-products from the North for the same period, of which dairy produce came to €171 million; animal foodstuffs, €90.7 million; cereal and cereal preparation, €71 million; fruit and vegetables, €43.9 million; poultry, €35.8 million; and forestry, €22.7 million.
It is of course vital, therefore, that we maintain the very closest contact with our counterparts in Northern Ireland and in the UK, at both political and official levels, and this work is well under way. A number of meetings have taken place to date, with further meetings anticipated in the coming months.
From a North-South perspective, at the North-South Ministerial Council plenary meeting held in Dublin Castle in early July, I agreed with my Northern counterpart, Michelle McIlveen, that officials from both jurisdictions would meet as soon as possible to work through some of the potential issues involved. The first meeting of officials took place on 22 July 2016. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine followed this up with the preparation of an "audit" of Brexit implications from a North-South perspective.
A further meeting between my Department's Secretary General and the Permanent Secretary of Northern Ireland's Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs took place in Dublin on 4 October. It was agreed at that meeting that officials from both jurisdictions would co-operate closely on areas of specific concern, including the potential agrifood implications of a hard or soft Border, trade and tariff issues and animal health and fisheries. Brexit was also discussed at yesterday's North-South Ministerial Council agriculture sectoral meeting in Armagh.
As regards UK contacts, my Department's Secretary General has had a number of meetings with his UK counterpart. Both parties agreed to monitor the situation closely over the coming months. In the meantime, I have made arrangements to meet my UK counterpart, Andrea Leadsom, in London on 1 December.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. Arising from the contacts made so far, and having regard to the likely attitude of Brussels, has he been reassured that it will be possible to continue inasmuch as possible the relationship that has existed heretofore not only regarding this jurisdiction's association with the European Union, but also with Northern Ireland?
Very briefly, reassurances are difficult to find because there are so many moving parts to the Brexit scenario, and until the UK puts its cards on the table in terms of what its ask will be, one would be wise to take with a grain of salt any reassurances given. However, in respect of my meetings at the North-South Ministerial Council and other meetings I have had with my Northern Ireland counterpart, I think there is an acknowledgement that we have areas of mutual concern and interest in respect of that trade North and South, which I have identified in value terms, and the complexities that arise post-Brexit in facilitating the continued existence and growth of that trade. We must continue to work on these matters. As I said, yesterday we had that meeting at which we made progress.